Chardonnay: The Golden Goddess in Your Own Garage

Home winemaking is a fun, collegial, and usually affordable hobby, but keep in mind that hobbies are meant for stimulation and relaxation. Unless you choose your hobbies by their masochistic frustration level, don’t select Chardonnay for your first foray into this otherwise wonderful craft. This is a tempting wine to make because we live in a region of great Chardonnay grapes and our excellent local winemakers have brought this varietal to such a consummate level.

Some home winemakers approach the task from a consumer standpoint, because as the quality of these excellent wines continues to rise, so do the Chardonnay prices. If you are prepared to be precise in your kitchen, basement, or garage home winery, here is what the experts say about making this golden goddess at home.

My professional authorities on the topic are: John Falcone, winemaker for Rusack Vineyards; Harry Hanson, winemaker for Edna Valley Vineyard; and Chris Whitcraft, winemaker/owner of Whitcraft Winery.

Chris contends that the challenge of Chardonnay is that as a white wine it should be chilled in tanks and pressed in enclosed presses, all to keep it from air (to avoid oxidation); it is more difficult to protect wine from oxygen in a home environment than in a commercial winery. White wines are less tolerant to oxidation than reds in general, though Harry believes Chardonnay is more resistant to oxidation than other whites such as Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc.

Once you’ve made the commitment to try your unstained hands at Chardonnay, how do you get those hands on the right grapes? John suggests finding a commercial wine you like, then checking the label or calling the winery to find out which vineyard it came from. If that fails, you can check the website from the Santa Barbara Vintners Association at www.sbcountywines.com for a list of growers to call and ask if you can purchase small quantities. (You need about 400-500 pounds of grapes to make a 30-gallon barrel of wine.)

Now that your grapes are home, the biggest challenge you’ll face as a home winemaker of Chardonnay is H2S – hydrogen sulfide – the dreaded rotten egg smell. Harry recommends supplementing the yeast you use for fermentation with Superfood to avoid the buildup of H2S during fermentation. Harry once erred in his trust of fermentation locks; the plastic water-filled tubing that inserts through a hole in the barrel bung cork to allow the bubbling out of CO2 gas and supposedly keep air from entering. “My error,” Harry explains, “was to suppose that a fermentation lock would keep my wine from getting oxygen. Not so, to my own dismay. I learned better later in life.”

What can you do if you do smell that dreaded H2S? Commercially, at Rusack, John uses sterile copper pipe inside his racking hoses (hoses that transfer wine from barrel to barrel during ageing) to bind any errant H2S, but he too is conscientious about prevention of leaks or of air getting into the wine. Fixing it afterwards for home winemakers usually involves pouring the wine over copper wire pads (without soap) that are sold to scrub pots and pans.

All three of our experts agree that the most common error made by home winemakers is adding improper amounts of SO2.This is sulfur dioxide, usually a preservative that winemakers add. John reminds us that, “Too many home wine lots have been ruined by guessing how much SO2 to add.”

You can avoid those mistakes by reading and following the instructions on a good home winemaking book, such as “The Way to Make Wine: How to Craft Superb Table Wines at Home,” by Sheridan Warrick, or “Home Winemaking Step-by-Step,” by Jon Iverson. You can also follow the free tutorial at geocorn@finevinewines.com, where you can also purchase all your winemaking supplies, bottles, and yeasts. You can do simple wine chemical analysis at home or send samples of your wine to commercial wine labs such as www.lodiwinerylaboratory.com to get advice about the chemistry of your wine and about what to add.

Because professional winemakers ferment their wines in 60-gallon or larger oak barrels, home winemakers need to adjust for barrel size if they are looking to match taste. Many of us like that oaky, toasty, butterscotch tone in our Chardonnay, but over-oaked Chard loses its finesse. The home winemaker will usually use 30-gallon barrels or smaller because larger barrels are impossible to move without heavy equipment.

“Aging time in small cooperage (barrels) needs to be thought about carefully,” Harry cautions, noting however that, “it is worth the effort because Chardonnay marries with oak in a way that the other whites don't.”

A less expensive way to age your wine in oak is to age it in glass bottles (like the old glass Arrowhead water cooler five gallon bottles) using commercial oak chips. Harry warns that using oak chips is a reasonable way to get the oak flavor without the expense of the oak barrel (about $400 for a 30-gallon oak barrel) but because the oak from chips extracts out very quickly, some percentage of the wine should probably be aged without the chips to avoid the oak flavors being too dominant in the final blend.

Overall, when considering home winemaking of Chardonnay, consider Chris’s final words on the subject: “Why make a worse wine than you can buy for less money? Start small and go slow. Use common sense and never put in or use anything that smells bad!”

We’ll drink to that, Chris.