By Penny Gadd-Coster
With harvest nearly upon us, now is the perfect time to start thinking about turning some of your grapes into sparkling wine. Here at Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, it’s not uncommon for some client winemakers to start planning a sparkling wine project after harvest – sometimes it’s a last-minute decision by winemakers to utilize excess fruit. While late-start projects are fine, it’s always wise to start planning earlier since picking parameters differ greatly for sparkling wines.
I recently read an interesting article by renowned wine writer Dan Berger about making sparkling wine, and a few things occurred to me that I wanted to address regarding the process and selecting the grapes.
In the article one winemaker is quoted as saying that for still wines, you pick the grapes and they taste like wine, but for sparkling wine the grapes are sour and taste horrible since they’re picked earlier.
While it’s true sparkling wine grapes are picked much earlier at higher acidity levels, winemakers can actually have a real understanding of the grape profile at such an early stage.
If the fruit doesn’t taste good, it’s not going to make good bubbly. Is the acid high? Absolutely. But there’s definitely still fruit balance to evaluate. I recommend winemakers start tasting the grapes at 17 Brix and when you reach the flavor profile of the grapes that you want, pick them!
Now, the first time I made bubbles, the massive tartness took some getting used to. I definitely had some moments thinking, “Wow, it really takes the enamel off your teeth!” But once you start to learn what you’re looking for and the resulting profile in the finished product, I don’t find it any different from still wine—you’re just going for different parameters. I am still looking for a flavor acid profile just like with still wine grapes. Ultimately you’re going through the same checklist as you would for a still wine, particularly a still white wine, which like bubbly is also elevated in Co2.
Part of the challenge with sparkling wine grapes is evaluating how the bubbles are going to affect the flavor outcome – the Co2 will bring the flavors up in the nose and mouth and make it more aromatic.
Another consideration is how the lees contact will soften the wine a little bit and change the aroma profile with time. It doesn’t change the acidity, but it will change the mouthfeel. How the yeast is perceived in the nose changes with time going from fresh yeast to nutty. This is another reason acidity is important to balance out the creaminess that you will get with long-term yeast contact. Before you pick, consider how long you want the wine on the yeast.
Be cognizant of So2 levels because of the second fermentation. One of the most common questions I’m asked is at what level should the So2 be kept? Due to the high pH/acidity levels, you can keep those levels low because it protects the wine. The level I recommend is 15 to 20 ppm, as long as the wine is not going to be stored for many months or years before it goes on tirage; the totals should be kept at 50 ppm or below.
With all of these special considerations to make when picking sparkling wine grapes, one big benefit of picking early – as Dan mentions in his article – is many of the common later-harvest problems can be avoided, such as bad weather, mold and possible bacterial issues.
If you decide later in harvest to create a sparkling project, which some people do, you’re not only up against these weather-related problems, but de-alc’ing may also be necessary to remove some of the alcohol – a process that winds up costing time and money.
Lastly, here at Rack & Riddle when clients bring their base wine in to start making bubbly (typically base wine is brought in around January or February), they can opt to bring it in cold-stabilized, or we will cold-stabilize it for them. Because sparkling winemaking is a process involving second fermentation in the bottle, we always recommend ultra cold-stabilizing the wine since the chemistries are going to change in the bottle. Once the wine is a finished product and sold, it’s likely to be stored in a refrigerator—another reason it’s important that the wine is stable— zero- minus two centigrade.
Consider these parameters for prepping your sparkling wine, and you’ll be on your way to creating an incredible bubbly—and we can all raise our glasses in a toast to that! Have questions about sparkling winemaking? Give Penny and the Rack & Riddle team a call at 707-433-8400. We’re happy to help.