Two Styles of Chardonnay, Plus Chardonel

Eastern Winery Exposition offers multiple approaches to the popular white wine

by Linda Jones McKee
eastern winery exposition chardonnay chardonel wine
Winemakers participating in the roundtable discussion about rich and full-bodied Chardonnay included Lindsay Stevens (from left) of King Ferry Winery, Matthew Meyer of Williamsburg Winery and Chris Pearmund of Pearmund Cellars.
Lancaster, Pa.—To be considered by customers, restaurants and distributors, many wineries include at least one Chardonnay on their wine list. The variety has a number of clones and can be grown reasonably successfully in climates from warm to hot to cool. With its mild flavors, Chardonnay wines can be made in a range of styles. So it comes as no surprise that Chardonnay is a popular topic at wine conferences. This year’s Eastern Winery Exposition, held March 8-10 in Lancaster, Pa., included two winemaker roundtable discussions about Chardonnay: one covering the “elegant, fresh” style, and a second about the “rich, full-bodied” style. A third session looked at Chardonel, a New York hybrid of Chardonnay and Seyval, that is similar in flavors to its Chardonnay parent, while being easier to grow, more cold tolerant and often more productive.

eastern winery exposition chardonnay chardonel wine
Roundtable No. 1: elegant, fresh-style Chardonnay
Three winemakers spoke at the first Chardonnay winemakers’ roundtable about the fresh, elegant style: Juan E. Micieli-Martinez, winemaker and general manager at Martha Clara Vineyards in Riverhead, N.Y.; Shep Rouse, winemaker and owner of Rockbridge Vineyard in Raphine, Va.; and Thomas Bachelder, who makes wine in Oregon, Niagara, Ontario, and Burgundy, France, as part of his Trois Terroirs project.

Micieli-Martinez noted that eastern Long Island has a maritime climate, which he believes is getting warmer, and that makes it easy to grow grapes for the most part (a major exception is rain and hurricanes during harvest). Martha Clara Vineyard’s Chardonnay grapes are estate-grown, although in years with poor fruit set, the winery has purchased fruit grown in New York’s Finger Lakes region.

He commented that his goal for the winery’s Island Series Chardonnay is “a fruit-driven, stainless steel-fermented wine highlighting ripe Chardonnay characteristics and a touch of creaminess. I want the fruit to be balanced with mouth-watering acidity.” He believes some of the creaminess on the palate comes from sur lie aging (three to four months) and sometimes a gram or two of residual sugar for added richness. Throughout the winemaking process, he tries to reduce the amount of oxygen contact and to minimize movement of the wine. Micieli-Martinez bottles the wine in late spring and prefers to bottle-age the wine a minimum of six to nine months before release.

Rockbridge Vineyard in Raphine, Va., is in the Appalachian Mountains about 50 minutes west of Charlottesville, Va. The 18 acres of grapes at the winery are planted at between 1,900 and 2,000 feet elevation, but Shep Rouse prefers to purchase his Chardonnay from two other vineyards. The vineyard in Rockbridge County, which produced 69% of the Chardonnay, is on limestone derived clay loam at 1,500 feet, while another vineyard in Nelson County (on granite-derived clay loam at 700 feet) grew the balance of the grapes.

Rouse prefers to whole-cluster press Chardonnay, as he believes that low pH, high-acid grapes such as his Chardonnay yield a crisper, tighter wine when handled that way, but the throughput isn’t as great. Consequently, with the 2013 Chardonnay, 85% of the grapes were crushed and pressed immediately, while the remaining 15% were whole-cluster pressed to add a touch of the style that Rouse likes. The Rockbridge County juice was fermented in stainless steel, while the Nelson County juice was put into neutral, reconditioned French oak barrels from California. About 12% of the barrel wine was fermented with 2 g/L of Stavin medium-toast American oak beans dumped into the barrels to add a limited oak flavor to a basically fresh-style wine.

The resulting wine was bottled in May 2014 using screwcap bottles. “I consider screwcap bottles to be one of the great inventions for white wine,” Rouse noted. “It gives you consistency of product, bottle to bottle; it gives double the shelf life, and they’re easy to open.”

Many winemakers (especially east of the Rockies) make wine from a number of different varieties of grapes and in styles ranging from dry to sweet. Thomas Bachelder is unique in that his goal is to make terroir-specific wines from two varieties—Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—in three locations: Burgundy, Oregon and the Niagara peninsula of Ontario. Bachelder is primarily interested in making wines that reflect their terroir. He uses the same techniques he developed in Burgundy and the same barrel vendors in all three locations because he believes that the Burgundian techniques and the right barrels reveal the terroir and result in wines that best express the local soil, aspect and climate.

Because of Niagara’s Dolomitic limestone soils mixed with silty-clay and its continental climate, the region is similar to Burgundy and, according to Bachelder, has “all the conditions for making complex, sinewy European-style wines. Niagara’s Chardonnays rival Burgundy’s for delicate fruit and flinty, stony minerality.” He doesn’t consider his barrel-fermented Chardonnays to be “oaked,” only “barrel-fermented, and whatever you do from there determines the style of the wine.” His inspiration is a Côte de Beaune-style Chardonnay, because that lets everyone know what you are doing: “It means pouring the juice in the barrel, letting it ferment with wild yeast and hauling it out 16 months later.” The important factor is to buy new barrels from the correct forest, with the correct age of air drying and level of toast. “That gives you a pleasant flavor,” he continued, “that enhances the terroir.”

Bachelder also noted that wild yeast fermentations often take longer to finish. However, once the malolactic fermentation finishes, the sugar will go as well. With grapes in the East often being high in total acidity, dropping out the malolactic can improve the overall balance of the wine while leaving it tight, fresh and with the ability to last.

eastern winery exposition chardonnay chardonel wine
Roundtable No. 2: rich, full-bodied style Chardonnay
The second Chardonnay roundtable discussion featured three winemakers who talked about making Chardonnay wines that are rich and full-bodied: Matthew Meyer, winemaker at Williamsburg Winery in Williamsburg, Va.; Lindsay Stevens, winemaker at King Ferry Winery in King Ferry, N.Y.; and Chris Pearmund, winemaker and president of Pearmund Cellars in Broad Run, Va.

The goal of Matthew Meyer, Williamsburg Winery’s winemaker, is to make their Acte 12 Chardonnay with layers of flavors. The first step in the process is to source Chardonnay from all over Virginia. The grapes are cold stored for a minimum of 12 hours, then put through the crusher/destemmer into the press. The resulting juice goes into the tank for a three-day cold settling, after which it is racked off the lees. When fermentation has depleted the sugar by approximately one-third, the fermenting wine is divided into three lots: 57% goes into a combination of French, American and Hungarian oak barrels; 28% into stainless steel tanks, and 15% into a concrete egg.

After eight months, the wine is blended, cross-flow filtered and bottled. Williamsburg Winery is one of Virginia’s largest wineries and produces 54,000 cases per year, according to Wines Vines Analytics. Meyer made about 1,000 cases of the Acte 12 Chardonnay. He also makes a Vintage Reserve Chardonnay, which is barrel-aged in French and Hungarian oak, and the John Adlum Chardonnay, made from grapes from Washington state and fermented in stainless steel.

King Ferry Winery’s Lindsay Stevens uses a blend of traditional methods and new techniques when she makes their Treleaven barrel-fermented Chardonnay. The vineyard was originally planted in 1984 on the east side of Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The vines are on gravely loam on a western-facing slope that is relatively well drained. By Finger Lakes standards, the vines are relatively old, and the Chardonnay currently yields about 3.3 tons per acre. Stevens stated, “The older blocks ripen earlier than the younger ones and have lower yields. We selectively pick the older grapevines to try to prevent problems with phenolics.” Fermenting in barrels gives her small containers for multiple small batches of the same grapes picked at different times.

The grapes are crushed and destemmed into a bladder press and pressed in a three-hour cycle. The following morning, the juice is floatation-racked to process out the juice solids; it is inoculated with yeast as it goes into the barrels. Typically the barrels are one-third American oak, one-third French oak and one-third Hungarian oak in each juice press lot. After 10 months of aging and undergoing a complete malolactic fermentation, the wine in each barrel is tasted and sorted into two different styles “In the Reserve Chardonnay I’m looking for a mouth-filling, long and rich Chardonnay that expresses both fruit character and cleanness from the fruit, and also depth and concentration from barrel aging and creaminess from the malolactic fermentation.” She added, “I want to see the barrel aging increase complexity to stand alongside the inherent fruit character and lift it into something more than the sum of its parts.”

Chris Pearmund’s goal for his Chardonnay is to create a wine with a mosaic of flavors. The first Chardonnay vines at Pearmund Cellars were planted in 1976, and many of those old vines have had problems with Eutypa and leafroll. By adding new vines between the surviving old ones, he now has a field mix of 13 clones of Chardonnay—the first step in his multiplicity of flavors. When it is time for harvest, Pearmund says, “I treat the berries like red wine grapes. I pick based on flavor, ripeness, seed color, skin texture, phenolic ripeness and how the berry feels when it loses some of the freshness of the acidity.”

The barrels are French oak and acacia from seven different coopers, and Pearmund ferments and ages the wine sur lie for nine to 10 months. Another layer of complexity comes from the eight yeast strains and three malolactic strains that he uses. The result is a Chardonnay that is halfway between an Old World style and one from the New World.

eastern winery exposition chardonnay chardonel wine
Chardonel: the cost-effective alternative to Chardonnay
The session on the New York hybrid Chardonel featured a winery in an area of Virginia known as the Northern Neck, which extends southeast of Washington, D.C., between the Potomac River to the northeast, the Chesapeake Bay to the east, and the Rappahannock River to the southwest. Grapes were first planted at The Hague Winery in Hague, Va., by owners Steve and Cynthia Madey in 2005 on sandy loam soils that had been farmed for 170 years. The Madeys planted four vinifera varieties—Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Muscat Ottonel and Petit Verdot—as well as Chardonel.

Why did Steve Madey plant Chardonel when he could easily have planted Chardonnay in his climate? “We decided to have one hybrid to spread the risk with the vinifera plantings,” Madey noted. The Virginia Tech Agricultural Experiment Station in Winchester, Va., recommended the variety, and reported that the vineyard at the experiment station averaged 4.6 tons per acre of Chardonel with an average pH of 3.36. Mabey planted a total of 6,000 vines on 5 acres, with a 3.5-foot x 9-foot spacing, and all are cane pruned and VSP trained. The vines were purchased from Double A Vineyards in Fredonia, N.Y., and the Chardonel is on 3309 rootstock.

After 10 years of growing grapes, Madey said that his site was very vigorous in spite of the length of time it has been farmed. “The vinifera vines require plenty of shoot thinning and leaf pulling, while the Chardonel just goes about its business with much less labor required during the growing season,” he stated. Chardonel usually breaks bud second of all his varieties, and he often harvests the Chardonel by the second week in September, although it has a fairly wide window on the harvest date. His Chardonel has produced around 5 tons per acre each year, with at least 22.5° Brix and a pH of 3.2 or less.

After harvesting, Madey takes his grapes to Michael Shaps Wineworks south of Charlottesville for processing. The Chardonel is fermented to dryness, and part of the wine is blended with a small amount of Muscat Ottonel for a fruity style, and the remainder has about 5% Petit Manseng added to create a drier style of wine. Madey plans to try some different styles with Chardonel in the future: He wants to ferment the juice in barrels and do a sur lie wine. He stated, “I think Chardonel can become a serious varietal rather than a base blender or a picnic wine with some residual sugar.”

He noted that the downside to Chardonel is that, as a hybrid, the sales price per bottle is lower than for vinifera wines. Then he added, “But we get almost twice as much fruit, consistently, with less hand labor.” Mabey continued, “We grow grapes in a hot climate where acid retention would normally be a challenge, but that hasn’t been an issue with Chardonel. The fruit has consistently had a great sugar/acid balance. If we were to do it over again, we’d plant more of it.”

The second speaker at the Chardonel session was Dr. Joseph Fiola, extension specialist in viticulture and small fruit at the University of Maryland, who has grown Chardonel in experimental vineyards in several sites in Maryland. He noted that in his experience, Chardonel has “superior viticultural characteristics and is easier to manage in the vineyard than Seyval or Chardonnay.” Fiola stressed that Chardonel vines should be grafted to phylloxera-resistant rootstocks, especially in places like Virginia, and possibly in any vineyards south of New York. Lucie Morton, a nationally known viticulturist from Virginia (who was in the audience), noted that both Chardonel and Traminette seem to be resistant to Pierce’s disease (PD), while Vidal is not doing so well in areas known to have PD present.

Fiola noted that Chardonel wines, in his experience, have always been made in a dry “Chardonnay” style. He has made Chardonel in multiple styles, including in glass carboy fermentation with no oak; in glass carboy fermentation with oak chips and/or barrel aging; and with fermentation in barrels. His preference is for barrel fermentation with battonage. At some point, he would like to try picking the grapes at 19° Brix and then making a sparkling Chardonel.

In summary, Fiola would highly recommend Chardonel, especially in difficult, hot environments. Its disease resistance is better than that of either parent (Seyval or Chardonnay); its yield is almost twice that of Chardonnay; it consistently requires less hand labor, and the resulting wine can (with effort) be comparable to Chardonnay.

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