When Bill and Donna made the exciting decision to launch the Winderlea sparkling wine program in the spring of 2016, the cellar was buzzing with activity. Rosés were being bottled, Pinots were being racked, Chardonnays were being tasted. And now, the challenge of coaxing a delicious sparkling wine out of the upcoming vintage was upon us.
“Not to worry,” I thought to myself, “we already make wonderful Chardonnay. We have everything that we need: a gentle press, an excellent chilling system, plenty of French oak barrels, a devoted team, and, most importantly, access to several distinctive vineyard sites that already make delicious still wines.”
We usually harvest grapes from mid-September to early October, with a few ferments sometimes lingering into November. We usually bottle in the months of March, July, August and December. By my fourth vintage at Winderlea, I knew these patterns like the passing of the seasons. The sparkling was having none of it. Want to bottle before harvest? Better plan on pressing sparkling at the same time! Looking forward to a productive April tasting barrels and working on blends? Time for tirage bottling! Of course, as prima donna of the wine world, this makes complete sense: sparkling wine refuses to be made in the same way as still wine.
I like to think of sparkling base wines as making wine for the future. Rather than seeking the plush expression of perfectly ripe grapes, we look for tension and linearity in the vineyard with only a hint of the fruit to come. The grapes are usually firm and often not fully colored up, in the case of Pinot noir. Ideally, we pick on a crisp September morning and the grapes arrive fresh and cold at the winery, usually before 9:00 AM. We load the clusters oh-so-delicately into our press and start the sparkling cycle where the objective is to carefully, slowly, and gently squeeze the clear, tart juice from the flesh between the seeds and just beneath the skin. Press rotations (which tumble the grapes against each other) and higher pressures are minimized in an effort to limit extraction of fuzzy-tasting phenolics and acid-reducing potassium. Because of this, yields are low and pressing takes a long time. We divide each press lot into three fractions: the cuvée (the highest quality juice of the pressing), the first taille (first cut—a bit more tumbling and pressure) and the second taille (second cut—even more tumbling and pressure and notably less acid). We settle these fractions separately in very cold tanks before racking the wine into neutral barrels for fermentation.
Ideally, sparkling wine fermentation is uneventful. Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. bayanus is the yeast of choice, which is a strong, neutral fermenter. The idea is to transform the juice into wine at a moderate speed without imparting extra fruity flavors or textures. The barrels are tucked away in our white fermentation hall around 60F and usually finish ferment in around a month. We top them regularly and let time in barrel work its magic. Because our program is exclusively fermented and stored in oak, we like to go into tirage (bottle aging on yeast) around the end of April. That gives the base wines time to evolve and mature while still retaining the freshness and vibrancy necessary for the coming years in bottle.
So, in March, as winter fades into brittle sunny days and signs of vineyard life, we consider the past vintage’s sparkling base blend. The wine should be long and lean, framed by firm acidity and yet with a generous framework of structure. There should be fruit but not too much fruit—it becomes necessary to imagine how the wine will emerge on the other side of tirage; ideally, with layers of brioche, creamy
fruit and lemony depth. We taste various combinations. All of the cuvée, half of the first taille. No, a quarter of the first taille. All of the Chardonnay, less of the Pinot. No, no….50/50 with a few gallons of