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Living the Still Life

Chandon is known the world over for our renowned sparkling wines, but we also produce some of the finest still wines you can imagine. We recently sat down with Joel Burt, Assistant Winemaker, Still Wines, to learn more about what it takes to craft award-winning Napa Valley Pinots and Chardonnays.

Joel Burt - Domaine Chandon Assistant Winemaker, Still Wines

Domaine Chandon is known for the exquisite, wide-range of sparkling wines we craft in the Champagne tradition. Meanwhile, we have also developed a not-so-secret treasure of sorts – our still wines. On the same Carneros property from which we harvest sparkling wine grapes, we also produce nuanced, complex Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay wines.

While these still wines are produced in small batch quantities, they’re making a name for themselves. Wine Spectator awarded our 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir 90 points, and we’re equally excited about the 2009 vintage. Assistant Winemaker Joel Burt, who’s leading this charge, sat down with us to discuss his philosophy and approach, starting with the new Pinot vintage.

“I’m really happy with it. It was a good vintage, without a lot of heat spikes, so we were able to let the fruit get perfectly ripe. It was also the first year 100% open top tanks were used, and the wines are showing so much more complexity from that."

Joel likened Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to an open book. “They tell no lies. You can see everything.” He adds, “If you want to make a complex Pinot Noir, you have to use small lots, and it takes meticulous care.”

The tops? Open. The clusters? Whole. The fermentation? Native. Joel uses small-lot techniques such as open-top tanks, whole-cluster, native fermentation. He and his team transfer fruit that has entire berry clusters into small, open tanks, then lets naturally-occuring yeast gradually move the fermentation process along. “Our whole lot size is 25 or 30 barrels. In a closed top fermenter, it’d be two or three times that, and the wine gets pumped over the top, macerating a lot of the berries.”

Joel’s goal is to handle the wine as gently as possible, preserving fresh, pure fruit flavors. Another way he achieves this is through natural fermentation, as opposed to the more common inoculated fermentation, which is stronger, faster and more vigorous. “Utilizing native yeasts on the grapes’ skin and stems gives a lot of complex flavor, as well as another two days to work the wine without alcohol in there, to extract more color and get a complex, round win

Crafting sparkling vs. still wine
Joel works side-by-side with the sparkling wine team, but his process varies from theirs a great deal. “With sparkling wine, you’re bottling constantly, moving wine around. With still wines, my style is not to work with the wine at all, with no racking or blending until we bottle,” he explains.

For Joel, the artistry lies in the grapes you grow more than what you do with them once picked. His ideal grape is different from, say, Sparkling Winemaker Tom Tiburzi’s. “We’re keeping the berry size really small, with one or two clusters per shoot for a low yield. We give a lot of sun exposure, so the grapes get nice, thick skins. Whereas, on the sparkling side, they want larger berries without a lot of tannin or color.”

Three varietals, one simple philosophy
When we asked Joel about his approach, he emphasized a need to be patient and gentle with the wine, to “put it in the barrel and pretty much leave it there.” He goes on to explain what he loves about each wine he crafts:

Pinot Noir: “You can get huge mid-palate with nice richness and fruitiness, but getting that darker element into the mix that holds the palate together is the most fun. I’m looking to make these wines nice and complex.”
Pinot Meunier: “With whole cluster fermentation, you produce really nice aromas and flavors, and the stems add a little spiciness—some cinnamon, some bay and a bit of tannin.”
Chardonnay: “I’m a diehard fan, and I like them in the citrus profile similar to white Burgundy. It’s a lot of fun playing with our vineyard in Carneros, because we get fruit that shows those characteristics I like to emphasize.”