Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Tasting Bacigalupi Chardonnay with Patrick Sullivan from Edge Hill Estate

This posting is part of my series to honor the Judgment of Paris tastings that are happening in the San Francisco Bay Area this week and next. In my book, Call of the Vine:Exploring Ten Famous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma, I included two of the famous vineyards that won in the 1976 competition. One of these was the Bacigalupi Vineyard, which produced a large percentage of the  chardonnay that went into the bottle of 1973 Chateau Montelena.

Today these historic chardonnay vines are still alive and doing well (see previous post). Over the years, the Bacigalupi’s have sold the grapes to some very famous wineries in both Napa and Sonoma. This posting is an excerpt from the book describing a tasting with winemaker, Patrick Sullivan, who knows the Bacigalupi vineyard quite well.

Tasting the 2011 Edge Hill Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay

I was fortunate enough to taste the 2011 Edge Hill Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay with winemaker, Patrick Sullivan. A Sonoma County native, Patrick has an impressive wine pedigree including a Masters in Viticulture and Enology from CSU-Fresno, and work experience in such prestigious wineries as Peter Michael, Paul Hobbs, and Lewis Cellars. He worked at Rudd for more than 7 years, and while there, crafted the 2011 Edge Hill wine. Tall and lean with short dark hair and olive green eyes, Patrick has a direct style of communication, a good sense of humor, and enjoys being outdoors in vineyards just as much as he relishes making wine in the cellar.
“I remember the harvest of 2011,” said Patrick. “It was a cooler year than normal, and we didn’t pick the Baci chardonnay until the third week of September. I recall being there in the vineyard to help pull leaves and pick grapes with the harvest crew, Helen’s son John, and her grand-daughters.”
“You actually helped harvest the grapes in this bottle?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes,” smiled Patrick. “I always assist in the harvest. It is part of the job that I really enjoy.”
“So you know the Bacigalupi family rather well?”
“I’ve spent many hours discussing viticulture issues with them in Helen’s kitchen. It’s like being with my own family. We had many discussions and even some bickering, but it is all part of the warmth and enjoyment.”

A Vineyard Orchestra

“So what were your thoughts of the Bacigalupi vineyard the first time you saw it?”
“Old school,” responded Patrick, “and by that I mean it was like a vineyard from a different century. The grass between the rows is very tall, and the vines are allowed to sprawl and grow naturally without much interference. Of course, they do some canopy management such as pulling leaves to allow the air to circulate on the grapes, but otherwise it is a ‘very natural’ vineyard.”
“So why do you think the vineyard produces such exceptional grapes?”
“I believe it is a combination of factors. Primarily it is a great location for vines. The soil, sight, and climate are perfect for chardonnay. Another factor is I believe there is a great mix of clones in the vineyard.”
“But it is the Wente clone,” I said, puzzled by his statement.
“Yes, but keep in the mind the Wente clone is actually a combination of clones as well. Do you remember how Mike Grgich kept exclaiming about the flavors in this vineyard? Well, when I walked around and tasted the grapes, I could tell it was an old-field blend of Wente clones. Even today, if I was blindfolded, I could taste the difference between some of the vines. That is the magic of the Bacigalupi vineyard. It has so many wonderful and different flavors of chardonnay.”
“Interesting,” I said.  “That reminds me of many of the vineyards I visited in Burgundy.  When I asked the winemakers which clones were in the vineyard, they just shrugged their shoulders and replied ‘mixed selection,’ meaning it was a combination of different clones that had developed over the years.”
Patrick nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, in a way, it is like a vineyard orchestra, and I think it is what makes the Baci chardonnay so special – that and the fact that the vines are older.”
“So you can taste the difference between the Baci chardonnay and others?”
“Definitely.  We had many blind tastings at Rudd, and the Baci chardonnay always stood out as distinctive and special.”

Bacigalupi Chardonnay Vineyard with Tall California Native Grass
That was a signal for me to try the wine, so I picked up my glass and immediately noticed the warm golden color, which is a sign of a chardonnay that has been aged in oak for some time.  Swirling the wine in the glass and bringing it close to my nose, I was immediately enveloped in a cloud of lemon and golden apple with a hint of minerality. Taking a sip, I swished the wine around in my mouth for a long time and was surprised at the many complex flavors. The rich lemon notes continued and were joined by pineapple, subtle butter, well-integrated toasty oak and an exquisite acidity that made my mouth tingle in a delightful way. The finish was extremely long, and a little warm due to the 14.2% alcohol.

It Tastes Like Baci

“So what does this wine taste like to you?” I asked Patrick.
“It tastes like Baci.”
“What do you mean it tastes like Baci?  And do you always used the shortened term ‘Baci’ for Bacigalupi.”
Patrick laughed. “It is much easier to say ‘Baci.” Then he paused and seemed to be searching for words.  “I always have a hard time explaining this,” he said, “but Baci chardonnay to me has an uplift to it. Obviously it has citrus, minerality, and toasty notes, but it is that uplift at the finish that makes it special. It has both weight and an ephemeral component to it that makes it Baci chardonnay. I think it is the vineyard speaking in the glass.”
“So do you try to allow the vineyard to express itself in your winemaking?”
“Yes,” he said immediately. “I try to find out how the wine wants to be made, and it may be different depending on the vintage, but with chardonnay it is all about elevage – or aging.”
“So tell me how you made this.”

Winemaking Methods

Patrick Sullivan 
Patrick described that after he helped harvest the grapes at around 24 brix, they were loaded into refrigerated trucks and transported to Rudd winery where they were immediately whole-cluster pressed and then allowed to settle in tank for one day. If necessary adjustments were made at that time, such as adding nutrients, water or acid, but he did not use SO2 until after malolactic fermentation. The juice was then transported to 225 liter French oak barrels that were 40 to 50% new. Alcoholic fermentation was allowed to start naturally with no added commercial yeast in a 60 F degree cellar. In some cases, the wine took up to 2 weeks before it started to ferment.
Once alcoholic fermentation was completed and malolactic fermentation (ML) began naturally in barrel, he conducted battonage every two weeks, slowing to once a month as ML finished, usually in March. Battonage is a French term that refers to stirring the wine in the barrel in order to mix the lees (particles) on the bottom into the wine. This process usually adds a nutty quality to the wine, as well as additional depth and creaminess. It is a method used by most chardonnay winemakers in Burgundy, and many in California.
Patrick didn’t add SO2 until ML was complete. The wine was topped as needed, but never racked off the gross lees until it was ready for bottling after 15 months of oak aging. The French refer to this as “sur lie,” meaning the wine rests on the lees until ready to be bottled. Patrick said the wine was bottled without fining or filtering.

A Brown Out

Browning Apple
Photo Credit:
“I like to make my wines as naturally as possible,” explained Patrick. “I don’t use very much SO2 in the beginning because I want the chardonnay juice to brown out.”
“Brown out?”
“Yes, like an apple turns brown naturally. By letting the wine brown out naturally, you can reduce bitterness as well as the total amount of SO2 you add to the wine.”
“Interesting,” I said, very impressed with the depth of flavor and new elements I continued to find in the wine as I sipped it. “It is a truly magnificent wine.”
“Thank you,” said Patrick modestly. “I like to think that I helped to capture the magic of the Baci vineyard. It is rare to find an old chardonnay vineyard like that.”
“You believe that old vines provide higher levels of quality?”
“Usually,” said Patrick, “and that is why I’m encouraging my parents to plant more vineyards.  When it comes to vines, I believe in the old Chinese proverb that goes something like: ‘The best day to plant a tree is yesterday. The second best day is today.’”

For more information on this famous vineyard, please see:  Call of the Vine: Exploring TenFamous Vineyards of Napa and Sonoma.

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