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WINE OF THE MONTH – PART III: Toasting Chardonnay

WINE OF THE MONTH – PART III: Toasting Chardonnay

No! No! No! Put your glass down, we are not talking about that kind of toasting! In my previous article, I mentioned I will discuss a wooded Chardonnay for a later day . So here we, are as promised. As you know there are a number of things that can impact the final taste of a wine other than just the grapes, but also the soil, climate, fermentation methods and yes guys even the oak barrels a winemaker may choose to store/age their wines. Here the options are not limited, do we go with French or American oak? Or do we use wood chips instead? What size barrel do we choose? Finally, how long do we keep the wine in the barrels for? Each and every decision a winemaker may choose, is the final outcome, when you pour yourself a glass of wine.

Hopefully, by the end of this article you should be able to taste the difference between a wooded vs. unwooded chardonnay. But, first things first… we need to have a little basic understanding by the meaning of a wine being wooded.

Wooded Chardonnay in wine barrels

So what do they mean when you hear the term a Wooded Chardonnay?

The simplest explanation is when a wine (and in our case Wooded Chardonnay) would spend in a barrel. So why would a winemaker choose to put their Chardonnay in a barrel?

Mainly for the flavour profile a winemaker may try to build for their wooded Chardonnay. You see boozy friends a barrel does two very important things:

  • wood
  • air!

By allowing the wine to get into as much contact with the oak barrel, the wine now takes on the specific aroma an oak barrel has to offer. It now adds an extra layer of depth as the white wine now has some tannins.

The oak barrels also helps to “thicken” the wines. So what this means because the barrels are porous they evaporate. The same thing when you “reduce” your sauce! Why do us cooks like to reduce a sauce? It gives a sauce more or a rich, ripe and concentrated flavours. The exact same things happens to a wine. The wine becomes more richer, more riper, condensed and lower in acidity.

By putting a wine in a barrel also helps to soften the wine. A soft wine doesn’t mean that the wine is weak. In fact, the term means; the wine is well rounded, fruity, low in acid with out heavy and aggressive tannins.

Remember a wine barrel is watertight (no liquid can seep in or out) but, NOT, airtight! Just as air evaporates, air seeps in, transforming the wine. making it softer and elegant.

Wooded Chardonnay in the process of being made

Oaked/Wooded Chardonnay Flavour Profile

An unwooded chardonnay, as previously discussed is light in colour and has less body. On the nose the wine is centered on citrus and fruit like peach or green apples. It is also much crispier. If you like your wines lean, and dry, then an Unwooded Chardonnay is what your glass is calling for.


Now… if you are looking for a wine that is full bodied, more richer and creamy with a sweet bouquet on the nose? A wooded Chardonnay will be your wine. 🙂

Unlike the unwooded, a wooded chardonnay profile changes and you can expect anything from rich and luscious tropical fruit.

Think grilled pineapple with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream, to something lighter like poached pears, baked apple pie, lemon curd and a minerality of like chalk or wet stone.

How to identify if a wine has been barrel aged?

Firstly look at the colour. If a white wine has spent some time in barrels or oak, the colour becomes far richer. Instead of a straw or a slight green tinge the wine developes more darker rich tones of gold.

Wooded Chardonnay in a glass

Flavour: Oak produces a compound called Vanillin.

Yes Exactly! That is why you taste or pick up those vanilla notes in a wine. Now you know why! Here you will be able smell and or taste it. The next time you with friends and you taste those notes you can point them out! You, my darlings have just become a connoisseur! You’re welcomed!

A few other flavours that one can get when a wine has been barrels matured:

  • caramel,
  • toffee,
  • butterscotch,
  • honey,
  • hazelnuts,
  • baked apples or apple pie,
  • pie crust,
  • baking spices like cloves and cinnamon,
  • sometimes you will also get coconut or cream soda!

Do you now see why a winemaker may choose to do a wooded Chardonnay and barrel mature them?

Yummilicous! I am now so in the mood for a glass of Chardonnay!

In the Cellar…

Chardonnay in barrels

Using toasted NEW oak adds extra an layer of complexity to the wines such as vanilla, coconut and spices such as cloves and cinnamon.

All wines that goes into an oak barrel goes through the MLF process. This creates a wooded chardonnay that is rich, smooth, waxy, creamy and buttery.

The longer the wine sits in the barrel the richer it becomes. And we talking about the colour too just not the flavour.

Barrel aging is an important technique in the journey from grape to glass! Here winemakers need to practice a TON of patience. You know the saying Patience is a virtue? Well, a winemaker will need all the patience in the world. You see wine friends, aging wine in a barrel takes a lot of patience! It can be months sometimes even years before a wine is ready to be bottled.

White wines like a wooded Chardonnay will spend a far lesser time in an oak barrel than red wines. You are looking at an average of about 6 to 10 months in an oak barrel.

Your more delicate reds like Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Grenache and Cinsault will spend an average of 10 to 12 months in a barrel.

Your heavy reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tannat for example can handle much longer periods in oak. This allows for the mellowing and developing of complex aromas and flavours.

Oak leaf

3 Different Types of Oak

You may see something like this on the back of a wine label: “This wine was barrel fermened/aged in:

  1. French
  2. Hungarian
  3. American

oak for x amount of months“. Choosing the right type of oak place a major impact on the final product. Each of these have a completely different flavour. We will discuss them one by one.

DID YOU KNOW: An oak tree will only make enough wood for about 2 barrels. That is roughly 50 cases of wine or 225L!

French Oak

French Oak trees are in a cooler climate. This creates the grains of the wood to be tighter. The tighter the grains the less interaction the wine has with the wood. Making the wood flavours more subtle. So in simple terms French = Subtle!

French oak produces vanillin (the vanilla notes) and more of savory spice like nutmeg, allspice, or crème brulée which creates a more silky smooth and elegant mouth feel.

Wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir loves French barrels as they soak up the oaky flavours more than let’s say Cabernet Sauvignon.

french oak tree bud

Hungarian / Eastern European Oak

Hungarian is very similar to French oak, except:

1: it is far cheaper than French Oak and;
2: due to terrior the grains of the wood are more medium grain, allowing a little more wine contact.

Hungarian oak also has two compounds (not even going to attempt to spell or pronounce it) , but they give off cinnamon and clove notes. You can also find butterscotch and toffee notes as a more common feature in Hungarian Oak.

American Oak

Due to dramatic terror differences between the two continents, oak trees in America, grow very differently to their European Cousins. American Oak has a much wider grain. This is allowing far more wood contact with the wine. Unlike the French counterpart American Oak = Big and Bold Flavours.

Wine that has been barrel aged in American Oak will hit your palate with vanilla, coconut, sweet spices, herbs like dill, and even cream soda!

Because of our climate, oak trees in South Africa are not suitable for oak barrels. They are to porous.

Old wine barrels

Wine Barrel Recycling and Barrel Alternatives

Wine barrels are very VERY expensive! To give you an example if a winemaker wants to use say French Oak he can expect to pay anything between $850-$3600 EACH. Convert that on today’s current dollar rand exchange (R18.19 for $1. We are looking at anything from R15,462.73 – R65,489.22 FOR ONE!!!!) I can guarantee a winery will not be using only one barrel! That is why winemakers like to reuse the barrels a few times. But there is a draw back.

As wine barrels are used again and again to age new batches of wine, the wood flavor that will influence the wines will get less and less intense.

Think of it like the barrel being a huge tea bag. The first cup of tea is rich, strong and bursting with flavour, but as you use the same teabag over and over it starts to have less and less flavours. It will get to the point where you are practically drinking hot water.

The same applies to wine barrels. A winemaker may choose to age a wine in the same barrels for only few batches before retiring the wine vat. Other winemakers will use fresh wine barrels to get a specific flavor into one type of wine, then use the somewhat flavor-depleted barrels for other vintages that require less oak influence.

That is why you will see the terms first fill, second fill and third fill on a wine label. A winemaker may even play around and mix a wine up. For example they may choose ot have 40% of that wine is in new french oak and 30% in 2nd Oak and remaining was 3rd fill. This all plays an important roles in the type of style the winemaker is looking for.

Due to the pricing of barrels some cellars or winemakers wants to give extra body to their wine without adding it to barrels. Here the winemaker may choose to use wood chips.

The option of using wood chips instead of barrels is to give the wine a little extra oomph without putting them in barrels.

The pre-toasted bits of oak chips are added during the aging and fermentation process. Once the process is completed, and the winemaker is happy with the amount of wood that is absorbed into the wine, it will then get strained out.

oak wood chips

If and when done correctly, the end result is a wine with flavors that mimic those of barrel-aged wines.

How does Toasting a barrel add flavour?

Every single little decision a winemaker may choose, will be the final outcome in your glass. Yes, that even includes the intensity of which athe barrel gets toasted.

So why does a barrel need toasting? The exact same reason why you would toast your spices. To release those oils hidden in your spice. A wine cellar, will toast their barrels so to remove the bitter tannins and to release the natural wood flavours.

the different intensities an oak barrel will be toasted light medium medium plus and heavy toasted.

A lightly toasted barrel will add to the final flavour to a wine. A barrel that has been heavily toasted will bring out those extra hidden flavours and add big bold characteristics.

Size Matters: Bigger isn’t always better!

large wine barrels in cellar

Wine barrels come in all different sizes. Mostly in South Africa, we use barrels that are 225L (Bordeaux) 300L (American Oak Hogshead / Cognac Barrel) 500L (Pancheon) or 600L (Demi-Muid) .

When wine is placed in a large oak barrel, there is a lot of wine but, not a lot of barrel or wooded surface area. This means the wood/oak flavours will be subtle.

On the other hand, a smaller barrel, has smaller volume of wine, but a larger surface area. More contact with the wood means more bigger and bolder flavours.

Finally we have now covered the basic understanding of how a wooded wine is made. In my next follow up article I will be covering some of my favourite wooded Chardonnay’s this summer! Until next time, stay at home, stay safe! Chow chow!

Featured Image by Mikele Designer from Pixabay
Image by analogicus from Pixabay

Barrels Image by Leo Hau from Pixabay
Wine Glass Image by Anja🤗#helpinghands#stayathome #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay
Barrel Cellar Image by chris18769 from Pixabay
Gerard Prins / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Large Wine Barrels Image by ivabalk from Pixabay

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