The Many Sides of Chardonnay

If Cabernet is the King of Grapes, Chardonnay is probably the Queen. It’s the most popular wine among US drinkers with about 20% market share, and in California there’s more of this white grape planted than any other wine grape — 91,043 acres according to a report released last year by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Given its popularity and availability, making Chardonnay is a natural choice for a home winemaker. 

The grape stands out for being made into very distinct styles dictated by climate, terroir, and winemaking preferences. There are arguably three main versions of still-wine Chardonnay. There’s a high-alcohol, oaky Chardonnay with powerful fruit and creamy flavors. Another full-bodied bottling of the grape comes unoaked with purer fresh fruit tastes like pear, apple and citrus. Both of those styles are typical of many Californian Chardonnays, but they’re also made all over the world. A third follows the French Burgundian model. These wines are often lower in alcohol, higher in acidity, and have more subtle oak integration, or no oak influence at all.

To help you decide which version to make, I sought the advice of three professional winemakers, two in California and one in Oregon, who make very different Chardonnays.

Sbragia Family Vineyards: Big, Buttery, Oaky Chardonnay

Ed and Adam Sbragia of Sbragia Family Vineyards in Sonoma, California.

Father and son Winemakers Ed and Adam Sbragia established their California winery in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley in 2006, an area where the family has lived for four generations. They were already releasing their own wines by custom crushing at Beringer Vineyards where the senior Sbragia was Winemaker for more than 30 years. Adam started his winemaking there in 2003 as his dad’s assistant. Ed Sbragia (the only winemaker to win Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year for both a red and white wine) still tastes the blends with his son who took over as Winemaker at Sbragia Family Vineyards in 2008.

“A lot of people say that we make white wine for red wine drinkers,” Adam Sbragia describes it. “The Gamble Ranch Chardonnay is definitely your California-style, big, buttery, creamy, oaked Chardonnay.”

Longoria Wines: Chardonnays in a French Burgundian Style

Rick Longoria of Longoria Wines in Santa Barbara, California.

Another Californian Winemaker, Rick Longoria, makes a very distinct Chardonnay.

“We’re not really going for a full-bodied ripe style Chardonnay, which has traditionally been a California style,” says Longoria. He established Longoria Wines in Santa Barbara County with his wife Diana in 1982. It was the Chardonnay grape that inspired Longoria to start his own label.

“There just seemed to be such early success with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County that I really felt I needed to make those varieties. So I had to develop my own label to do that.”

His Cuvée Diana (named after his wife) is a Chardonnay blend sourced from vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills.

“We have the climate that allows us to achieve very nice ripeness but at the same time retain a lot of acidity. That’s different from the warmer climates of a lot of Sonoma and Napa,” explains Longoria. 

Chardonnays from Longoria Wines have lower alcohol levels and are stylistically more like a French Burgundy than a Californian Chardonnay.

Statera Cellars: Unoaked Chardonnays Made Naturally

Luke Wylde of Statera Cellars in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Luke Wylde and Meredith Bell, Co-Owners and Winemakers at Statera Cellars, only make Chardonnay. They started in 2013 and source grapes from about half a dozen vineyards, including organic and biodynamically-certified operations. 

“When you’re looking for marketing goals, one of the best things you can ever do for yourself is be the first at something. So we were Oregon’s first all-Chardonnay winery,” says Wylde. 

Statera make Chardonnays using what they call natural and traditional methods that aim to reflect the grape and vineyard. Wylde firmly believes in minimal intervention in the winery.

“I know that oak is a pretty popular thing to add to Chardonnay but in our minds it’s a flavor additive,” he says dismissively. “We want the wines to taste like the vineyard, not like the vineyard and a barrel.”

Their wines could be closest in style to unoaked Chardonnays, but Wylde doesn’t like to categorize them. They can be bright and acidic one year and full-bodied, high-alcohol the next.  

“I don’t even think we’re making Oregon-style Chardonnay, I just think we’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got,” he says.

Picking the Grapes by Chemistry and Taste 

When the grapes come in during the morning, all three winemakers start with an immediate whole cluster press.

Sbragia aims to have the grapes harvested at 24–25 °Brix, with a pH of 3.5–3.7 and acidity at 6.5–7.0 g/L

Longoria’s grape chemistry preferences are different. 

“I’ve harvested as early as 21.5–22 °Brix but more often I’m at that range between 22.5–23 °Brix, which seems to be the sweet spot for achieving flavor maturation and retaining really good acidity,” says the Santa Barbara winemaker.

Statera isn’t so concerned about chemistry at this stage and focuses on bringing in flavorful grapes.

Pressing Gently or Pressing Like Hell

The pressure used to press Chardonnay grapes is another option that will likely be determined by the style of wine to be made from the juice. Rick Longoria’s press is a gentle one that doesn’t exceed 0.8 bar.

“We do a nice long pressing cycle, usually about two hours. So we take our time in the pressing cycle so we’re not abruptly trying to squeeze as much juice as possible.” 

By contrast, Luke Wylde presses very hard – up to 2 bar. He also redefines Longoria’s meaning of a long time with a seven-hour pressing cycle.

“I don’t know what benefit there would be from pressing really light,” he says. Although Longoria would contend that the higher pH and phenolics of harder pressed fractions would not be suitable for his style. 

Wylde believes that Chardonnay responds well to strong pressing. He says this has never led to astringency in his wines from crushed seeds, skins, and stems — one reason many winegrowers hold back on the pressure. 

“Keep in mind that I’m not a scientist, but our reasoning is this,” he explains. “If you press the hell out of the grapes and you’re not adding sulfur, then pressing means you’re going to be extracting more of those natural phenolics that are keeping the fruit healthy on the vine, which in turn should keep your juice healthy in the barrel.”

Wylde has another reason for turning the dial up high on his 2.9 hectoliter Europress: Oxygen exposure.

“We want to make sure that the juice is fully exposed to oxygen during the pressing so that a lot of the oxidation that would happen throughout the life of the wine occurs early and sorts itself out later on.” 

Winemakers with chemistry expertise like guru Clark Smith say the skillful introduction of oxygen to a wine early in its life increases its reductive strength inhibiting oxygenation. But Smith was thinking of micro-oxygenation delivered by often expensive precision dosers according to the French principles of élevage

Wylde cites experience with his finished wine and says that when opened, Statera Chardonnays don’t oxidize as quickly as conventional bottles.

At Sbragia Family Vineyards they pump the juice into jacketed tanks where it settles for two to three days in a cool cellar. The air conditioning is set between 50–55 °F (10–13 °C), a pretty standard temperature for settling juice and low enough to inhibit spontaneous fermentation while the juice settles. This settling process allows solid grape particles in the juice to drop out, and reduces the cloudiness of the must and harsh notes in the finished wine. The result is a cleaner, more pleasantly aromatic bottling. The cool temperature helps speed this up, says Sbragia, and also protects the juice from spoilage like oxidation.

At Longoria, refrigerated tanks are set to about 55 °F (13 °C) and a pectic enzyme is added at the juice pan to help further speed up the process. An addition of 35 ppm of SO2 is added to the initial press juice, a little more if the grapes have any disease issues or are riper than usual.

Longoria says his settling takes 24–36 hours. The winemaker cautions against making the temperature too cold because, he says, it can slow the onset of fermentation.

“We want it to just get cold enough where that helps speed up the settling,” he says.

Primary Fermentations Done the Cool Way

The primary fermentations for the three winemakers vary considerably in temperature, duration, and yeast type. 

“Everything we do is barrel-fermented,” says Adam Sbragia. The barrels are filled to 55 gallons (208 L) leaving about 5 gallons (19 L) to allow for expansion during fermentation and to avoid popping bungs and wine loss.

Unlike with jacketed steel tanks, temperature controlling oak barrels isn’t so easy but with the cellar at 55 °F (13 °C)  the Sonoma winemaker aims to keep the fermentation to about 75 °F (24 °C).   

“The hard thing about white wine is you have to keep it cold when it’s fermenting,” he says, “So they ferment nice and slowly to keep the esters and the thiols there and make sure I protect all the nice bouquet that comes with the Chardonnay.”

Both Sbragia and Wylde are passionate about Chardonnay’s smell. Wylde described it as “an incredibly aromatic grape.” It’s interesting that wine aficionado Tom Stevens in The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia describes Chardonnay as “The greatest non-aromatic dry white wine grape in the world.” Who should we believe?

Sbragia says that during fermentation they’re constantly checking the Brix to ensure it’s decreasing at a rate of about half a Brix a day, as well as the temperature to ensure it’s not too hot. No one wants a stuck fermentation, or one that finishes too quickly.

 “I try to make fermentation last 20 to 30 days. I want a long fermentation,” Sbragia says.

Did you say long, Adam? At Statera Cellars the passage of time is interpreted differently. There the Chardonnay fermentations are natural and last between six and 12 months.

 “We’ve never inoculated anything,” says Wylde, whose natural ferments in neutral oak barrels generally start after a week. He says the main cause of the long fermentation is the low temperature. 

Statera’s fermentations are cooler than Sbragia’s at a temperature maintained by refrigerated trucks or cellars. “We generally are fermenting everything at 55–65 °F (13–18 °C).” 

Apart from protecting Chardonnay’s aromatics, Wylde says this cool temperature improves the depth and integration of the wine’s flavors. He likes to call this “Crock-Pot winemaking” and compares it to slow cooking chili.

“So you’re not cooking out the uniqueness about it,” he says, “or the delicate things that stay behind if you don’t cook it at very high temperature.”  

At Longoria Wines they rack the settled juice from that first tank to another tank and then inoculate. Once fermentation has started they transfer to barrels. The fermentations there take about three weeks in a barrel room where temperatures are 65-75 °F (18-24 °C).

Natural and Inoculated Yeasts 

Over the years, Rick Longoria has tried a variety of inoculated yeasts and doesn’t have a firm favorite.

Last year they tried EC-1118, or Prise de Mousse, a yeast that was originally isolated in the Champagne region of France. They wanted to avoid some issues with sluggish Chardonnay fermentation and he said the yeast worked well for them.

“It’s not typically described as an exciting yeast,” he says laughing. “It doesn’t have attributes of enhancing aroma or texture or anything, but it is known to be a very thorough fermenter.” 

Adam Sbragia has also used EC-1118 but the family felt that it contributed to higher levels of volatile acidity. In 2008 they switched over to ICV D254, another widely available yeast developed by the French Institut Coopératif du Vin (ICV) from a Rhône Valley Syrah fermentation.  

“It’s a great Chardonnay yeast and promotes flavors of butterscotch and crème brûlée. It also can have hazelnut and almond aromas,” says the Sonoma winemaker.

After fermenting to dryness, Sbragia induces the secondary, malolactic fermentation with bacteria and tops up the barrels to prevent oxidation. 

“Hopefully it goes through in two months but you just never know with malolactic — it can take a long time,” he says. At times in the past it has taken up to four months. 

It’s a different malolactic story at Longoria Wines.

“I don’t want malolactic fermentation in my Chardonnays,” says Longoria regarding his Burgundian-style Chardonnay. Once the primary fermentation is complete they top off the barrels and add 50–60 ppm of sulfur dioxide to stop malolactic from occurring naturally. 

“I want to do everything possible to retain the acidity,” he explains. “With malolactic I would lose some. Also, that malic acid would be converted to lactic, which is softer so it has less of an acidic reception.” 

It’s an interesting twist in a more European winemaking style. French Burgundian Chardonnays usually undergo malolactic fermentations precisely because it helps take the edge off the high acidity in many of these wines.

“My thought here is that because of our different, more Mediterranean climate, we don’t have the need for malolactic,” says the Santa Barbara winemaker. “I think our fruit has a certain phenolic ripeness that often their fruit doesn’t have.” 

At Statera Cellars, once the primary ferment has reached dryness they do one big addition of sulfur dioxide at about 60 ppm. 

“Doing one big addition of sulfur rather than lots of incremental additions allows you to heavily whack anything strong microbially and leaves enough sulfur behind to protect the wine throughout its life in bottle,” says Wylde. He maintains a level of 25 mg/L (ppm) free SO2 until bottling.

“My grandfather had two rules,” says Sbragia, “Keep it full and keep it clean; and that’s what we do. I think if you do those two things you’re eliminating about 90% of the problems you might have.”

They add sulfite at the press to inhibit any natural yeasts coming in from the vineyard, add it again after the malolactic fermentation is over, and keep the free sulfur dioxide level at a minimum of 30 ppm through
to bottling.

Oak Decisions 

At Longoria Wines, typically, the Cuvée Diana Chardonnay is matured in 80–85% French neutral barrels and 15–20% French new oak with medium toast.

“We top all our barrels every other week and prior to topping we will stir the lees (bâtonnage). We’ll do that for the first 3 or 4 months,” says Longoria. 

This imparts more texture and a yeasty quality to the wine. If the grapes are slightly underripe they stir for a longer period of time. Unless off odors are noticed, racking isn’t done until it is time to bottle.

The Santa Barbara winemaker finds that riper grapes develop more quickly in the barrels so he bottles them before the next harvest, usually during August (about 11 months in barrel). If the wine is a little lean extra time in barrels helps, so they bottle in January or February before the following harvest (about 14 months in barrel) in
those instances.

Sbragia Family Vineyards use a lot more new oak for their Chardonnays and a medium or medium-plus toast. They also barrel age their wine for longer than Longoria.

“The Gamble Ranch goes into 100% new French oak for 18 months — and that’s a long time for a Chardonnay to be in barrels,” says Sbragia. 

“We stir the lees weekly for 17 months and then we let it settle, pull it out of barrels and bottle,” he says.

“I think a lot of people stir the lees while it’s going through malolactic, or maybe stir it for the first four months, once a month. Stirring the lees weekly is something that’s not common practice,” Sbragia adds.

Sbragia says this very extended and frequent stirring of the lees really allows the barrel and the wine to integrate. 

“Sometimes I feel when I drink a Chardonnay it’s like you’re licking the wine off a barrel,” he says. “But I don’t feel that our wines are over oaked.”

Unlike Sbragia and Longoria, at Statera Cellars the Chardonnays are all unoaked and spend fermentation through to bottling in neutral barrels for 16 months. Wylde says this length of time facilitates good integration. 

Longoria has some useful blending hints. The Cuvée Diana is made from three to four Chardonnay vineyards and most of the time, he says, one lot is clearly superior to the others. That one is the basis for the blend, which is fine-tuned with about three taste trials covering the duration of time the wine is in barrel.

“The wines are evolving so they are moving targets,” explains Longoria. “What may have tasted not so good in the first blending session may start tasting really good later on so then you’ll change the composition.”

Different Ways to Prepare Chardonnay for Bottling 

Before bottling, Longoria Wines heat stabilize with bentonite, cold stabilize by chilling the wine for two and a half weeks, and then filter for clarity.

“We don’t use any membrane filtration; it’s just pad filters, but I definitely like clarity,” says Longoria.

“I like to have a brilliant wine so I’m not one to like unfined and unfiltered and then have a haze. To me there’s no need for that and I think a lot of consumers wouldn’t be drinking the wine if it wasn’t really clear.”

Statera Cellars takes a different view on wine clarity.

“We have had some wines that have gone to bottle with a bit of a haze — not a protein haze, just some lees in suspension — but that’s okay,” says Wylde. “When you’re making wine naturally you have to be prepared for that.”

They do rack everything to a settling tank prior to bottling but they don’t filter or fine their Chardonnays.

At Sbragia Family Vineyards, the final steps before bottling are different again. They don’t do any racking or fining of their whites before bottling. Instead they rely on the lees.

“By stirring the lees we’re reintegrating the yeast and it actually acts as a natural fining agent by resuspending and, as it falls, pulling out solids,” Sbragia says.

Consider Making Other Wines First 

Now that we’ve followed three different Chardonnay styles through to bottling, what advice can these winemakers give the home winemaker who is still game to take on this grape?

Adam Sbragia doesn’t mince his words: Don’t make your first wine out of Chardonnay grapes.

“Start with red wine. It’s much more forgiving,” the Sonoma winemaker says. 

“You can crush it with your hands and then you can put it in some buckets and add some yeast, punch it down three times a day and then press it off and put it in a barrel and you’re
basically good.”

Rick Longoria’s advice is not quite as negative, although the take-home message is similar: Practice on other white grapes first.

“Chardonnay would not be my first pick,” he chuckles. “There are certain white grapes, like Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, that have such identifiable flavor characteristics that it’s kind of a no-brainer. If you follow basic fermentation procedures and pick them in the middle of the ripeness range you are going to come out with a very enjoyable wine.”

“Chardonnay, on the other hand,” he explains, “is a variety that’s fairly neutral in terms of its flavor. When you taste a Chardonnay out in the vineyard it tastes like a white grape.” 

Luke Wylde of Statera Cellars would disagree, but Longoria and Sbragia believe that Chardonnay calls for a certain amount of manipulation — a path Wylde avoids.

“My advice would be only make Chardonnay if you’re willing to experiment and manipulate with lees, oak, and malolactic, which can be fun,” says Longoria. “If you’re into all the more technical aspects of winemaking as a home winemaker, certainly Chardonnay would provide that opportunity.”

So Chardonnay may be a surprisingly challenging grape, but also a great way for a home winemaker to learn a range of white winemaking skills. Plus, you can very a variety of distinct wines from one harvest!

Chardonnay Viticulture

(sidebar by Wes Hagen)

After decades of misinformation, DNA studies within the last 20 years have shown that Chardonnay has both noble and ignoble roots: It is a centuries-old cross between Pinot Noir (considered by many to be the most noble winegrape on the planet) and Gouais Blanc, a grape that gets little love in the modern world, but is in the genetic mix for many of the world’s finest winegrapes.

I remember tasting my first Montrachet — possibly the greatest Chardonnay vineyard in the world, if not the greatest white wine on planet Earth — and the wine was confounding. It smelled of honey, flowers, oak, and chalk — I thought the wine must be sticky sweet from the aroma and the first taste — it was powerful and explosive and candied — but, wait, how is this possible? — BONE dry and finishes with mouth-watering acidity and mineral quality. Chardonnay can be a pauper or a prince — racy or round, oaked to death or steely as Pittsburgh in the 1960s.

Stylistic Considerations

First, let me admit that I am a huge fan of cold climate Chardonnay, what the pros would call Winkler Region 1 (around 2,000 degree days or even a bit less). This would be a region like the original Sonoma Coast, Santa Maria Valley, Champagne, or chillier parts of Burgundy, Germany, Austria. But Chardonnay is much more amenable to making good wine in all kinds of soil and climates. After making Chardonnay from the Paso Robles Highlands District for J. Wilkes last year, I was amazed how viticulture and timing the pick made amazingly good Chardonnay from a hot, arid, Region 4 Winkler Zone. The key is to know what style you want to make, spend as much time in the vineyard getting to know its limits and blessings, and then putting your stylistic stamp on the wine — because that’s what Chardonnay is all about. It loves different climates and playing dress-up, from the stark nudity of Chablis, to the simple black dress of Mersault, to the Carmen Miranda couture of Rombauer.

So how do I grow Chardonnay?

• The biggest challenge is mildew, rot, and Botrytis. Chardonnay is very susceptible to fungal diseases and requires a very serious and precision-timed spray regime that really penetrates the canopy and soaks the growing clusters. Copper sulfate and sulfur seem very effective early in the season, while stylet oil tends to be more effective near or after flowering. Try not to spray during flowering, as this might negatively impact fruit set.

• Try to time a small zinc fertilization right before flowering. Ample zinc at flowering has been shown in studies to improve berry set (successful flowering) by 10%. That could be 10%
more wine!

• Prune your vines for about 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) of fruit per plant at a medium to high vigor. The key here is 12–15 leaves per cluster, more leaves if your clusters are large (2–3 per lb./0.5 kg), less if they are small (4–7 per lb./0.5 kg).

• Open up that canopy! Do some experimentation to see how many leaves you can pluck away from the fruit after flowering to expose the nascent grapes to sunlight. There should never be more than one leaf layer between the sun and the fruit, and allowing at last 10% of the ambient sunlight to “fleck” the fruit as the sun moves is the minimum amount of exposure to remove green pepper and olive flavors from the juice. I like to leaf more aggressively on the morning side of the canopy and give the grapes good exposure from sunrise to 10 a.m., and then from around 3 p.m. to sunset when the fruit is less likely to burn. Accomplish this by leaving a “sombrero” or hat leaf over the cluster to protect it from the hottest part of the day. Open canopies also increase spray efficiency, as the spray doesn’t have to fight against multiple leaf layers to get to the fruit.

• Unless you feel very comfortable with acidulating a wine, pick Chardonnay based on pH and acidity. I like to bring my Chardonnay in at around 3.2 pH and 7–8 g/L total acidity (TA), but I love Chardonnay with serious structure and cut. I would feel comfortable at this acid level especially if the fruit tastes candy sweet — 23 °Brix at a minimum for the vineyards I use, but 22+ should be your goal. If you need to let it hang for higher sugars, I still feel confident with making Chardonnay up to 3.5 pH and 5–6 g/L of TA, but I would personally bump the acid about 1 g/L, taste the juice, and if it needed another gram I would do it sequentially. I make any acidity additions to the juice, as I never like to acidulate finished wine. 19–21 °Brix makes very good sparkling wine, but may not produce enough fruit character and richness for a good still wine.