Making the Technical Beautiful In Sparkling Wine

The wine world is full of very clever people. When you get very clever people who love something a little too much you get intellectualism, and when you get intellectualism you may eventually pick up a stubborn strain of anti-intellectualism nibbling at its heels. Sometimes, though, it seems as if those very attempts to demystify wine's apparently shrouded ceremonies of 'connection' and 'communication' with The Consumer are the first to become hypothesised beyond breaking point, leaving us longing for a safe space to do what wine folk really want to do; revel in its brilliant, liberating inconsequentiality, devote to it many more words that it really needs and keep patching up the dry stone walls that somehow keep the whole thing together.

Whilst wine writers are a little wary of intellectualism, winemakers have always seen (or felt obliged to see) the green light. They are not, however, really allowed to be clever - cunning, resourceful, shrewd. Neither are they really allowed to be scientists. I was reading a profile of Champagne Producer Nathalie Falmet and was stuck by this:

"Nathalie Falmet’s enigmatic grin suggests she loves the feel of farming as much as the dispassionate empiricism of wine science."

It's one of the classic acts of counter-balancing in wine; that any sense of emotional impact a wine has must have its origins in places that we associate with the romantic, emotive images of wine production; crumbling soils, muddy boots, old wooden presses. By implication, the 'technical' aspects - the whirring of stainless steel machines, the endless monitoring of ripeness, fermentations, yeast populations, the fantastically-precise art of reliable disgorgement - are things required only to make the wine correct.

Most of the time this suspension doesn't cause a problem. The trouble with Sparkling Wine is that the technicality of the final step - disgorgement, dosage and corking - is so crucial to the wine's appeal that it can't just be hushed into the seats at the back of the cinema to canoodle with under-vine weed management and microbiology. No, it's more like that person with the tall hairdo in the seat in front. The guy on his phone in the next aisle. It can, and frequently does, fundamentally alter your experience.

Earlier this year I tasted three sparkling wines that had been through the same winery. They were all extremely (and not intentionally) oxidative in character, like the mushy apples my neighbour's tree keeps dropping, spreading their funky acetic fragrance down the street as they rot on the ground. A couple of weeks ago I re-tasted three of these and they were totally pristine; beautiful, expressive and surely the 'true' versions. It was as if they were twins, one of whom had had a terrible six months at work whilst the other had taken up running, learnt to meditate and squeezed in a beach holiday. The culprit? Probably something to do with corking. Bad fit? Just a dodgy batch? Plain unlucky? Who knows. A technical failure, of some sort, and one that seemed likely to dull somebody's enjoyment of a special, and quite expensive, moment.

The flip-side is that technicality can truly elevate Sparkling Wine. Champagne writer Tom Stevenson is on a one-man mission (with a number of disciples) to convert all quality-conscious sparkling wine producers into the use of one specific type of DIAM Mytik Corks, coupled with a technology known as jetting at disgorgement. It is not an exaggeration to say that even someone with painfully moderate tasting experience in comparison to Mr. Stevenson (like me) will already be tasting and reacting to the effects of a good disgorgement, knowingly or otherwise. It really isn't as rarified or geeky as it sounds; there's an amazing clarity, a breath of high-altitude, clean air that seems to run through the wine for years and years, even as the intriguing flavours of true ageing start to develop. If a wine is exhilarating to start off with, a good disgorgement will send it on its way with a spring in its step.

Frank Zappa used to say that it wasn't his job to put emotion into what he was writing; it was the listener's job to find it. His was to make the best music he knew how to make. So I say to Sparkling Wine Makers - keep telling us about what you're doing to make sure your wines are as good as they can possibly be, whether that's a very on-message bit of sustainable vineyard management or the purchase of some incredibly-expensive, difficult-to-explain piece of kit. Tell us why you're not bottling your wines in clear glass (which you're not...still...really?!). Don't be afraid to put on the lab coat from time to time; not only do we find it reassuring, but people who really buy the 'we don't really do anything' line might be thinner on the ground in reality than the PR guys think. 

Even for producers at the other end of the spectrum to DIAM and jetting, as many wonderful ones are, care will be evident in its own ways as the Traditional Method poses its questions along the way. It is this care, this reoccurring interaction with people - their feelings, knowledge, experience, individuality - which separates great Sparkling Wine. In a way, it is what makes it so interesting. François Huré of Champagne Huré Frères put on Instagram yesterday:

"We truly think that making wine is not just about grapes and soils but also, and mainly, about People who want to achieve things with detail and energy."


Well put. In fewer words, too.


Comments

  1. A few issues with commenting, apologies.. Nyetimber Winemaker Brad Greatrix Writes:


    A very thoughtful piece - great work Tom. Looking back historically, disgorgement has always been a disruptive, oxidative process. With hand-disgorging of unfrozen bottles ‘a-la-volee’ up to 10% of the wine would be lost and need to be replaced in each bottle - no way to do that without introducing some sort of deviation. ‘Modern’ disgorging techniques are about minimising the influence of that process and I think belong in a separate category from other ‘modern’ winemaking techniques like micro-ox or spinning cone. Low-interventionists should embrace effort at disgorging because it provides a more authentic wine. Technique and technology at disgorging is not about trying to manipulate the wine, but rather to see it more clearly. If a-la-volee was a black and white 8mm film, then freezing-jetting-Diam can be high-definition colour image - for better or worse one sees more clearly the wine underneath. Those that advocate for the old-school, more rustic ways of working are really advocating for the medium at the expense of the message in my opinion. Or, to put it another way, if quantum physicists have the ‘measurement problem’, then sparking winemakers have the disgorgement problem. The very act of disgorging (an essential step) can introduce a deviation, and therefore why not choose an approach that limits that influence?

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