A 'New Way to Chardonnay'

George Unc, an assistant winemaker at Wolffer Estate, discusses the winery’s brandy-making process. Jamie Bufalino

For those practiced in the art of making wine, the chardonnay grape is considered a blank canvas. Because it has a neutral flavor, “you can put your stamp on it,” said Roman Roth, a winemaker and partner of Wolffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack who uses the grape to produce a classic white Burgundy-style wine, a dessert wine, and, as of late 2018, a brandy. 

To promote these and showcase the grape’s versatility, the winery recently offered barrel tastings of both the brandy and the 2017 chardonnays under the heading “a new way to chardonnay.”

Since the grape acclimates easily to different regions, it is grown worldwide, but the wines produced from it will vary greatly depending on the location of the vintners, Mr. Roth said last week. In central California, for instance, the fruit ripens quickly and develops higher sugar levels, which, after fermentation, will result in a wine with a higher alcohol content. “People have gotten tired of the heavy, oaky, rich, alcoholic monsters,” he said. 

“The conditions on the East End make the grapes ripen slowly and get interesting, and they age slow and steady,” he said. Wolffer’s Perle Chardonnay is an example of a wine that, he said, proves “less is more.” 

Mr. Roth also uses the chardonnay grape to make the Diosa Late Harvest ice wine, a dessert wine made from frozen grapes. The fruit’s natural acidity provides a welcome balance to ice wine’s inherent sweetness. “You want acidity in a dessert wine, otherwise it’s too cloying,” he said.

In Germany, winemakers are required by law to leave ice wine grapes on the vine until the temperature drops to -7 degrees Celsius (19 degrees Fahrenheit). That process wouldn’t work on the East End, he said, because much of the harvest would be lost by the time such cold weather set in. 

“We pick the grapes as late as possible, waiting until they are golden and ripe, and we put them into a freezer house at 10 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Mr. Roth. “That way you don’t lose your best berries.” 

The winery recently introduced a new product made from the chardonnay grape, a limited-edition brandy. “We used our best grapes to make it,” said Mr. Roth, who has been allowing the spirit to age in Hungarian oak barrels since 2014, and decided last year to produce a little more than 600 bottles to celebrate Wolffer Estate’s 30th anniversary. Given the small size of the batch, “there was no room for error,” he said. “The grapes were so pure and delicious to start with, my only concern was would I overdo it and make it too smoky.” Careful monitoring of the aging process prevented such a misstep, and the brandy has proved to be popular with customers. “There are only 50 bottles left,” said Mr. Roth. “But we’ll be making more next winter.”