Understanding élevage: the raising of our 2012 Chardonnay

by on October 17, 2012

Chardonnay élevage has begun in our cellars, and it brings back special memories for me. During my time in Burgundy working with the winemaking team at the Maison Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, I was specifically tasked with the responsibility of monitoring the fermentations of more than 1,000 barrels of Chardonnay from roughly 90 individual vineyard blocks along the Côte d’Or, as well as regions farther south. With a soft spot in my heart for the production and enjoyment of Chardonnays that are true expressions of terroir, I can’t explain the excitement and satisfaction I get from spending time in the Jordan barrel room where our Russian River Chardonnay is raised–a process called “élevage” in French. But what I can share with you is the process by which our Chardonnay goes through this élevage, which is nearly identical (aside from chaptalization, or addition of sugar, that is allowed in France) to the Burgundian method I was trained under.

After the gentle pressing of the Chardonnay grapes and making the cuts as detailed in a previous blog post on the art of press cuts, the fractions are separated in their respective temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks for a 24-hour settling process. During this settling, gravity will pull much of the remaining suspended solids (tiny portions of grape pulp and skins) in the juice to the bottom of the tank. The settling process is important, as the composition of the juice will greatly affect the quality and success of the fermentation process.

The settling period is also the most appropriate time for winemaker Rob Davis to intervene with any treatments, as the juice at this point is much more malleable than the post-fermentation wine. Due to the varying composition of each press cut, each treatment, if any, will be specifically tailored to the needs of that tank. One such treatment is a “rack and aeration” in which the Chardonnay juice is racked, or removed, from the solids that had settled to the bottom, and is deliberately aerated as it is transferred to a new tank. This aeration is employed for multiple reasons, but most importantly, to introduce just enough oxygen to promote the production of ergosterols, a natural component of yeast cells, which are essential in the yeast completing the fermentation of all the sugar present in the juice over to alcohol. This production is only available to the yeast during the first part of the fermentation.

Just as the fermentation is beginning, the juice will be transferred to a combination of new and used French oak barrels, the percentage of which depends on the delicacy of that vintage’s aromatics. The temperature of these 59-gallon barrels is maintained by the ambient room temperature, allowing the fermentations to be carried out at a pace that protects and maximizes the varietal fruit character of our Russian River Chardonnay. These barrels are monitored daily to ensure that flavor and aromatic profiles are within our quality standards. At completion of this primary fermentation, the resulting liquid has become wine and is no longer termed “juice.”

Once the juice has become wine, the secondary (malolactic) fermentation is then gently encouraged. During malolactic fermentation, specific bacteria convert the tart, Granny Smith apple-like malic acid into the softer, less acidic lactic acid. We employ this process conservatively, however, typically terminating the secondary fermentation at only 35% completion, allowing us to bring balance between the bright acidity and fruit expression, while keeping the wine precise and linear. The Chardonnay remains in the barrel for only five months. During two of these months, the wine is left on the lees (spent yeast cells that fall to the bottom of the barrel), and bâttonage (the stirring of these lees) is only performed over a period of five weeks, just enough to develop a creamy mid-palate on the wine’s mouthfeel. Soon, our cellars will be filled with the cadence of metal bâttonage batons rocking inside the barrels to stir the lees, as Rob described in this 2011 video post. The finished wine is then bottled and matured in our cellars for about one year before its release.

Our inspiration for the Jordan Russian River Chardonnay is the great wines of Puligny-Montrachet and Meursault, and we believe it would be a shame to dull the beautiful fruit aromatics and minerality of our cru-quality fruit with new-world production trends involving excessive malolactic fermentation and oak aging.