Barrel-Fermented Chardonnay:
Delicate Juice and Barrel United with Native Yeast

Chardonnay Grapes and Barrels
Chardonnay grapes and barrels in the cellar at Pisoni Family Vineyards. At the end of a day's harvest, the Chardonnay lifecycle begins with these two things: barrels and 100% pure chardonnay juice, nothing more.

We harvest our fruit at night so that the juice remains cold. After the rush of harvest, sorting, pressing, and cleaning—this is our reward: several barrels with 100% pure chardonnay juice.

The pressing of white grapes is critical. The three or four hours the grapes spend in the press determine the composition of the juice obtained from the fruit. Press too hard and you end up with an astringent, bitter chardonnay that may exhibit unevenly-balanced acidity and phenolics. Press too little, and you may not achieve enough texture, flavor, or lees—the grape solids that impact fermentation and complexity. Red grapes ferment with their skins and have days or weeks to extract and develop complexity through fermentation. With Chardonnay, we only have these few hours while the grapes are in the press to extract the perfect style of juice. Then, it’s only the juice and the barrel (and the extremely important lees).

Native fermentation is a very special process. Of course, any fermentation is special. But allowing juice to begin fermenting by itself, from ambient yeast, produces added dimensions of complexity and character. Working within this atmosphere is as liberating as it is challenging.

After we finish pressing, we send the juice to a tank designated for mixing that single press batch. Then we immediately transfer the juice to barrel.

This is the moment, out of all the hours we spend growing and crafting chardonnay, which I find most extraordinary and rewarding. Each harvest of chardonnay yields an average of five barrels for us, so every barrel is both singular and important. Once the press is finished and we’ve filled the barrels, we look at each closely and taste the pure juice it contains. At this stage, the juice is a beautiful light orange in color and completely still. There is no yeast activity at all. In fact, we have to wait several days for the yeast to develop a population large enough to start fermentation. During this period, I find myself walking past the barrels frequently, listening and looking to see if the yeast has begun its work. Every year—even after twenty years of practicing native fermentation—I feel a bit anxious as I wait for the yeast to get started. And every year, I eventually find myself rewarded.