Waking Up Chardonnay

Waking Up Chardonnay
There is always something new to learn about where wine is concerned. I’d never heard about the ceremony called Waking Up before but it is one of those ancient practises that modern winemakers are rediscovering and adopting.

Waking up is the term they use for disturbing wine sleeping in barrel after fermentation.

It is fashionable, although expensive and labour intensive, to ferment wine in small oak barrels. These barrels have 225 or 300 litre capacity (containing enough to fill 300 or 400 wine bottles). Contact with wood during and after fermentation gives the wine more of the oak characteristics which many consider desirable – with Chardonnay you get vanilla, oak and buttery flavours.

And there’s other layers of complexity produced by waking up. Fermentation is caused by yeast feeding on sugars in grape juice. As the yeast feeds it divides and multiplies giving off carbon dioxide as it produces alcohol. When all the sugars are consumed the yeast has nothing left to eat and dies, falling to the bottom of the container. Usually winemakers ‘rack’ the wine, by siphoning off the wine while leaving behind the layer of dead yeast.

But often, in white wines and especially Chardonnay, they leave the wine for some time on top of the dead yeast – which in French is known as ‘lees’.

The dead yeast cells – which look like grey grit – begin to decay and mysteriously add flavour and contribute to texture (the feel you get in your mouth when you drink a glass). They also soften the wine by absorbing oxygen and tannins gained from the oak.

So there is a layer of dead yeast along the bottom curved edge of the barrel which is lying on its side. The wine is sitting on the lees but getting benefit of the yeast only at the top of the layer. So winemakers like to agitate the gritty yeast so all the wine comes into contact with it.

The usual way of doing this is to open the bung hole, insert a stick, pole or other implement and vigorously stir the sediment, a process known in French as batonnage after ‘baton’, their word for a rod. But opening the bung hole lets in oxygen and disturbs the layer of carbon dioxide which sits protectively over the top of the wine.

Waking up the wine means to roll the barrel along the floor. This way it isn’t opened and the dead yeast is distributed around inside the barrel. Winemakers says Waking Up the wine in this way gives a more creamy flavour and texture and thus a better wine.

Because of the cost of barrels (around $700 for French oak) and the time effort involved you will unfortunately have to pay a little more for wines that have had this treatment.

Have you tried a barrel fermented Chardonnay? Share your thoughts on it on our forum by clicking the icon to the right

Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.

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