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Let the Batonnage Begin!

by David on October 29, 2007

The 2007 Estate Chardonnay is dry, barreled up, and today begins the batonnage (See video).

But, before we can talk about batonnage, we’d better talk about aging the wine “sur lie”.

If you read a basic winemaking text, it will usually advise you to get the wine off the dead yeast cells and grape solids (lees) after fermentation is over or risk making a stink! But, if you do a good job of pre-fermentation settling and racking (moving the wine off of the sediment) and ferment pretty juice (relatively speaking), then leaving the wine on the lees can be a real plus. When you read a back label that brags about “sur lie aging” that’s what they’re communicating.

The upside of sur lie aging? Added depth and complexity which, of course, sounds a little abstract. What we mean is that it can give the wine a richer mouthfeel (decreases astringency and increases body), and adds a toasty character almost like toasted grains. Geoff Gorsuch, our Winemaker, describes it as a protein milkshake character that he absolutely loves. It’s a great complement to the crisp pear, citrus and pineapple character of our Chardonnay.

The downside? If you’re not careful, the risk of making that stink becomes real, perhaps in the form of a delightful aroma of rotten eggs; it encourages malolacitc fermentation (ML – the technique that makes Chardonnay smell buttery). Some might call that a plus, but Geoff feels the ML interferes with our signature crisp, fruit-driven style. So, he has to be ever vigilant that the wine doesn’t undergo ML spontaneously.

So, what’s batonnage? But, of course, eet eez French, for stirring the lees with an instrument they call a baton (stick). So, the winemaker opens the barrel (or whatever sort of container) and goes in to stir up the lees now and then. In our case, Geoff just waits until the cloudy sediment appears to have settled again, which usually takes about a week, and then stirs it again.

The upside? It increases all the lovely effects of sur lie aging; helps keep the hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg aromas) at bay; the lees themselves serve as a buffer between the wine and the wood so that less tannin and pigment are extracted into the wine – and stirring enhances that effect, too; the wine seems fresher longer and is more stable.

The downside? It’s a royal pain in the tuckus, meaning it’s labor intensive. Today, Geoff and Rosario stirred 32 barrels and they’ll get to do it again in a few days or a week.

And, they’ll keep doing this until Geoff’s palate tells him he’s gained all the benefit he can from the technique, probably several months. Look for that Chardonnay to come out of barrels probably late next spring and, with any luck, we’ll be sipping away on the 2007 Chardonnay in a little over a year!

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