Often called “the winemaker’s canvas,” Chardonnay not only reflects terroir, but a winemaker’s signature style. However, it’s not just about flavors and aromas; these days, it’s also about texture. The choices a winemaker makes, from the pick time to the vessels to fermentation, all reveal themselves on the palate.
A fundamental question winemakers needs to ask when selecting vessels is what type of material do they want to use.
From oak type to barrel age, toast level and the tightness of the grain, the options in oak barrel selection can look as widespread as branches extending from a tree trunk.
“I like barrel-fermented Chardonnay and what it has to offer, specifically texturally but I also like the roles that cooperage can play in helping to maintain freshness on wines,” says Erik Kramer of WillaKenzie. “I’m speaking about the role that new wood can play, but it needs to be wood that elevates without interference — unobtrusive wood.” Oak tannin plays a pivotal role in creating mouthfeel, according to Kramer. “It provides volume and kind of a textual harmony, but that tannin that's present in the wood is also a strong antioxidant; I believe that a certain amount of this new wood can absolutely help. It absorbs oxygen and it actually helps maintain more expression.”
A grape’s journey into wine is comprised of numerous, measured steps, each carefully considered along the way.
Commercial yeast remains popular for its consistency and reliability during fermentation, but some winemakers think the rewards of using indigenous yeasts far outweigh the risks. At Hartford Court, winemaker Jeff Stewart takes a lower-intervention approach. He does “not coerce the wines into a direction that fits a place, but the place kind of tells us what the wine wants to be,” Stewart says. Essential to this terroir expression is uninoculated fermentation, which he feels offers a truer expression of the site.
Before grapes even reach the winery, decisions in the vineyard set the course for a wine’s style. “When you decide to pick, you can make everything from sparkling to really rich, so that ripeness level is very important,” says Melton. “We find that different ripeness levels are appropriate depending on the region.”
It’s not just a grape’s journey that commences in the field; many winemakers also hone their craft in the vineyards. “I've made lots of mistakes. I've picked too ripe and I've also picked way too early,” says Ryan Zepaltas. “I feel that Chardonnay is best expressed in a lighter expression with moderate alcohol and good acidity.”
But finding that balance is a delicate dance. “I've certainly been guilty of picking too early because you're just trying to achieve low alcohol, but then you are kind of missing out on flavor,” says Zepaltas. “Where I’m at is when that pendulum swings back towards the middle, where you’re hanging the fruit a little bit longer, but still picking at a lower Brix; just being patient to let it hang a little bit longer to achieve flavors, because your acidity is usually there early on, and it tends to retain itself better on the vine in Chardonnay.”