It’s so simple.
To best understand Chatham Vineyards at Church Creek, taste its Steel Chardonnay.
Steel Chard is Chatham in a bottle. No one thing defines it. It’s 100 things or more, a wine that distinctly reflects its terroir.
“It’s very humbling because our most successful wine is what I do the least to,” says Jon Wehner, vintner at Chatham Vineyards along with his wife, Mills. “It is truly made in the vineyard.”
Marine deposits in the deep, well-drained soils that are essentially ocean bed. Bleached out oyster shells. A moderate maritime climate influenced by both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. First-generation French clones that date back to 1999. A vertical trellis system. High density planting. Cane pruning.
After whole cluster pressing, the grape juice is chilled overnight at 35 degrees. It’s racked, inoculated with yeast and then fermented and aged in stainless steel, temperature-control with limited oxygen.
“When you ferment in stainless steel, you’re capturing the pure essence of the grape — the flavor, the vineyard, the terroir — unlike aging it in oak barrels,” Jon says.
Chatham Steel Chardonnay reminds us that more is not always better. In this case, there’s not more oak; there’s no oak. Typically, malolactic fermentation is preferred as it takes off the edge of the wine’s acidity to soften the taste on the palate.
“I don’t allow the wine to go to malolactic fermentation,” Jon says. “I keep the wine cold to keep malolactic fermentation from happening. That creates a leaner and more angular wine with sharper, fresher, more crisp acidity. Stylistically, it’s a clean, fresh, tropical, unadulterated Chardonnay. It captures the essence of this place.”
It’s a simple process discovered through happenstance in 2004 with Jon and Mills; his parents, Harrison and Joan; and Lucie Morton, the viticulturist who recommended which clones to plant in those early years of Chatham seated around the kitchen table. Jon pulled tank and barrel samples of the Chardonnay to taste.
After sampling both, Joan Wehner suggested they not blend the two together to make one oak Chardonnay.
“These are two completely different wines. Why don’t you just keep them separate?”
That made sense. In addition to the distinct taste, the Steel Chardonnay would actually serve as an educational tool. Virginia’s Eastern Shore takes pride in its seafood culture. Nothing goes with Chatham’s Steel Chard better than seafood.
What grows together goes together, merroir-terroir on the Shore. The grape clones in the Steel Chardonnay grow just 300 yards from Church Creek Cork™ oysters.
The vineyard actually overlooks the oyster beds through a tree line. Chatham Steel Chardonnay is a clean signature expression of the varietal and the Eastern Shore terroir.
Terroir and merroir weekends — Chatham wine and local oysters — never fail to attract big numbers. Chatham will host its final Winter Wine and Oyster Weekend on March 18-19, which pairs a half dozen oysters with a glass of Chatham wine.
While many other wineries have their own version of Steel Chardonnay, “You can’t replicate what we’re doing here,” Jon says. “You can call it the same thing. But it’s not the same thing. And that’s because of 100 things. The Steel Chard is like a Rubik’s Cube of this place, and that’s what makes it so incredible.”
Shortly after the inaugural vintage, Jon and several other Virginia winemakers flew out to Napa Valley for an East Meets West winetasting. Asked to highlight their most expressive wines, Jon talked about Chatham’s Steel Chardonnay. He was pleasantly surprised when recently named Winemaker of the Year Steve Matthiasson later tweeted that the Steel Chard was his favorite among the Virginia wines.
“That was very enlightening to me because at that time, it reaffirmed I needed to be myself and not try to be Napa,” Jon says. “It reminded me to enjoy the journey of what we’re doing.
“If you want to taste the soul of Chatham Vineyards, taste the Steel Chardonnay. It’s a great summary of who we are and where we live. It’s simply Chatham.”