Chardonnay and Oak

What springs to mind when you mention the grape variety Chardonnay?

Does it fill you with warm fuzzy feelings, or does it feel you with fear and keeps you reaching for sauvignon blanc?

I have found that the Chardonnay grape is a variety that has received bad press however, is one of the most prestigious and highly regarded grapes responsible for top class award winning wines.

For those of you that know me, you will know that I try and beat the drum for this grape and if there is a blind tasting, more often that not it well be chardonnay! The reason is, that the grape itself really is fairly neutral and the flavour character it shows in the finished wine depends on the climate, soil and wine making techniques. It is what the wine maker chooses to do with this grape will effect the overall finish and quality of the finished wine.

The styles are varied and vast all over the world as well as its homeland of Burgundy. Crisp dry whites of Chablis you’ll find in northern Burgundy to fuller bodied buttery wines from the southern Macon.

So why the bad press?

Traditionally this grape lived happily in the safe hands of Burgundian winemakers who gentle placed this grape in oak barrels to offer it integrated spice, vanilla adding body and richness. Producing the famous wines such as Puligny Montrachet, Meursault and Chassagne Montrachet however, with quality of wine comes a price tag, we wanted the flavours without the price tag.

The other thing to mention here is that you didn’t find the grape variety on the label from Burgundy, all you knew is that you were drinking wine from French wine regions which meant we weren’t necessarily aware of what grape was producing these wines. This was a strict wine rule that grape variety was not allowed on the label.

The grape variety is important but it was seen as a tool to express the terrior of the region where the wine was being produced – Therefore “You can only produce Chablis tasting wines from the region of Chablis” and when you smell and taste this wine you will recognise it is from this region.

Since 2009, the wine laws have been eased to allow the grape varietal on the label, it is the winemakers discretion should they opt to show this information.

So, going back to wanting these wines without the price tag… Oak appears to be the word associated with chardonnay and often puts people off. Oak barrels are used to hold the wine either for fermentation purposes or for ageing the wine. The age and size of the barrel will have an influence of flavour to the wine. New oak will give full flavour and over the years and once the barrel reaches 5 years it would have lost flavours of oak. The cost of barrels are expensive so it is an investment for a wine maker to chose to use oak.

Wine makers around the world who didn’t have limiting restrictions on wine making and labels, could state what grape was on the label and could use other methods of wine making to impart these oak flavours. Oak chips and oak staves are commonly used to add oak flavours without the laborious hours of oak ageing and cost involved. So what is the problem, oak flavours and cost effective sounds an all round result. Not necessarily.

Have you tried cooking a Sunday roast in the microwave? Or do you prefer the slow roast where all the juices marry together?

This is a similar process with wine making and oak. Oak barrels offer time to impart the flavours gently, integrated and balanced to offer a wine with complexity, layers of fruit and spice whereas, oak chips and staves could result in a wine tasting slightly mis matched and not quite harmonious in its over finish of the wine.