The Winemaker's Canvas

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.

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The Vessel

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.”

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Conversely, Greg Brewer prefers neutral oak barrels for his Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay. "If the provenance is so coveted and if the raw materials are so epic, what happens if you kind of leave them alone?” he says. Citing the use of “really old barrels with no disturbance of the lees,” he creates a Chardonnay that’s “very straightforward; it's akin to slicing and plating raw fish at a sushi bar, essentially.”

The type of oak used brings varying aromatic compounds. French oak, which is used in the bestselling Kendall-Jackson bestselling Vintner’s Reserve, imparts vanilla while American oak gives coconut and dill. Other types of oak, such as Hungarian and Slovenian, are also becoming a larger part of the conversation.

Toast levels and grain density weave themselves into the equation, as well. “The kind of wood that I like to use for Chardonnay, is very lightly toasted with a very fine grain, and a minimum of 36-months' air drying,” says Kramer. “It's really about that maintaining energy, but also kind of adding that creaminess and viscosity without something ever coming off as being planky or phenolic in any way. It’s about elevating without interfering, and the amount of time in barrel certainly can have a role to play.”

Oak is so integral to Kendall-Jackson winemaker Randy Ullom’s regimen that Kendall-Jackson crafts bespoke barrels to ensure total control over the winemaking process. “We source our oak down to the tree level in France and trace it all the way through the system to grain tightness, how long those staves had been aged, and then our toasting regime. We're very conscious of every little detail.”

Stainless Steel

For Brewer, stainless steel offers a counterpoint to the ripe fruit and creates what he calls “bass and treble, savory-sweet,” for his diatom wines. “It's all about equilibrium,” he explains. “It's done at a very cold temperature, only in stainless steel. It's bottled early, so it's the most primal and pent up. The aspiration there is to capture something really before it has an opportunity to become something else; so, a wave before it breaks. That pent-up, cloistered kind of capture of Chardonnay is what the intent is, and the why behind that project.” He cites a reverence for raw materials, and “I think with diatom, it's really that. It’s the most kind of vulnerable, the rawest expression of Chardonnay that I can see producing, really.”

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The Ferment

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.

Skin Contact

A level of experimentation also comes into play at Copain with Ryan Zepaltas’s use of skin contact. Texturally, it provides “grip and backbone…an al dente, slightly underripe, green apple skin vibe,” he says. He divides up crops as they come in from harvest: some fruit will be directly pressed, some will soak on the skins for a couple of hours, while others may macerate overnight. “When we get to the blending table, we have some of those options,” he says. “A short amount of skin contact, four to eight hours, feels like it adds another layer in the resulting wines.”

Malolactic Fermentation

For Kristy Melton at Freemark Abbey, a judicious use of malolactic fermentation also helps her achieve what she calls a “quintessential and timeless” Chardonnay. “We do about a 50 percent malolactic treatment on the wine as well, just enough to build some richness and complexity, but not to overwhelm the wine and make it single noted from those characters,” she says.

Greg Brewer on the other hand, feels the ripeness of his fruit doesn’t call for malo. Comparing it to music, he says: “we bring in the fruit relatively ripe, so it's like base or volume or bottom-ended, fat in something. So, no stirring, usually no malo with his Brewer-Clifton’s Chardonnay. We're not trying to flesh it out and we’re not trying to tenderize it, because the fruit is coming in with volume and texture — that kind of viscosity comes from fruit weight.”

The Pick

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.”

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