All chardonnay wine is made from chardonnay grapes that can taste like apples, lemons, or something sweeter off the vine, depending on the region. The variation in the final wine is primarily based on the climate and how the grapes were treated: whether they are oaked unoaked.
The difference between oaked and unoaked chardonnay is that oaked chardonnay is aged in new barrels, while unoaked is not. Oak can enhance the color of the wine, soften and round out flavors, and impart its own unique characteristics. When chardonnay spends time in oak barrels instead of steel or plastic tanks, the oak imparts flavors into the wine that resemble sweet vanilla, caramel, and butter. The longer the wine sits in oak, the darker yellow it will become, almost mimicking the hue of straw. Keep in mind that an oak influence can come from oak barrels or barrel alternatives (things like oak chips or staves) that are exposed to a wine while it is fermenting and/or aging. Barrels are also credited with giving wine a richer texture, adding to the belief that oak adds complexity.
An unoaked wine is more likely to be lighter-bodied than its oaked counterpart. If you prefer your chardonnay on the dryer, more minerally side with more fresh fruit flavors and less of any toasty and vanilla character you will enjoy an unoaked Chardonnay.
It’s the fermentation process that is essential to wine, and therefore, whichever barrel the wine is fermented in will actually affect the flavor. If the Chardonnay is aged elsewhere and then kept in an oak barrel, that will have much less impact on the flavor profile than if that Chardonnay is actually aged and fermented in the oak barrel.
Oaked Chardonnays tend to have a higher price tag because oak barrels themselves cost much more than the steel ones, as they are harder to produce. However, it’s totally worth it for those that enjoy that creamy, rich, vanilla and buttery taste.