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A Winemaker's Journal

Chardonnay: A Wine in Three Acts

By Elias Fernandez

When I graduated from the winemaking program at U.C. Davis back in 1984, white wine was king, outselling bottles of red wine two to one. And the white varietal that outshone them all was Chardonnay.

Back then Chardonnay was planted throughout Napa Valley including the warmer areas of Calistoga and Pope Valley, resulting in grapes that tended toward a browner color and lower acidity. At harvest we crushed the white varieties the same way we do reds, meaning that the juice picked up tannins from the skins, giving the wine a tendency toward oxidation. To get any crispness winemakers had to add acid to these otherwise flabby, formless wines.

We fermented in large stainless steel tanks and aged in oak barrels that were often several years old.

When it comes to this style of winemaking, I don’t yearn for the past at all.

By the late 1980s, winemakers here started looking to the white wines of Burgundy for inspiration and two things started to change. First we began seeing more Chardonnay being fermented and aged in oak and especially in new oak barrels. Second came an explosion in the number of Chards being put through malolactic (ML) fermentation.

I liked the layers of flavors that came with more time in oak, but I wasn’t a fan of ML. The reason Burgundian vintners relied on this second fermentation (which converts malic acid in the wine to lactic acid) is because they grow their fruit in a colder climate and have to pick earlier when the acidity in the fruit is still quite high.

At Shafer in the late 1980s we pulled out all our Chardonnay in Stags Leap District and re-planted in the Valley’s southernmost growing area called Los Carneros. Here in the coolest part of the region we picked fruit that was very ripe yet still maintained clean acidity. We’ve never knocked that crispness back with malolactic fermentation. Instead we age our Chardonnay on the lees, that is the yeast the caused fermentation, giving it a rich creamy mouthfeel.

By the late 1990s consumers were starting to fall for the liveliness of Sauvingon Blanc and were turning away from the oaky, buttery style that had once been all the rage. There was even the ABC movement (Anything But Chardonnay).

Winemakers, including myself, began to think we might find the best of both worlds (the 70s/early 80s and the late 80s/90s) by reintroducing some stainless steel fermentation into the process.

Today you’ll find is a full range of Chardonnay styles. At one extreme are the new “unoaked” Chardonnays, meaning they ferment and age in stainless steel only, with not a whiff of oak or secondary fermentation. At the other end of the scale some wineries are still finding big success with the buttery, malolactic style. Here at Shafer we’ve begun to age 20 percent of our Chardonnay in stainless steel barrels, which I’m finding brings in a nice steely edge to our otherwise lush, exotic aromas and flavors