Bouchaine Carneros (California) Estate Chardonnay, 2006 ($30): This wonderful Chardonnay from Carneros is the fifth Chardonnay wine that I have reviewed in the past two months. I have wondered whether I am overdoing it. After all, we all hear (and I have written) that wine drinkers are bored with Chardonnay, that the wines all taste the same and are too big and oaky to enjoy with food, and so forth. But I have been tasting good Chardonnays lately. Bouchaine's 2006 Estate Chardonnay is one of the best.
Bouchaine is a family-owned estate winery specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir whose history is as old as any in the Carneros region. Since 2002, its winemaker has been Michael Richmond, whose experience with Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is as deep as just about anyone's. (He co-founded Acacia Winery, among other illustrious credentials.) The combination of Carneros' viticultural resources, Bouchaine's prime vineyards and Richmond's passion for what he calls Chardonnay's 'undeniable nobility' make this wine a compelling Chardonnay.
This wine offers a terrific combination of freshness and richness. It is clearly an oaked Chardonnay, with medium-intense aromas and flavors of smoke, toast, honey and caramel along with its fruity ripe citrus and apple character and its hint of floral notes. But it also has all the crispness and freshness that you might seek in reaching for an unoaked Chardonnay. Its acidity is high -- high enough to give the wine a firm, enduring backbone, long length across the palate and a very long finish. But around that backbone of acidity is richness of texture. This texture is not creamy exactly, as you might expect in Chardonnay, but rather like heavy silk; Richmond says the texture 'feels to me like suede, what I call grain,' and he considers it typical of Carneros Chardonnay. With the wine in your mouth, one moment you get concentrated lemony flavor and crisp freshness of expression and then the next moment, that suede that rolls over your tongue and gives weight and richness to the wine, while still letting the bright acidity shine through.
Richmond's goal in making this wine is to satisfy 'our modern palates' need for…grace, brightness and enduring fresh texture,' with only enough oak to provide 'an evanescent wisp of spice' and only enough malo-lactic (ML) fermentation to 'just assure softness and complexity, and support the textural grain of the wine.' To achieve this, he employs a range of techniques on a range of lots of juice and wine. These lots include grapes from Bouchaine's Estate vineyards, planted in 1981 and now giving restricted yields as the vines slowly succumb to phylloxera, and newer plantings of Dijon, Rued, and Robert Young clones. The techniques include various ripeness levels in the grapes; both barrel fermentations and tank fermentations; multiple yeast strains in the multiple lots; French, American, and Eastern European barrels at various toast levels and various ages; and multiple ML strains, including some lots with no ML (probably about 40 to 50% of the wine underwent ML).
Although I enjoy the notion that great wines are born great, this wine also makes a strong argument for intelligent, sensitive winemaking as a means of expressing the natural gifts of great terroirs -- especially with the famously inexpressive Chardonnay grape.