Raptor Ridge Winery Blog
A good, bubbly wine has always been part of life’s best celebrations. The sparkling fizzle of tiny bubbles popping in the glass evokes memories of birthdays, milestones, and holidays. Yet, how often do we stop to celebrate this vivacious wine itself?
Last year, I was fortunate enough to attend “Bubbles Camp,” a seminar that was part of Oregon Pinot Camp. This seminar discussed the intricate process of making sparkling wine using méthode champenoise, which, as the names suggests, is the same method used in the production of champagne. Though not the oldest way to produce a sparkling beverage, it sure yields some tasty results. The process starts with a delicate press of the first grapes at the beginning of harvest and fermented to complete dryness. Then, a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to undergo a second fermentation inside the bottle, giving the wine its sparkle. The wine is then set to rest for 3-4 years so that it can contact the yeast and flavors can develop, a process referred to as the wine being “en tirage.” This first bottling is also what constitutes the base cuvée.
As part of the Bubbles Camp seminar, we got to taste some of this base cuvée wine with varying wines levels of sugar, and vehicles (a vehicle is just still wine used to dissolve the sugar going into solution). We sampled the first presses of pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and blends thereof. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it? Well, as anyone who has ever tasted champagne base wine knows, it is far from palatable at this point in its process. Because of the additional sugar that is added in order to undergo a secondary fermentation, the base cuvée is often very acidic and astringent. There are few things more effective than a cup of strong coffee to jolt your body awake, but a flight of cuvée base before breakfast is certain to force your senses, and your soul, immediately and aggressively alert. It turns out that winemakers must taste a lot of this acidic, astringent juice in order to decide what parameters will taste best as a finished product. (Ah, the things we do for our dear, dear bubbles.)
On average, more than 10 million combinations can arise when one considers all the factors that go into deciding the final product. After resting for some years, the yeast is removed from the wine, and the missing volume is replaced with another wine that has some sugar dissolved in it, a process known as “dosage.” Once the initial cuvée base is chosen, the factors that go into dosage trials still result, for practical purposes, in about 75 different combinations. When asked about this selection process, Scott likes to envision it in a pragmatic, organized way: “You have to think about it like a 3-D cubed matrix where you have sugar levels on one side, the type of sugar on another side, and the vehicle on another side. We’re trying to find the sweet spot somewhere in that cube by varying all the different factors to see which combination we like best.”
To break down some of the highlights from the 2016 Brut Rosé dosage trials, Shannon and Scott experimented with different vehicles and different types of sugars. They tested:
- Different varietals from the same year, such as ’19 Grüner Veltliner vs. ’19 Chardonnay.
- The same varietals with different sugars, such as ’18 Chardonnay with Turbinado sugar vs. coconut sugar vs. white sugar.
- The same varietal with varying levels of sweetness ranging from 0-12 grams-per-liter.
- There were also trials done with Barrel-Fermented Rosé, and even one done with a Pinot Blanc.
- A final round of varying sugar doses to really pin down what level of sweetness worked best with the chosen vehicle.
Then came time to experiment with some of the sweetener contenders to see how they would change in the bottle. “We didn’t know how Turbinado sugar would react,” said Shannon, “so we did a flight with Turbinado and coconut sugars in Chardonnay.” There was a clear winner, too, and it was Turbinado, because the coconut sugar ended up tasting like soy sauce. “It blew our minds! The Turbinado became floral and the wine was a lot cleaner. This is when we decided to go with it and do 4 vs. 3 grams-per-liter trials in Grüner vs. Rosé.” After tasting with the staff, a unanimous decision was reached to use 3 grams-per-liter of Turbinado sugar in a Grüner Veltliner vehicle.
What makes turbinado unique choice is that it has some similarities with sparkling wine. “Turbinado is the first press of sugarcane, usually very gently pressed and less refined,” said Shannon, when asked about the choice to consider Turbinado. “This is similar to how we treat the grapes that we use for making the base cuvée.” Shannon pointed out that Turbinado is also vegan, while white sugar is not. In general, Turbinado takes more time and care to make, but yields a product that has more character – another parallel to méthode champenoise sparkling wine.
It may seem like a rollercoaster of decisions, and it absolutely is, but one can’t argue that all this deliberation isn’t worth the end product. There is no instant gratification in the world of wine, after all, and this magnificent, bubbly brew is a prime example (as it takes about 4 years to make, rest, and prepare). But alas, the best things in life are worth the wait.
So, go on, pop open that bottle of 2016 Brut Rosé and celebrate, just remember to celebrate the wine as well.
Check out our Bubbles Packs Here!
Modern winemaking relies as much on tradition as it does on innovation. Without the latter, we’d still be selling fine Pinot in clay urns; without the former, we’d probably be drinking insipid wines made with poor technique. While tradition must be honored, it’s important to recognize when to move forward.
I get a lot of questions in the tasting room about our choice to utilize screwcaps. Most notably, a lot of folks are puzzled as to why we would bottle such fine wines with a topper that a couple of decades ago was associated with cheap, mass-produced wines. My answer is always two-fold: Science and Consistency.
A lot of innovation has occurred since the early days of the humble screw-cap closure. From the adaptation of corrosive-resistant metals to the implementation of porous membranes that allow the wine to “breathe,” decades of work in material chemistry have left us with a near-perfect closure in an industry obsessed with quality control. The biggest hurdle? Public perception. I believe this is merely the result of a disruption in an industry-standard that has stood for more than 400 years (as mass-produced cork became more available around the 1600s). Traditions don’t go down without a fight, however, and this is a prominent example. I’m sure that the first person to use a glass bottle instead of a small barrel to transport their wine was either seen as a plebeian or a genius. In concordance to the point that traditions die hard, it was made illegal to sell wine by the bottle in England, a law that stood until 1860.
When it comes to consistency, screwcaps are the way to go. Not only do they eliminate the risk of cork-taint, but research has shown that the porosity in corks can be wildly variant. As far as cellaring wines with screwcaps? Well, research on this has also shown that wines cellared with screwcaps age in the same manner as wines with cork closures. The only difference being that those with screwcaps will age more consistently and will not have cork taint. They can also be stored upright, without the danger of a cork drying up or breaking apart. Because of the natural variability in porosity, wines with cork closures can also suffer from premature oxidation, a problem that is not present in wines with screwcaps. Consistent oxygen transmission allows consistent aging, and screwcaps have been found time and time again to be the most reliable closures.
Just how reliable are they? I once heard our owner, Scott Shull, tell a private group that “we’ve produced something close to 1.8 million bottles with screwcaps, and of those, only two bottles have been sent back because of a flaw in the closure. That’s a one-in-a-million margin of error.” With numbers like that, it’s easy to see why whole regions, such as Australia and New Zealand, have adopted the technology.
With research becoming more accessible, and great wine producers embracing the technology, the association of screwcaps with quality and consistency isn’t too far behind. We can only hope, until then, that one day the sound of a screwcap crackling open will remind you of a wonderful, well-aged wine that you had from Raptor Ridge.
Prominent Sources & Recommended Reading:
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About the author: Luiggi
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