For centuries, wine has been aged in oak barrels, and for the most part, oak flavor was not the reason. It’s a lot simpler than that: Until fairly recently, barrels were the cheapest way to store wine in the winery.
It has been just about 50 years since stainless steel tanks began to be used as fermentation vessels, replacing concrete or wooden vats. But during that time, winemakers also realized that they could add complexity to some wines by aging them in newer oak casks of about 60 gallons, and this added a faint note of oak to the wine.
Most of the wines aged in barrels, to mature as well as gain added flavor, were red. But a few white wines also could gain flavor from barrels. The primary white wine treated this way was Chardonnay.
Many winemakers also experimented with putting other white wines in barrels, but most such experiments have largely been abandoned. A few wines from grapes like Viognier and even Pinot Gris are still age in barrels, but consumers seem to prefer such wines unadorned with oak.
In the 1980s, oak additives were developed for wines. Soon inexpensive wines were being “improved” with oak flavors by aging them with barrel staves that were placed into contact with the juice. Wines also were being flavored with oak chips.
Now oak flavors in Chardonnay are being questioned as well. The Millennial generation of wine buyers, aged 21 to 35, appears to want fresher, lighter flavors for their Chardonnays.
In chatting with numerous wine merchants around the country, I have heard story after story of wine buyers who are seeking low-oak or no-oak Chardonnays. And wineries are responding with wines called “unwooded,” “no oak,” and “oak free.”
Another way to gain depth and weight before bottling a white wine is to age it “on the lees” — the spent yeast cells. This can be done in barrels or in tanks, and some wineries get even more heft by stirring the lees to gain more depth and richness in the wine’s texture.