The normal rhythm of the fall grape harvest at most wineries is to pick white wine grapes first, then the later-maturing reds and last of all the grapes for late harvest and ice wines.
And when it’s time to sell those wines, the whites, the late harvests and the ice wines usually are ready a year or two — sometimes even more — before the reds, which generally get barrel aging of 12 to 24 months.
But for wineries that make sparkling wines, harvest often starts two or three weeks ahead of the schedule for even the earliest-maturing whites and perhaps five or six months ahead of the ice wines, which may wait on the vines until a hard freeze in late December or even January.
Grapes designated for sparkling wines are picked early because winemakers seek to preserve their high acidity and want a sugar level of only about 19 to 20 brix. Ideally that combination makes for rather low alcohol — often only 10 to 11 percent — and long aging potential, which allows sparkling wine to mellow and gain complex aromas and a pleasant creaminess on the palate.
Aging potential is important because those early-picked grapes — most often Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier — used in sparkling wines often spend several years in a winery’s cellar, lingering long after the last of the long-aging reds have gone off to market.
For example, Michelle (formerly Domaine Ste. Michelle) is currently selling the 2010 vintage of its premium sparkling wine, Luxe. The production schedule for this fine sparkling wine is an interesting case in point.
The Chardonnay grapes used in this wine are usually picked in mid- to late August, then the free-run juice from the “premier cuvee” is chilled and allowed to settle for 24 hours. It then is inoculated with yeast, and for 19 months, the 2010 vintage was fermented and aged, then bottled in mid-March of 2012 and set aside for secondary fermentation for about 20 weeks more.
Just about the time of its second birthday, it was then put away for sur lie aging for another three-plus years — 1,148 days, according to Ste. Michelle’s data sheet. Only then were the bottles disgorged and corked, then put back into the cellar for more aging prior to release for sale for about $19 to $20, a 50 percent higher price tag than the $13 Michelle’s Brut, Rosé and Extra Dry sparklers sell for.
At wineries that don’t produce at Michelle’s volume level, such as Argyle Winery in Dundee, which is Oregon’s premier sparkling wine producer, the fine sparklers can be even more costly. They start at $28 for its 2013 Brut and range up to $50 for its other wines from 2012.
Many sparklers don’t have such a leisurely fermentation and aging schedule.
College Cellars, the winery arm of Walla Walla Valley Community College, has released a sweet sparkling Muscat Ottonel for sale less than two months after the grapes arrived for crush. It was priced at about $15. That meant the wine was for sale by October, even before that year’s final grapes had been harvested.
But such wines are the exception, not the rule. And short-turnaround sparklers tend to show off less finesse — although selling for somewhat lower prices.
Time in the cellar waiting for maturity ends up costing money with sparklers, just as it does for fine reds, which often are out on the shelves two or three years earlier, paying back the substantial cellar time and investment.
Wine word: Maillard reactions
Since this issue’s topic has been sparkling wine, it’s the perfect time to talk a little sparkling wine science. And once again, we owe a debt to France, more specifically to a French chemist named Louis-Camille Maillard (pronounced my-yar´), who gave his name to the chemical reaction that occurs when amino acids in foods come into contact with roughly 280- to 330-degree heat. It’s a pretty fancy term for the browning we commonly see when we bake bread and the crust browns, when we sear a steak, roast coffee or even toast marshmallows.
In wine, however, we don’t see such obvious results from such reactions. Instead, we smell them and perhaps feel them on our tongue. To make sparkling wine using the traditional French method, the wine is fermented a first time, then allowed to settle and clarify. For the second fermentation, each bottle gets a bit of yeast and some sugar to feed its second fermentation. As the sugar is consumed and the yeast dies, its cell walls break down in a process called autolysis, producing amino acids. The Maillard reactions between the amino acids and the sugars (in this case without the high heat) produces the mellow, complex aromas evident in fine sparkling wine after it has been disgorged and allowed further time in the bottle.
When a sparkling wine has enough time to linger on the yeast lees after second fermentation, some miraculous and enticing aromas and textures can develop.
Some of the aromas are often described as yeasty or toasty and sometimes offer a hint of caramel. In one case, a wine that lay undisgorged for more than a decade even displayed coffee aromas. During the same process, a sparkling wine also can develop a creamy mouth feel that’s an appealing contrast to its crisp acidity.
Maillard reactions also play a role in the aromas and flavors developed during the raisining of grapes. Which raises a question: Is that why the late-picked, frozen grapes of ice wine often produce a wine that has aromas of baked apples or pears? That, I guess, is a topic to tackle on another day.