Barrel Factory Tour & Tasting at Bourassa Vineyards, Napa Valley
Our highest recommendation goes out to Bourassa Vineyards of Napa Valley. Their impressive tasting room is exactly what I’d imagine a tasting to be. It stands out with a posh and cozy atmosphere so inviting you'll want to reschedule your entire day's events. Wine maker Vic Bourassa has a huge part in this. His love and passion for wine as well as his desire to share this knowledge is both remarkable and welcoming. He also led us on a tour of Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage, which is in walking distance from his tasting room. If you plan in advance, you can tour their facility and learn how wine barrels are made while observing the craftsmen at work!
Vic Bourassa planned a spectacular 2 part tour that included the creation of an oak wine barrel, a private wine tasting, sensory evaluation, and barrel tasting lesson in wine blending. Let’s start with what we learned at the cooperage.
Seguin Moreau Napa Cooperage Tour
The barrel-making process starts at the stave mills in France and Missouri where the oak trees are cut into staves then crafted into barrels, they age wine for about 2 and half years. After this, the wineries have no use for them. It's popular for craftsman to purchase the previously used barrels and remodel them into functional barrel furniture. We learned one interesting fact about French law -- oak trees cannot be cut down until they are 120 years old.
Oak is so important to the production of wine. It adds complexity and reduces tannins. It can turn wine from mediocre to excellent and superb wines into a double-gold award winners! Just like wine making, barrel-making involves several steps that can affect the quality of the barrel. It's an art where the cooper must skillfully select oak of the tightest grain, cut the logs into staves, store them for aging/drying for 2-3 years then sort through them for quality. The selected pieces are cut according to size, shaped, and finished by hand. It’s a painstaking process that requires a master craftsman – a cooper.
Seguin Moreau allows you to get a close up encounter of the barrel-making process where they make about 100 barrels a day from American and French Oak. The tour started with a cooper alternating the narrow and wide staves inside a metal mounting hoop. Then he heated the barrel over open flames from the floor. The heat draws out the water in the staves, allowing him to bend the staves without snapping. Once the staves are tightened into the shape of a barrel the toasting begins. Vic explained that the open flames are fueled from scrap pieces of oak – to maintain aromatic consistency.
The toasting process can take about 20 minutes. The different intensities of toasting affects the taste and aroma of the wine. Wineries send custom orders for the toasting they prefer for their vintages. Vic said he uses medium plus toast levels which allows for complex aromas of vanilla, hazelnut, coffee, spice and round flavors. The barrel factory gives winemakers the option to toast the barrel head. Bourassa Vineyards toasts the heads of their barrels to reduce oak lactone and dusty wood characters.
After the toasting and before the barrel cools down, the placement of hoops is completed by a large machine. Then a light on the floor shines inside the barrel where the cooper looks for quality issues like blisters, as well as, the widest stave. The widest stave is used for the bung hole. Next, they test the barrel for leaks with two gallons of pressurized hot water. If it passes, the barrel is placed in the sanding machine.
The master cooper, Douglas Rennie, took time out of his day to chat with us and showed us the signature of the copper. He pointed out on the barrel he was working on a little N. This meant the barrel was made in Napa. It had the number 22 (the barrel number), said American Oak and was labeled with the factory's name. He explained to us that the American oak barrels are heavier than their French counterparts. In addition, he discussed the different sizes of the barrels and the differences between Bordeaux and Burgundy styled barrels. A Burgundy barrel can hold 60 gallons of wine while a Bordeaux barrel has the capacity of 59 gallons. The Burgundy barrel is slightly shorter and wider compared to the Bordeaux style.
Wine Tasting at Bourassa Vineyards
Tasting Room Open Daily from 10:00 - 4:30 By Appointment Only
We started the tour with a sensory evaluation. Vic focused our attention to the wine's appearance, aroma, and flavor. After checking the cork, Vic poured the wine and instructed us to review it for crystals. If crystals are present in wine, it's recommended to decant it prior to drinking. Next, he had us hold the glass into the light and review the color of the wine. It should be clear. Next, tilt the glass and get your nose as close as possible to the wine then take a deep sniff of the wine. Then taste real fast after a swish, and take another and bring the wine back in your mouth.
Barrel Tasting & Barrel Blending
What a wonderful experience where you get to construct your own custom Bordeaux blend in your glass. For our barrel blending we used Vic's Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot. We had a blast playing amateur winemakers with Vic; though I think it’s best I stick with my day job.
Vic reinforced what we learned earlier about the importance of oak through a unique demonstration. He had a piece of oak tied to a rope soaking inside a barrel of Syrah 2010. He pulled a sample from this barrel and another barrel of the same wine with no oak on a rope. We tasted and confirmed unanimously that the wine with the oak staves on a rope soaking inside the barrel tasted better.
Afterwards we settled in the tasting room to enjoy a private tasting. Here’s a list of some of the stand-outs:
2009 Cab Franc
2009 Cab Sauvignon
2007 Cabernet Franc
2007 Harmony 3
2006 Symphony 3 Cabernet Sauvignon
All of Bourassa Vineyards wines are so easy and enjoyable to drink. They are all well balanced, amazing wines with great mouth feels. The Cab Franc 2007, aged for 36 months in French barrels, was one of our favorites which Vic pointed out is a huge hit in the tasting room.
We finished up the tour with the story of how Bourassa Vineyards began. We were surprised to hear how young the winery is given the spectacular wines. He started making wine from home as a hobby and shared a bottle with dinner guest Robert Mondavi. Given Robert Maondavi's reaction and encouragement, Vic turned his hobby into a new profession.
This was an unbelievable tour and tasting experience. Thank you Vic for a wonderful time!