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  • Writer's pictureTony Elvin

Chablis is Chardonnay

Updated: May 21, 2023

And other notes on this most widely planted of grapes.


Chardonnay, the widely planted and versatile white wine grape, may have captured the hearts of wine enthusiasts around the world but remains polarising for many.


Working in the industry I've often heard people proclaim their love for Chablis whilst dismissing Chardonnay as awful in the same breath, not realising that one of their favourite tipples is made exclusively from Chardonnay. Maybe it's because Chardonnay, produced in the village of Chablis in Northern France uses just the lightest touch of oak, if any. More likely, it's because people have been put off by cheap and overpowering oaky Chardonnay.


Chardonnay originates from Burgundy, (an hour and a bit South East of Chablis) and takes its name from the village in southern Burgundy with the same name - the place where the world's oldest Chardonnay vineyards can be found. It's also a key component in Champagne.


Chardonnay is so widely planted because it grows so well in many different climates and soils. The neutrality of the grape allows it to reflect the features of the soil in which it grows and the methods used to produce it, including the use of oak.


In this blog, we will unravel the mysteries surrounding Chardonnay styles and explore the influence of oak, making it easy to understand for both novice and seasoned wine lovers.


Unoaked Chardonnay: Pure Expression of Fruit.

Let's begin our journey with unoaked Chardonnay. This style is all about showcasing the natural flavors and characteristics of the grape. Without the influence of oak, unoaked Chardonnay tends to be crisp, bright, and fruit-forward. It offers refreshing notes of citrus, green apple, and tropical fruits, making it a fantastic choice for those seeking a vibrant and zesty taste. Chablis is the perfect example but if you want to try a fruitier alternative to unoaked French Chardonnay, try Chardonnay from Southern Burgundy in the Mâcconais. Something we noticed on a recent visit to Napa in California was that the use of oak in wine production has diminished significantly with lots of great unoaked styles available.


Lightly Oaked Chardonnay: Balancing Act.

Moving on to lightly oaked Chardonnay, this style strikes a harmonious balance between the pure fruit expression and subtle oak influence. The wine spends a short time in oak barrels, which imparts a delicate touch of vanilla, toast, and a creamy texture. Lightly oaked Chardonnay retains its freshness and fruitiness while adding a layer of complexity and depth. Chile has some excellent examples of lightly oaked Chardonnay.


Full-bodied and Rich: The Classic oaked Chardonnay.

Now, let's dive into the classic oaked Chardonnay style that has garnered a loyal following. This full-bodied and rich expression is achieved by aging the wine in oak barrels for an extended period. The oak imparts flavours of butter, caramel, and butterscotch, creating a luscious and opulent mouthfeel. Oaked Chardonnay often exhibits notes of ripe tropical fruits, baked apple, and a hint of smokiness. Think classic Californian Chardonnay from Sonoma, or from the Burgundian villages of Chassagne-Montratchet, Santenay, Meursault, Puligny-Montrachet, St. Aubin, Volnay, Pommard, and Beaune. If you love this style, look out for Argentinian Chardonnay too.


Modern Trends: Oak Alternatives and Partial Oak Aging.

In recent years, winemakers have embraced modern techniques to offer more diverse Chardonnay styles. They may employ oak alternatives such as oak staves or chips during fermentation or aging to achieve a controlled oak influence. Additionally, some winemakers opt for partial oak aging, combining unoaked and oaked portions to craft a nuanced and unique Chardonnay experience. Whilst there are some quality examples of oaked Chardonnay using staves and chips, this technique is also used to produce cheaper oaky styles and is probably responsible for the movement against oaked Chardonnay where the market was flooded with cheap Australian Chardonnay in the 80's and 90's. It should be noted that Australia also make some exceptional, oaked Chardonnay, I'm just referencing the cheap stuff!


Chardonnay is a grape with incredible versatility, it offers an array of styles to cater to different palates. Understanding the role of oak in Chardonnay winemaking helps us appreciate the nuanced flavours and textures that make each style distinct and find the style that we like. From the pure fruit expression of unoaked Chardonnay to the luscious richness of classic oaked Chardonnay, there is a Chardonnay style to suit every wine lover's preference.


I would love for you to try some great quality oaked Chardonnay, lovingly aged in oak barrels, before writing off all oaked Chardonnay as trash.


Here are some of our recommendations:


Unoaked


William Favre Chablis - Connolly's £22.99

An old favourite from my Hotel du Vin days


Louis Latour Mâcon-Lugny - Majestic £16.99 (£12.99 as part of a mixed case of six)

From the warmer South of Burgundy this unoaked Chardonnay is fruitier than Chablis


Lightly Oaked


Orin Swift 'Mannequin' Chardonnay, Sonoma, California - Loki Wines on sale at £36.99 from £45.99

This went down very well at an Orin Swift Wine Dinner at the Hyatt.


Luis Felipe Edwards Gran Reserva Chardonnay 2021/22, Casablanca Valley - Majestic £9.99 (£7.99 as part of a mixed case of six)

A lighter touch of oak adds hints of vanilla but remains fresh and zippy with notes of lemon


Oaky


Kendall Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, Sonoma, California - Costco £14.49

Yes it is from Costco, yes it is very oaky and yes it is from one of the largest producers in the world, but, it is also one of the most popular wines sold by the glass in Hotel du Vin and is the benchmark oaky chard that we use to convince non oak lovers that they might actually like oaky wine if it is made well. We visited the winery in March and had an amazing experience.


Catena Chardonnay, Mendoza, Argentina - Waitrose £13.49

Argentina is not just about Malbec. We love this drop and it's a great price.

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