French businessman Joseph Henriot, the innovative owner of Burgundy shipper Bouchard Père & Fils, is constructing a $12-million gravity-flow winery that breaks new ground for the region.
The winery is billed as the first in the Côte d'Or to use only gravity, rather than pumping, to move grapes and wine from one place to another during the winemaking and aging processes.
"We didn't want to damage the grapes," said technical director Christophe Bouchard. "Pinot Noir is certainly the most fragile grape variety in the world, and we wanted to treat it in the smoothest manner possible."
Henriot and his team designed the building over five years, traveling to Napa Valley, Australia, South America and many other places to study wineries. Construction of the new 300,000-case-capacity winery in Savigny-lès-Beaune began in the spring and should be completed by the 2005 harvest. No visitor center is planned.
Bouchard is as much a domaine as it is a négociant; it is the largest owner of premiers and grands crus in the Côte d'Or, where it owns nearly 321 acres of vines that produce 125,000 cases of wine a year, coming from 83 different appellations. As a négociant, it sells another 250,000 to 300,000 cases made from grapes or wine purchased from growes.
With so many wines, Henriot wanted the flexibility to harvest many different vineyards at the same time, as well as to handle many parcels from the same vineyard, allowing each parcel to be picked at optimum ripeness. "Up till now, and since the Cistercian monks, the harvest came into one area, and often there was a backup at the winery entrance," Henriot said. "We can handle, simultaneously, whites and reds, late-harvest grapes and grapes that have been hailed on, big crop grapes and small crop grapes -- and dispatch all this fruit into different vats and areas of the winery. It's like having seven or eight different wineries in one location."
Gravity-flow wineries in other regions are usually dug into hillsides. But the Bouchard winery is on flat land, so it achieves the gravity effect with three floors, which extend nearly 30 feet below ground. As a result, the aging chai will be naturally humid and cool. "Our wish was to have a cellar that was as deep as possible," said Bouchard winemaker Philippe Prost.
Henriot, whose family has been making Champagne since the 16th century, bought the Beaune-based shipper from the Bouchard family in 1995. Under his direction, Bouchard has become one of Burgundy's best wineries, but a gravity-flow system was key to improve quality, he said.
"We saw the difficulties we have had at Rue Colbert," where Bouchard's winery is located in impractical, labyrinthine, 19th-century cellars, said Bouchard. "At present, we have more pumps, tubes and hoses than we wish," he said, adding that such equipment "was bad for the crop and the wine."
The new facility will be equipped with 12 sorting tables. After the crop is checked, it will be lowered on special slides to the fermentation room on the floor below, where 165 fermenting vats -- some small enough to handle parcels of only 1.5 acres -- stand ready to receive the grapes. The wine will then flow down to the chai, where 3,500 oak barrels will age the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
Despite its size, the new winery will replicate how the smallest domaines work. "What we are doing with the new winery is huge," said Prost.