Winemaking at Bouchaine Vineyards in Carneros, Napa Valley is a dynamic process where diversity is created by tailoring vinification and cellar practices to the individual vineyard lots. Nonetheless, there is a basic procedure that defines our philosophical approach and establishes a reference for operations uniquely suited to each fermentation lot. The goal is to extract and retain all of the color and flavor that is delivered in the grapes.
Our winemaking team has decades of experience working with world’s most popular variety, Chardonnay. Our goal is to frame the Chardonnay grape’s essence and not to overwhelm it. When our Chardonnay grapes arrive at the winery, they immediately get pressed to extract the white wine juice from the skins and the seeds. Most of Bouchaine’s Chardonnay juice lots are fermented and aged sur lie (on the yeast solids) in the same barrel for close to one year to add texture and toasty vanilla nuances. We use oak as an unobtrusive seasoning that adds spicy notes and broadens the fruit offering. Prescribed periodic stirring serves to release flavors that are bound to the yeast. A portion of the wine is cold-fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve delicate floral and fruit aromas. Depending on the vintage, a percentage of the Chardonnay goes through a second fermentation called the malolactic fermentation whereby bacteria convert malic acid to lactic acid and thereby soften the lean, citrusy character of the Carneros grapes and create a wide range of aromatic elements.
Pinot Noir is our first love. As a wine, it is at once precocious and capricious. It develops much faster than Cabernet or Syrah and can strike fear in a winemaker one day and elation the next. Making Pinot Noir is more like raising kids. We set the boundaries and the house rules then sit back and enjoy or endure the ride as the case may be.
The quality of the vineyard and the fruit composition at harvest are the most significant elements in wine quality. As winemakers, our job is to encourage the grapes to give up as much as they can during the fermentation and to retain as much as possible until the wine is consumed.
Harvesting ripe fruit is not as straightforward as it might seem. We do analyze for sugar and acid but of equal importance is the flavor of the grapes. More specifically, at Bouchaine, we taste for the diminishment of green flavors as well as preempting supra- ripe character. Sometimes the optimum harvest window is only a day or two.
Pinot Noir is delivered to the winery where it is then de-stemmed and partially crushed to leave a few of the berries intact. Occasionally, a judicious helping of stems may be added back to add spice to the wine if desired. The crushed grapes then soak for two or three days to assist in color and soft, sweet tannin extraction prior to inoculation with yeast.
During the fermentation the tanks must be thoroughly mixed each day to monitor progress and help control temperature. When optimum extraction has occurred (7 to 10 days) the wine is drawn off of the skins to a “free run” tank and the wet skins taken to the press where the remainder of the wine is extracted and lead off to a “press wine” tank.
After a brief settling the wine is moved to appropriate barrels where the malolactic fermentation is encouraged and the anxious vigil begins. For the next four or five months, the wine passes through childhood into adolescence. During this period we are repeatedly called upon to judge whether or not the wine is going through a phase, is ill, or in danger. Patience, attention, and rare intervention bring the wines to the place in late winter when the quality is assessed with an eye towards making the blending decisions that see the wines through their adolescence. The wines generally receive one racking and are blended and put back down to barrel to wait for the final racking, filtration and bottling that occurs mid to late summer.
As Mike Richmond and team as well as consultant and long time friend, wine consultant Larry Brooks, often say, ‘We strive to make Pinot Noir with perfume AND power.’ Bouchaine wines are crisp, well balanced, and elegant, and demonstrate the signature varietal characteristics of grapes grown in the Carneros region.
At Bouchaine, our white grapes, mostly Chardonnay, arrive at the winery and go directly into the press, which gently squeezes the juice out of the berries. This juice is then settled overnight and ‘racked’ off any remaining grape particles the following day. Most of this juice is then placed into barrels where we inoculate with yeast and allow the fermentation to occur. The fermentation converts sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide and creates amazing aromatics.
Barrel fermentation adds character and complexity and a rich mouth feel to the wine. However, we only use about 30% new barrels so that the oak character complements and does not overwhelm the fruit character. In addition, Bouchaine ferments a portion of its white wine in chilled stainless steel tanks, a technique that allows for fruity and floral aromatics and crisp fruit notes. This small portion is eventually blended back into the main blend. It is the fermentation process that creates the myriad of forward flavors from the multitude of precursors hidden in the fresh grapes.
Bouchaine’s red wine grapes, mostly Pinot Noir, follow a slightly different path than the white grapes because red grapes need to ferment with their skins and seeds to get desirable color and tannin compounds in the wine. Therefore, we de-stem and lightly crush our Pinot Noir and put partially whole berries into a stainless steel tank for fermentation. We chill the tank down to 50°F and mix the tank through two techniques called punch downs and pumpovers. This process is known as the ‘cold soak’ and is conducted to gently release the bright fruity aromas, the color from the skins, and the soft and sweet tannins without releasing bitter tannins.
After the cold soak, the red wine juice is allowed to warm slowly and we inoculate with yeast to encourage the fermentation. Once the fermentation has completed, usually about 7 to 10 days after inoculation, we drain the ‘free run’ from the tank. The ‘free run’ is often the best wine from each lot because it has soft and sweet tannin structure. The grape skins at the bottom of the tank are delivered to the press to press out the rest of the wine that they contain. This ‘press wine’ can often be delicious but is often more bitter than the free run due to the pressing process and may not be blended into our final wine.
At Bouchaine in Carneros Napa Valley, most of our Chardonnay is barrel fermented with the exception of a few lots retained in stainless steel tanks for a crisper, floral wine to use in blending. About 30% of our oak barrels used each year are brand new, to enhance the flavor and texture, but not overwhelm, the Chardonnay with oak flavor.
Our Chardonnay lots in barrel ferment while only two-thirds full because they emit carbon dioxide during the fermentation and cause a lot of bubbling. Once the fermentation is complete, however, there is no carbon dioxide emitted and the barrels need to be filled completely to prevent oxidation. We 'top' the barrels by removing Chardonnay from one barrel to fill another while retaining each vineyard lot individually in its own set of barrels. Prescribed stirring releases a multitude of aromatic compounds from the yeast cells that settle to the bottom of the barrel. Our Chardonnay is aged several months in barrels before blending and for 6 to 11 months before bottling.
Bouchaine’s Pinot Noir lots are ‘barreled down’ or brought from stainless steel tanks immediately following fermentation, keeping the pressed wine from the skins separate from the ‘free run.’ We use about 30-50% new oak barrels, but reserve and estate lots often have up to 75% new oak barrels. Winemaker Michael Richmond strives to use oak as a flavor enhancer and to add complexity to the Pinot Noir but not overwhelm the flavors inherent in the wine. Our Pinot Noir is aged several months in barrels before blending and for 8 to 11 months before bottling.
Bouchaine uses a combination of French and Hungarian oak barrels. Some of our favorite French oak barrel makers include, Tonnelleries de Mercurey and de Ramond. Winemaker Michael Richmond has also begun experimenting with Hungarian oak barrels from Trust International and finds their attributes to be desirable yet different from those of French oak barrels. The Hungarian oak is tightly grained like French oak. Each impart a spiciness and light vanilla and smoky toast characters to the wine.
Bouchaine has also begun experimenting with different toast levels in the barrels, with a range of lighter toast levels for our Chardonnay and heavier toast levels for our Pinot noir. We have found that American oak barrels often impart a resin character to the wines from their looser grained staves and we therefore prefer the Hungarian and French oak barrels.
At Bouchaine, every vineyard block is fermented individually and is kept in a separate set of barrels throughout most of the aging process. This is to assess the character and quality of each lot in each vintage. Once the malolactic fermentation has finished, Bouchaine’s winemaking team blind tastes each individual lot.
We take a composite sample of all barrels in an individual lot and make a blend that is representative of that lot. Then we taste each lot without knowing the identity of the lot. In this process we taste our Estate Vineyard lots as a separate grouping from other Pinot Noir lots because our estate wines will ultimately be bottled separately.
We repeat our tastings periodically throughout the aging process and begin to blend individual lots into our final wines. Blending lots together allow us to create wines with greater depth and complexity than an individual lot. Occasionally, an individual lot has such depth of character and complexity that we will release it as a special bottling.
We allow our blends to ‘marry’ for a several months before they are bottled.
When thinking of wine fermentation, one most often thinks of the fermentation that is conducted by yeast that turns sugars into alcohol. Although this is the primary fermentation that occurs in winemaking, there is a secondary fermentation that occurs in many wines that can also dramatically affect the flavor, acidity, and mouth feel of the wine. The malolactic ferementation mostly takes place during barrel aging.
This secondary fermentation is called the malolactic fermentation, conducted by ‘malolactic’ bacteria that convert malic acid to lactic acid and carbon dioxide. The primary reason for using malolactic fermentation is to reduce acid in red wines and some white wines because malic acid is a stronger acid than lactic acid. The malolactic fermentation not only softens the acidity, but it smoothes the mouth feel of the wine and adds more body to the texture.
At Bouchaine, we use complete malolactic fermentation in our Pinot Noir to soften the acidity and to add complexity. Bouchaine uses only partial malolactic fermentation in our Napa Valley Chardonnay to soften the acidity and to add complexity. We do not encourage completion of the malolactic fermentation in all our wine lots because we like to retain some of the crispness and flavors associated with wines pre-malolactic fermentation.
Enology is the study and science of winemaking. An enologist’s role is to monitor the vital characteristics of each wine lot over time and to maintain awareness of the current technological advances in winemaking to ensure that wine quality is always at an optimum.
At Bouchaine we have a team of enologists that have graduated from some of the best enology schools in the United States.
During harvest, the enologist tracks the fermentation by measuring the sugar concentration and the temperature of the must (crushed fruit.) They also determine the amount of nutrients and yeast to add to the grape juice to initiate the fermentation and insure its completion.
Once the fermentation is complete, the enologist checks for any residual sugar in the wine as well as the final alcohol concentration. The enologist is responsible for maintaining sulfur dioxide concentrations, a natural antioxidant, that protects the wine from oxidation or other types of spoilage.
The enologist also monitors the malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid and softens the wine’s acidity while adding complexity and texture to the wine.
During blending, the enologist assists in compiling representative samples of each wine lot and is a crucial participant in the tasting and blending panel. At bottling, the enologist performs quality control on the finished product.
Throughout the life of the wine, the enologist is there to make sure that the wine maintains its delicious flavor and beautiful color and will be a pleasure for the people who enjoy it.
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