Our first grapes of the year are in! We picked Chardonnay from Leonardo Julio Vineyard in the Russian River Valley for our first sparkling wine, a Blanc des Blancs. The grapes came in looking perfect, another advantage of picking them less ripe is they are more firm and look so pretty you might almost think they are fake. It's not without a little trepidation that we made the decision to make sparkling wine. But seeing the success of domestic producers like Roederer and Schramsberg, as well as more recent offerings by small producers like Kathleen Inman's sparkling Brut Rosé we feel like the tools are in place for us to try and make a beautifully seductive sparkler.
Because grapes destined for sparkling wines are picked at lower sugar levels we need to be on top of what's going on in the vineyard to make sure the grapes are just right. The chemistry of the juice is critical to setting us up to have the basic ingredients that will allow us to make an elegant Blanc de Blancs. Needless to say we're in the vineyard a lot as we make this important decision. FYI, Blanc de Blancs is a term that indicates the wine is made from 100% Chardonnay.
Typically we pick most of our grapes at about 22/23 deg Brix. But for this wine we were looking for 18-19 Brix. And the sugar level is only part of it. You want a good balance of Tartaric acid and Malic acid (roughly 50/50 if you're lucky.) The flavors kicked in about five days before harvest and we had perfect numbers as far as the grape chemistry goes. (3.2 pH and 10.4 g/L TA for you juice nerds)
Creating a sparkling wine in the way they do in the best houses in Champaign is called "following the méthode champenoise". And this is what we are doing at Rack and Riddle in Hopland, CA. After making sure you have the right lot of grapes to use in the base wine you then go straight to the press with the harvested fruit. Impurities in this juice can significantly affect the finished wine so you don't simply squish as much juice as you can from the grapes but rather you typically separate out the free run juice and keep it separate from the main pressing. You then press the majority (75%) of the juice off the skins/seeds/stems very gently and slowly. As we got to the higher pressures in the press we started tasting the press output and as soon as we started tasting, or more acurately feeling, a change wine's affect on the palate we cut the rest of the pressed wine over into another small steel container to ferment separately. The juice starts to be perceived as angular and a little sharp. The whole process takes about three hours to make it through the press cycle.
We settled that juice for a day and then racked the clean juice off to other stainless steel tanks and inoculated with yeast to start the fermentation. And because we had such clean fruit coming into the winery we were lucky enough to be able to use the free run juice that was first out of the press. (Sometimes I'm really happy that we're fanatical about keeping everything as clean as possible.)
The small lot from the end of the run is the "press fraction." It will be fermented separately and then evaluated to see how much can be blended back into the main lot or "cuvée." This press fraction will lend palate weight and a little backbone to the finished wine.
We're just a few days into what will likely be a two-week fermentation. I'll post updates as we take our next steps with this fun project.