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Chardonnay veraison

Chardonnay is the queen of white grapes around the world. It is the same grape from which Blanc de Blanc Champagne is made, after all. Here in Napa Valley, it is the second most planted grape behind the king, Cabernet Sauvignon. Long known as the winemaker’s wine due to the way it demonstrates each winemaking decision we make. When grown in a cool climate, the grape retains its bright acidity and allows for green apple, citrus and the minerality of the soil to shine. However, in warmer areas similar to our estate vineyards in the Oak Knoll district, Chardonnay grapes can develop tropical notes full of pineapple and golden apple character. Of course those flavors can be pushed one direction or the other depending ultimately on the ripeness level at harvest and the clonal selections planted in the vineyard.

Chardonnay delivery

There are still plenty of decisions once the fruit arrives at the winery. Night harvesting allows for the delicate skinned variety to show up first thing in the morning, still cool and making it easier to whole-cluster press. Moving the entire cluster into our presses helps unnecessary skin contact which might result in subtle bitterness in the juice. At Markham, all of our Chardonnay is barrel-fermented. Here again are several decisions that determine the flavors in your bottle of wine. Tank fermented wines will retain a crisp side with loaded with minerality and the additional nuance the barrel provides can be profound. While our 45°F barrel room seems cold, it is the only way to control the temperature of Chardonnay inside the barrel where it undergoes fermentation as the yeast convert all the sugars in the juice to alcohol, naturally releasing both heat and carbon dioxide gas in the process. Some winemakers allow the natural yeasts on the skins of the berries to ferment their wines but this can often take longer from start and finish. I like to sleep during harvest, so we prefer to use a few different strains of yeast to increase the complexity of our barrel fermentations with known results.

Chardonnay barrel fermentation

The use of small barrels in winemaking has only been popular in California since the middle of the last century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that using new oak became a huge trend and transformed Chardonnay. At Markham, we use 30% new oak, a blend of French, Hungarian and American oak barrels to make our wine unique. During every vintage, I decide whether or not to use new oak for beloved juicy texture versus neutral oak to support fruit flavors. Sweet vanilla toast comes from the French barrels, American barrels can add anything from coconut to smoky bacon, and we find the Hungarian oak gives a distinctive nutmeg spice to our blend.

Chardonnay to barrels

Another winemaking ‘trick’ is the utilization of malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is the tart, apple acid found naturally within grapes. A secondary fermentation converts malic acid into lactic acid (which is found in butter and cheese) through a process known as malolactic fermentation. The timing of this fermentation also affects the amount of diacetyl production in the resulting wine. A Chardonnay that has undergone 100% malolactic conversion, post primary fermentation, will be buttery with softer acidity levels. With our estate vineyard being in warmer locations of Napa Valley, we opt for about 40% malolactic fermentation to ensure we retain enough acidity that our Chardonnay pairs well with a variety of foods. My favorite wine pairing with our Chardonnay was at a winemaker dinner in Toronto where the chef paired a spicy coconut broth soup with a single, perfectly grilled spot prawn in the center – delicious!

Most barrel-aged Chardonnays spend somewhere between 6–18 months in barrels depending upon the winery. During this time, the wine is stirred repeatedly in a process known as bâttonage. After primary fermentation is complete, the yeast settle to the bottom of the barrel and are referred to as lees. This stirring contributes a lushness to Chardonnay, in conjunction with a percentage of malolactic, the overall mouthfeel can be transformed into butterscotch creaminess. Both the timing and amount of sur-lie bâttonage is stylistic, the texture of the resulting wine harmonizes with the oak regime selected by the winemaker.

Chardonnay bottling line

Presently, we are bottling the 2015 Chardonnay just as our 2016 grapes are just entering veraison, when the berries soften and change color. The wine was blended about a month ago after which it was heat and cold stabilized. All of our white wines use a screwcap closure; this allows me to know that the first bottle will taste exactly like the last bottle, which is especially important when you bottle over 200,000 bottles of Chardonnay! After filling each of the bottles, a small drop of liquid nitrogen protects the wine before the screwcap is tightly spun into place. Then the labels are affixed and each bottle is carefully packed until it is released at a store near you – not long now, look for the 2016 in your favorite wine shop starting in September 2016! - Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls

Chardonnay packing

 

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