Three chardonnay makers

Chatting to a couple of chardonnay makers recently, I discovered that one likes sulphides in his wine and the other hates sulphides. They both make terrific wines, albeit in very different styles.

Not all sulphides are equal. There are good sulphides (mineral, struck flint) and bad sulphides (armpit, rotten egg, rotten garlic). Sulphides need a source of sulphur to form. That source can be copper sulphate spray residues or the hydrogen sulphide formed by yeasts that run out of nitrogen during fermentation. The formation of sulphides can be encouraged or discouraged.

I want to make chardonnay with precision, freshness and the ability to age. When a wine smells like a sulphur-reeking vineyard worker, it is too reductive.” – Michael Brajkovich MW

I chose a winemaker who doesn’t like sulphides in his chardonnay (Tony Bish of Sacred Hill and Tony Bish Wines), a winemaker who does like sulphides (James Healy of Dog Point Vineyards) and one who sits roughly between those two extremes (Michael Brajkovich MW of Kumeu River Wines).

I asked them to briefly talk about their approach to making chardonnay with particular reference to sulphides.

Tony Bish (Photo: Sacred Hill Wines)

Tony Bish – sulphide hater

Tony has a distinguished record as a producer of top chardonnay. The Sacred Hill 2016 Rifleman’s Chardonnay was recently voted top wine at the Six Nations Wine Challenge in Sydney. It doesn’t get much better than that. Tony Bish Wines is a chardonnay specialist.

“I have dabbled on the dark side but remain unconvinced about the presence of sulphides in chardonnay, particularly after recently returning from a trip to Burgundy. Burgundian winemakers feel that their chardonnay should reflect the character of the vineyard and that precious fingerprint should not be overridden by sulphide character or excessive oak.”

“New Zealand chardonnay has wonderful purity. That’s a considerable asset. Why blur it? I like to use high solids in the ferment and age my chardonnay in tight-grained well-seasoned oak to maintain subtlety and length. Texture is a big thing for me, which is why I’m excited about fermenting and ageing chardonnay in egg-shaped vessels made of concrete or oak.”

James Healy (Photo: Dog Point Vineyard)

James Healy – sulphide lover

“I’d rather drink a glass of poor sauvignon blanc than a soft, clean and boring chardonnay. For me, the greatest chardonnays have a textural character they get from reduction. Of course, it is possible to overdo the influence of reductive character which, when excessive, can give wine an unpleasantly hard texture.”

“We have organic vineyards and therefore only use copper-sulphate sprays. It’s important to judge the level of sulphur on the grapes, which varies from vintage to vintage. If there is a high risk of powdery mildew we might increase the spray program and boost sulphur levels. Wet weather can wash sulphur off the fruit decreasing levels. The amount of juice settling before fermentation can be varied to compensate for the level of sulphur on the grapes.”

“We press the grapes lightly to reduce the level of phenolics. We have reduced the amount of lees stirring to only twice in 18 months because too much air can prematurely age the wine. I think of the lees as a ghetto at the bottom of the barrel. When we stir it we are encouraging the ghetto inhabitants to rise up and gobble any remaining sugar in the wine. Our chardonnay is very dry as a result.”

“Heavily-toasted oak can give chardonnay a reductive-like character. We’ve backed off the use of new barrels – around 15% is about right for us.”

Michael Brajkovich MW (Photo: Kumeu River Wines)

Michael Brajkovich MW – somewhere in the middle

“I like a hint of reduction in my chardonnay – it helps to keep the wine fresh and demonstrates that it is not oxidised. I also like any reduction character to blow off when the bottle is opened. Sometimes it will do that when swirled in a glass or after being sloshed into a decanter. I want to make chardonnay with precision, freshness and the ability to age. When a wine smells like a sulphur-reeking vineyard worker, it is too reductive.”

“Hand-harvesting and whole-bunch pressing are very important quality factors in chardonnay production. We settle juice to get rid of heavy solids which can lead to high levels of reduction. I like the light and fluffy solids but reject the darker solids, which can be a source of spray residue, such as sulphur, leading to greater levels of reduction.”

“We rely on indigenous yeasts for fermentation. Nutrient levels in our grapes are good. We never need to add yeast food such as Diammonium Phosphate (DAP) which I call ‘yeast junk food’. Well-fed yeasts tend to result in lower sulphide levels.”

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