…In very small quantities.

When we decided that we’d like a white wine to complement our Pinots, our thoughts naturally gravitated to Chardonnay. Chardonnay is the great white wine of the Burgundian vineyards, a true role model of what this variety can deliver.

We don’t currently grow Chardonnay at Charmant Vineyards — so first we had to find great grapes – easily said, not so easily done.  We looked around the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation for a good grape source and discovered how little Chardonnay was available at the time and the fact that well regarded Chardonnay was unlikely to become available. Talking it over with our consultant Tom Stutz, we decided that quality fruit had to drive our selection and that is how we met Joe Alarid and visited his Tondré Grapefields in Santa Lucia Highlands.  Joe is one of the absolute top grape growers out there.

He grows several clones of Chardonnay and allowed us to have our pick.  We walked his grapefields just ahead of the 2019 harvest, and found the Dijon Clone 548, a Burgundying favorite that is known for setting smaller crop levels, to have a very unique and intriguing flavor profile, and asked for it. As with all of Joe’s fruit, the Chardonnay was night harvested by hand.  We picked it up before sunrise, in immaculate condition, requiring no sorting back at our winery.

On the crush pad – for our Chardonnay – we remove the de-stemming cage and put the roller crusher at its widest setting. This allows for inclusion of the grape rachis (the stems) for better press performance and splits most of the berries without unduly damaging the fruit. We hand transfer with buckets to the bladder press which drains as we fill it.

The key to good pressing is to get as much juice off at as low a pressure as possible. This can take some time, especially with fresh fruit, and is why stem inclusion makes so much sense.  The final pressure attained is a stylistic choice. Perhaps counter-intuitively, for a full flavor profile, good Chardonnay benefits from high final pressures where it yields very intriguing apple peel flavors and aromas.

Pursuant to recent research out of the University of Dijon on the reduction of premature aging syndrome in White Burgundies (aka Chardonnay) we make a 20 part per million (ppm) sulfur dioxide (SO2 ) addition to the fresh juice. Then a sample is pulled for chemical analysis to give us a starting data set. It is important to know the starting fruit acid level (both Tartaric and Malic acids) and the juice pH.  We  of course check the °Brix to be able to anticipate final alcohol and to aid us in comparisons across vintages.

The juice is put into our selected mix of barrels where it will barrel-ferment. These are French barrels with tight grain profiles and with three year air dried / aged staves. Long deep toasting (and toasted heads) to reach a Medium plus toast is preferred. We target about a third new oak. Some juice is fermented in stainless to be used as topping wine. Selected strains of yeast are introduced into the barrels to build complexity. A clever inert silicon bung is used which allows carbon dioxide gas to escape while simultaneously excluding oxygen uptake back into barrel.  Within a day or two, the sulfur dioxide we added has all blown off with the CO2 fermentation gas.

We ferment cool – ideally under 60°F – and as we approach the last few percentages of sugar content, we gently stir the barrels daily to aid in completing alcoholic fermentation. At about 2-3% residual sugar we add a malo-lactic bacteria which has been selected to enhance the final “finesse” of the wine. Once the ferments have dropped off to just percolating along quietly, we bring the barrels to nearly full from the kegs and keep the fermentation bungs in place. Barrel stirring is reduced to once a week.  Each time the barrel is opened a quick organoleptic check is done to make sure all is well.

This continues until we determine that the malo-lactic fermentation is completed.  At this point the barrel is given a good stir and we top the barrels completely. The fermentation bung is replaced with an aging (solid) silicon bung. We reduce the stirring interval to once a month.  As always the wine is evaluated with each stirring and topped as necessary. A new wine analysis panel is done at this time.

An aside here, the advent of silicon bungs finally allowed barrels to seal well.  This eliminated the old requirement to top barrels every three weeks or so to limit oxidation of the contents.  One can literally never top a barrel in the course of a year if one chooses. This long an interval will change the final wine character and is not something which we do. Our consultant did multi-year trials in both red and white wines to determine an interval which would be appropriate and we follow that determination.  But suffice it to say, it is not the typical once every two weeks regiment followed by most all commercial wineries – which results in multiple sulfite additions throughout the winemaking process.  Our method results in virtually no sulfite additions whatsoever.

In barrel stirring and sur-lies aging is practiced at Chamant. The point of this exercise is to modify the mouthfeel and/or incorporate yeast autolysis flavors. Mouthfeel modification occurs because the protein in the yeast cell wall reacts with tannins in the wine (from both the grape skins and the barrel). The yeast cells remove these molecules from suspension as they return to the bottom of the barrel. More frequent stirring will result in smoother wine, a greater risk of oxidation and we believe slower autolysis. 

The yeast cell autolysis (break open) occurs upon cell death which provides additional flavors to the wine (the reason champagne is aged in bottle!). The conditions that favor autolysis are time (typically six or more months) and the thickness of the yeast layer at the bottom of the barrel.  The thicker the layer, the more competition for what little nutrient and oxygen that exists and the faster the cell death. 

So, the choice of stirring interval is not as simple as “if a little is good, more is better”! We strive for excellent mouthfeel while giving the wine time to bring up those crème brulée flavors which enrich and compliments the inherent Chardonnay fruit. This aging regimen also allows a stable, full malo-lactic fermentation wine without the typical butter flavors seen in so many Chardonnay wines.

The barrel stirring is discontinued three to four months before bottling.  This is typically just at the start of the subsequent harvest with the expectation of bottling in the first quarter of the next year. The barrels are then clean racked under nitrogen into a tank.  At that time, we take steps to preserve freshness and to reduce the inherent protein (aka “heat”) instability of the wine.  A pre-bottling analysis panel is done on the blend to provide a history for that wine and inform our future decisions on future vintages.

Perhaps less obvious than with Pinot Noir, bottle aging prior to sale is critical for our style of Chardonnay. We target six months minimum to bring out the wine’s true potential. As with all our wines we seek to deliver excellent fruit intensity carefully balanced with oak and sur-lies aging complexities and a gratifyingly long persistence in the mouth.