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JF: (con'd) The 2006 Sauvignon Blanc is a combination of regular barrel fermentations with native yeast. The only time we use innoculated yeast is if we don't do a lot of skin contact, which is about 25-30% of our production. And then we do some stainless steel barrels, as well. The total is about 18-20% new French oak. We have certain amount of lees inclusion that we like to take from the settling tank of the juice during fermentation, and do battonage during fermentation (though it goes through no malolactic) and continue the battonage as long as the wine needs it. Sauvignon Blanc can be a reductive variety, so we want to make sure that we've worked the lees enough to release the complexity into the wine and also ensure that no reduction might start to occur.
NM: So, with the Sauvignon Blanc, you stirring the lees but ensuring the wine goes through no malolactic fermentation. Those two techniques arguably have somewhat similar results in a finished wine. How would you describe the the difference between them, and why choose one over the other?
JF: Stirring of the lees can give creaminess, fullness, and body to the wine. If you weren't stirring the lees at all, you might be able to get some of that through malolactic, but you're also going to get a different type of 'cream' because the process is changing the malic acid to lactic acid. And that changes the acid profile. So, if you're just stirring the lees without doing ML, you're building creaminess while still retaining acidity. Sauvignon Blanc is the one variety for me that if you walk through the vineyard and taste the fruit, the flavors you taste are actually what you ultimately get in the finished wine. Reds can be that way sometimes too, but with Sauvignon Blanc the connection is so direct. And the grape is often affected the most just by handling it, because it's so aromatic. So, we expose it to no oxygen at all during any part of the winemaking process since we don't want to lose those aromas. Because over time, though you gain a fuller palate and bottle bouquet, the aromatics do tend to round out a bit more. Sauvignon Blanc is very delicate. Whereas with Chardonnay, you can really push those limits. Chardonnay is such a winemaker's wine because there's so much done in the cellar that builds character.
"Sauvignon Blanc is the one variety that if you walk through the vineyard and taste the fruit, the flavors are what you get in the finished wine."
NM: Tell me about Chalk Hill's Chardonnay and what you're doing in the cellar to articulate the current style.
JF: Chardonnay, like I said, is a winemaker's grape; it's very often built in the cellar through things like batonnage and aging. In our Chardonnay, we do a great deal of lees incorporation. We put it all into the barrel and ferment from there, with lots of batonnage. It's a 100% native yeast fermentation, with 100% malolactic, in about 45% new French oak, with aging for about 10-12 months. Also, we don't fine or filter. The 2006 Chardonnay reached a natural clarity that was a little bit cloudier than we would have liked, but the wine is probably bigger because of it, since lees give texture and mouthfeel to a wine.
NM: I applaud the risk you took in finishing the wine with some cloudiness! My feeling is that when someone is willing to pay for a good bottle of Chardonnay, they don't need to be coddled into believing that the wine has to appear crystal clear. At this level of quality, some haze might actually play to your benefit.
JF: I'd love to have that information printed on all the back labels. Though right now, it is written on the 2006 Pinot Gris: "This wine is unfiltered and unfined to preserve its unique and natural character. A hazy appearance or light sediment indicates our gentle winemaking practices and our dedication to quality." And that's exactly what it is! I even tell people that when I get a great Chardonnay, one that really I like, and it's crystal clear like water, in my head I think, "How much better could this wine have been were it not filtered to make it so clear?" But there are really two camps: one in favor of filtering, the other against it. And the two can't argue with each other. You just have to decide if you're going to filter or not. If not, you figure out a way to make it work and to deal with all the consumer issues that might arise, which you're always dealing with anyway. This is what we believe in and what we're doing; it's about practicing minimal handling wherever we can. But you can also get a wine crystal clear just from fining alone. There are winemakers who don't even filter, but they heavily fine. And that can be more damaging to the wine than filtering it — I truly believe that! Either one, though, can be damaging if overused, because in both cases you're doing something to the wine: using pressure to push the wine through something tiny [with filtering] or adding something to it, which drops out a lot of compounds [with fining]. Of course, it all depends on how these things are done; if you're careful, they don't necessarily cause problems.