Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Winemaking Articles

Chardonnay: A Kaleidoscope of Characters

From steely-crisp and Chablis-like to unctuously layered with butter and oak – Chardonnay is known for its chameleon-like quality and ability take on a wide range of characteristics depending on the techniques winemakers use when crafting it.

At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winemaker Nicki Pruss’ approach to Chardonnay is nuanced, using winemaking techniques with an eye toward preserving the distinctive character of the vineyard sites in which the fruit is grown. “With such beautiful fruit coming from the properties we work with, our goal is to showcase the vineyard,” says Nicki. “Our winemaking practices are all about subtlety and restraint. They contribute accent notes while the vineyards make the dominant statement.”

Our Chardonnay fruit is whole-cluster pressed, a process where entire grape bunches are pressed very gently to extract the juice away from the skins. This minimizes the amount of harsh and astringent tannins that naturally exist in the skins, seeds and stems, leaving only the purest possible flavors. Then, Nicki uses a mix of French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks to ferment the wine. While stainless steel is neutral, adding no flavor of its own to the wine, oak can impart a variety of aromas and flavors, from smoky/spicy to sweet vanilla-like. Fermenting in oak can also contribute to a wine’s structure and, adding another layer of interest on the palate.

For KARIA, the majority of the wine is barrel fermented, but we like to use a combination of new and older French oak barrels so that the new oak doesn’t overwhelm the delicate nuances of the fruit. For ARCADIA VINEYARD Chardonnay we keep the flavor even more pure by fermenting a portion of the wine in stainless steel tanks as well as older French oak barrels. This combination enhances the overall structure and texture of the wine.

After primary fermentation, we take a measured approach to malolactic fermentation (ML for short)-—a process initiated by inoculating the wine with a bacteria. This process converts the tart malic acid (like that found in a Granny Smith apple) to lactic acid (found in dairy products), resulting in a soft and creamy texture and butter-like flavor. Our KARIA Chardonnay is blended to included a gentle touch of these ML characteristics while the ML character in the ARCADIA Chardonnay is even more subtle, favoring a more crisp style.

Following fermentation, the wine is left in barrel to age with the sediments (including spent yeast cells), also known as “lees.” This is also referred to as “sur lie” aging. Periodically, the wines are stirred (a process known as “batonnage”), redistributing the lees throughout the wine. Nicki uses batonnage as a means of clarifying the wine and enhancing flavor, complexity, and body.

Our light-handed approach to vinifying Chardonnay is readily evident in both KARIA and ARCADIA VINEYARD. “I think you can really taste the vineyards in these wines, because there aren’t a lot of distractions,” says Nicki.