The Alchemy of The Assembly: Our First Sparkling Release

In anticipation of the release of our first sparkling, and exploiting my day  job as a wine educator – I thought it might be appropriate to share the process we’ve gone through to make our 2010 sparkling. It truly is an alchemy – and I’ll endeavour to explain why.

Firstly, an introduction to the idea of complexity and the origin of flavour. Yes, I just wrote origin of flavour but bear with me. In any finished wine the flavours can either originate from the grapes, winemaking, bottle age or faults. That’s it! In table wine, (often) the goal is to express origin so the grapes must have good flavour when harvested because the winemaking will be angled to draw those flavours out, rather that smother them (in oak for example). Our pinot gris is a perfect example – all of the flavours in this wine are from the grapes because we don’t use any interventionist methods in the winery – just a stainless steel ferment.  There is a sense of purity with these wines, they are transparent to the point where if tasted blind, you might be able to pick the region.

Our sparkling is a different beast. We want layers of funk, oxidation, subtle oak, yeast and grapes. Nothing pure here, this is unbridled vinous luxury! Arguably, if tasted blind, you might be trying to pick the winemaker – not the region.

The Assembly....a nod to the work involved in blending,or assembling this wine

The Assembly….a nod to the work involved in blending,or assembling this wine

As grapes ripen they accumulate flavour and lose acidity, so for this reason when we harvest, it’s much earlier than harvesting grapes for table wine. We are chasing high acidity over big flavours since high acidity gives structural integrity to the juice. This is important because we know this wine is going to have to suffer through four years of winemaking before it even hits the shelves. Acidity is the key here since it extends ageing potential and holds the wine together as it is manipulated. Our vineyard is perfect for this given its super cool location.

2010 April: The grapes are harvested by hand (which keeps the skins intact preventing oxidation) with very high acid and not much flavour (for the geeks: about 11+TA and 11 Be.). We press and then ferment with wild yeast in old barrels. This first fermentation of sugar converting to alcohol by way of yeast results in a tart, still, cloudy wine which feels like it might take the enamel off your teeth. Believe me, it’s not delicious. A handful of barrels also go through malolactic ferment.

We use three different grape varieties: pinot noir – for richness, strength and character; pinot meunier – for generosity, red berry character and palate width; and chardonnay – for line, flintiness and length. These are the classic Champagne varieties and I could bore you with details about how the whole is greater than the sum of their parts – but best just believe me as the explanation falls somewhere in the realm of magic.

2010 September: At this stage we have 30 barrels of still base wine – 15 pinot noir, 10 chardonnay and 5 pinot meunier. We need to blend most of these into one wine which then is bottled for its second fermentation. This stage one blending (tirage  in French) process largely defines the wine – so no pressure then! A sample of each goes up on the bench and is tasted, evaluated and allocated a rating. Slowly, trial blends are put together in a 100ml cylinder until a decision is made. My poor teeth!  The final blend is 43% pinot noir, 43% chardonnay and the balance is pinot meunier: it is bone dry, tense, almost uncomfortable – yet with unexpected balance.

A series of barrel samples on the lab bench for blending trials

A series of barrel samples on the lab bench for blending trials

This blend is then bottled – along with more yeast and sugar. The bottles are crown sealed and kept at a constant temperature so that the second fermentation can go through. Because the bottles are sealed, the CO2 by product of fermentation is forced back into the wine, creating bubbles!

2010 November: The second fermentation has finished and the wine inside is bubbly, yet full of the dead yeast. We leave these bottles in the cellar for four years because we want the cell walls of the yeast to break down and impart their delicious yeasty flavours into the wine. This process is called autolysis or lees ageing and is the distinctive feature of great fizz. It’s so bloody slow though – four years is midrange for local sparkling.

2014 January: We start to prepare the wine for release. We need to get rid of the yeast otherwise it’ll be in your glass and I doubt you’d be ok with that. The bottles are rearranged upside down in pallet bins and over a month or so the yeast accumulates in the neck. The necks are frozen in dry ice and the crown popped off, along with the yeast, a process known as disgorging. But now we have a new problem – the volume lost in disgorging needs to be replaced, it’s about 18ml.

2013 December: As it turns out, in December we did trials to decide what this 18ml should be – because the single greatest thing about sparkling winemaking is – it can be anything! It can be old sherry – and give you a deliciously salty, rancio character; dry red wine will give you rose (this is uncommon though); a high acid dose will balance out any sneaky sugars and a high sugar dose will do the same to acid. We identified that the wine before dosage needed length and a little more complexity. So back to the bench we go with another set of trials. This round is more complex and more delicate that ever imagined, who would have thought that 18mls can make such a massive difference.

2014 January: The 18mls lost in disgorging is replaced with our new dose (a blend of 10mls 2013 pinot noir base wine, 5 mls oak influenced 2010 pinot base wine and 3mls which is a secret) and the wine is resealed under crown, washed and labelled.

2014 April: The process of disgorging is so violent that the wine needs about 3 months to recover from ‘bottle shock’. The wine is called The Assembly : a nod to the skill involved in assembling the blend, God knows I do not so this on my own! Tony Jordan – ex director of Domaine Chandon and winemaker extraordinaire lends his expertise to the blend and having him involved is possibly the coolest  thing ever to happen to our little project. Considering we begin with three different parcels, fermented in 30 different barrels, blended back selectively into one wine with a little addition of dosage – the process has been thrilling, challenging and perhaps the most rewarding thing I’ve worked on so far. So I guess I’m lucky I have oodles of the stuff to celebrate with!