Have you heard of Black Chardonnay?
Black Chardonnay is not what you think; it has everything to do with how the wine is made. Traditionally, Chardonnay is a pale golden color and is made with a gentle hand.
So, let’s break this mysterious wine down. The technique that is used to make Black Chardonnay has been long forgotten over the years. This form of winemaking purposely hyper-oxides the wine, causing it to take on a dark, cloudy brown hue that appears almost black. Eventually, the wine returns to that beautiful golden color we all know and love.
Wine makers will pump and mix the unfermented juice very quickly and aggressively, rather than handling the grapes gently. The grape skins release phenols (organic compounds) that absorb oxygen until they turn a shade of deep brown. When it sits in the press, the organic compounds separate from the wine.
Jon Flores, the assistant winemaker at Sunstone Winery, says, “The idea is to fully saturate the juice with oxygen using either food-grade oxygen directly pumped into the juice via a Venturi or to use agitation. To achieve this, we eliminate SO2 from the processing stage and use a pump-over tool to introduce oxygen to the juice on its way from the press to the receiving tank. Think of this like a big fan that disperses the juice along the sides of the tank, picking up oxygen in the process and on its way down the sides.”
In the end, the result is a white wine that has fewer unoxidized phenols than traditional Chardonnay. However, unless closely watched, side effects can happen. Fermentation can move quickly; added oxygen creates a good environment for yeast to start working so the makers need to pay attention to the ferments.
The reason behind making Chardonnay this way is to prevent premature wine oxidation. This process exposes the wine to air before it’s fermented. This allows the wine to become bulletproof and hopefully age longer. Winemakers are unable to control how wine is stored once it leaves the property. This gives them the security that it’ll be in mint condition when the consumer decides to have a glass.
Even though this is a different process than regular Chardonnay, it has a somewhat similar end taste and color. The taste is less bitter and sweeter than a normal Chardonnay. Jon adds, “Generally there won’t be an immediate difference in flavor profiles but since the wine has been stripped of a lot of polyphenol oxidase you may notice the wine is more fragrant and fresher than the same wine without having been put through the hyper-ox process.”
Winemakers have to allow it to turn as dark as possible before the seeds are filtered out. “Throughout the process, we measure dissolved oxygen to ensure we are not doing too much or too little saturation. Over the course of an hour or so, the oxygen comes out of the solution and the measurement goes back to normal.” Jon continues,” We repeat this process once or twice before allowing the tank to settle. During this process, the juice will turn a dark brown color (depending on how many polyphenols are available) and the color returns to normal in a day or two.”
Will Black Chardonnay become a trend for 2021? It’s a common practice in other regions but is now gaining popularity in the U.S. According to Jon, there are three reasons why it will.
“First, this is a great action to take if you’re shooting for a Sans Soufre wine. Secondly, with more wine being shipped internationally, the added stability and longevity make it a great selling point to distributors or retailers. Lastly, it is much simpler to process grapes if you’re able to eliminate adding sulfur, gas tanks, and being overly stressed on preventing oxygen from getting into the tank.”