Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Collector’s Corner

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Winemaking Articles

Refreshing: The white wines of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

We spend a lot of time talking about the red wines produced by Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and not nearly enough time talking about the refreshing, food friendly white wines the winery produces. In this issue we focus on the three primary vineyards in Napa Valley that are the basis for our Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wines, and the steps we take to produce these wines.

The Arcadia vineyard is a primary source for Chardonnay grapes. Named for its bucolic setting, this 128-acre parcel is located in southern Napa Valley, at the foot of Mt. George. This vineyard is known for its gravelly silt loam soils that were formed in part from an inland lake that existed over 125,000 years ago. The cool climate and clonal diversity of Chardonnay planted there results in a Chablis-like wine that is aromatic, crisp and focused with distinct mineral notes.

Our estate vineyard, Danika Ranch, is located adjacent to the Napa River in Napa Valley's Oak Knoll District. Planted primarily to white grapes – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Sauvignon Musque – it provides the backbone to our KARIA Chardonnay and Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Like Arcadia vineyard, its location in the southern half of Napa Valley means cool marine breezes in the morning and evenings. This creates grapes with higher acidity and crisp flavors that complements the style of our white wines.

Tucked into the hills of Wooden Valley northeast of the town of Napa is the Rancho Chimiles Vineyard. Terrence Wilson is a longtime friend and a meticulous grower whose philosophy of farming matches our own. Rancho Chimiles benefits from its proximity to the nearby San Pablo Bay, which funnels cool air and fog into the area in the evening and early morning hours. But at an elevation of 615 feet the vineyard also receives plenty of sunshine. By carefully controlling the vigor of the vines Wilson produces fruit with a focused core of citrus and minerality.

The grapes from these three vineyards are augmented with fruit from several growers in Napa Valley who meet our exacting standards. Nicki explains, “My goal as a winemaker is to work with the different vineyards and farmers to find the ‘sweet spot’ in the varietal’s character for the specific site.” But the vineyards are only half of the story.

Once the white wine grapes are picked and arrive at the winery to be pressed, they get a little different treatment than the reds. It is crucial to keep the white grape juice at colder temperatures during fermentation and ageing to preserve the delicate aromas. Typical temperatures are in the 58˚ to 65˚ range.

Chardonnay starts with whole grape clusters loaded directly into the press. Gentle pressure is applied to extract the juice, leaving the skins, seeds, and stems behind. In contrast, Sauvignon Blanc grapes are removed from the stems. “Destemming” keeps the astringent, green flavors in the stems from overwhelming the delicate fruit flavors. It also ferments at the coldest end of the temperature range.

Fermentation takes place in both barrels and stainless steel tanks. The stainless steel allows the natural flavors of the grapes to shine, while the oak barrels impart aromas and flavors from spice to vanilla – depending on the how many times the barrel has been filled. This allows us to create a palette of flavors for blending.

A secondary, malolactic fermentation is used moderately. Known as “ML” for short, this process converts the tart malic acid (think Granny Smith apple) to the softer lactic acid (as in dairy products). The result is a creamy texture and butter-like flavor.

Aging comes next. As with fermentation, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars uses both barrels and stainless steel tanks for aging white wines in different combinations appropriate for the flavor style of each wine. Barrel aging for whites is known as sur lie. The wine remains in the barrel with the sediments and spent yeast cells (the lees). Periodic stirring (called battonage) is done by hand to redistribute the lees throughout the wine to enhance flavor, complexity, and body.