Fizz? Bang…

The last time that we met I promised to tell you about fizzy wine, and even though I am absolutely desperate to gloat about having finished the winter pruning, I am going to leave that until next time. Which is probably as well as I am pretty much insufferable at the moment.

Way back when we planted the vineyard – 2007 for anybody taking notes – English wine was certainly headed towards the fizz centric space that it currently sits in, but at the time we weren’t entirely sure that fizz was going to be what the market expected from English wine*. Fast forward ten years and a staggering amount of cash has been thrown into the English fizz public relations bandwagon and it is pretty much the only thing that the wider public expect from their domestic wine producers.

*Your correspondent had at this point spent some time working at two of our larger competitors and had witnessed about a billion vines planted at one of them and seen a sort of house sized press installed in the winery of another, both of which were to be used exclusively for fizz; so quite how I failed to detect the direction of travel remains a mystery.

No matter, back when we were planning the planting – literally on the back of a beer mat as we mined the chap who taught at Plumpton wine school for information while plying him with beer – we opted for a handful of the usual German suspects plus the Champagne varieties that could ultimately be made into pretty much anything. Clever, eh? Not so fast… The problem with the Champagne varieties in the frozen north (read, South Devon) is that one can only really expect to be able to turn them into still wine in the most agreeable of English summers, and if ten years standing in a field has taught me anything, it is that English summers aren’t always worthy of the name (see pretty much every other instalment of this very diary, or just look out of the window in June).

Therefore, in the interest of simplifying the wine making process – and let’s be honest, my mental health – we grabbed some still Chardonnay and a bit of rosé and cadged a dozen Champagne bottles and caps from a local producer with the intention of having a bash at fizzerising some wine. Very briefly – as I am sure that most of you understand the mechanics of making sparkling wine – sparkling wine is made from still wine, to which yeast and sugar are added which in turn starts off another fermentation inside the bottle. The CO2 produced from that fermentation forces its way into the wine under pressure, causing it to be fizzy.

Lacking the appropriate kit to do this, we obviously just chucked in the appropriate amount of sugar and some yeast. This is a method that drew a look of unalloyed horror from the consultant that we had over to run the slide rule over our full sized fizz production, but it worked a treat this time. Once the wine was primed and ready to ferment, I grabbed the beer bottle capper (a relic from our home brewing days) and set about putting the caps onto the fizz. Champagne caps look a lot like beer bottle caps, but they are not beer bottle caps. They are very slightly larger, so beer cappers won’t put them on, which is handy. Fortunately, after only an hour or so, we were able to get them onto eleven of the bottles with a hammer and a pair of secateurs with only minor injuries and just one casualty.

Fast forward twelve months and we have spent a whole year poking, shaking and inspecting the bottles and are confident that there are bubbles in our practice fizz. Not least because one of them has ejected its inexpertly applied cap and much of the contents of the bottle across the winery when we weren’t looking. The next part of the process is to turn the bottles upside down, wait for the gunky yeast from the second fermentation to drop to the bottom of the bottle and remove the cap, allowing the yeast out and retaining the rest of the wine.

Guess what? We still don’t have the right kit for doing that at this point either. And this is the trickiest part, as the wine in the bottle is now under pressure. We carefully stored the first bottle upside down in the fridge over night and when our guests arrived, I gently teased the cap off the bottle to release the gunk that was resting at the top of the bottle, just under the cap. Our guests were wine savvy, so had a fairly good idea of what was about to happen and were watching on gleefully as the yeast and about a third of a bottle deposited itself over much of the kitchen and all of me. After a quick costume change, we were able to enjoy (most of) a bottle of very acceptable fizz and agree that the procurement of some proper kit was probably in order.

At about this time last year, we had gotten around to buying a proper capper, had an entire pallet of sparkling wine bottles and a tank full of white wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that we were very happy with. You will no doubt be astonished to hear that they don’t just throw sugar and some yeast at empty bottles over at Krug. They make this marvellous witches brew from wine, yeast, sugar and a bit of water and ignore it until it becomes a raging brew of contented wine accustomed yeast. Our discerning winemaker then pumps the required amount of sugar, along with the foaming yeasty brew into his tank of wine until it is nicely homogenised. First time fizz makers should budget a good five minutes to mourn the conversion of previously gorgeous, spotless wine into an opaque yellow horror. The yellow horror is then bottled and the caps are applied with a machine that is not a hammer.

I spent the next couple of months poking and rattling the bottles, absolutely convinced that they wouldn’t revert to their previous pristine state, but slowly and surely, the bits of yeast dropped to the bottom of the bottle and it started to look very nice indeed. Job done? Not quite. It is now time to ignore them so they can start to pick up some of the flavour from all that lovely dead yeast that has accumulated at the bottom of the bottle. It’s a process that can take literally years and is important as it rounds out the flavour of what can otherwise be fairly anaemic wine – one wouldn’t generally drink the still base wine without the bubbles and yeasty flavour.

Twelve more months down the line and we are very happy with the effect imparted by our fallen yeasty heroes. We haven’t gotten around to procuring the kit to extract the yeast from the bottle just yet – expect to be regaled with horror stories as we get to grips with it in due course – so it is going to be making its way to a man who does have the appropriate bits presently. And, if we can keep our hands off it (it’s absolutely lovely), we might even have some to sell soon too.

The Winemaker’s Handcuffs

It is now the end of September. The end of the season is approaching and the Devonian countryside is exploding into a stunning patchwork of reds and yellows, the vineyard owner surveys his land with a critical eye for the last time, for it is very nearly time to collect his hard won crop. The picking snips are sharp, the grape boxes are stacked and I have been tripping over cases of picker’s lubricant in the kitchen (read: beer*) for days; everything at Chateau Huxbear is primed for harvest.

*It hasn’t escaped my attention that wine would be a much more appropriate lubricant, and we tried it once, but everybody sort of lost interest in working and started tripping over things in the winery and the basic mental arithmetic required for calculating additions very quickly became really, really hard.

The eve of harvest is my absolute favourite time of year. At this point, we have nursed our vines and grapes though yet another season – usually successfully, too, I’m looking at you 2012 – and in the morning we will start collecting the grapes with friends and family. We may now disconnect the bird scaring banger that has been winning me friends over the last few weeks with its thunderous bangs and the shotgun can go back into its safe as there will be a field full of people picking grapes and terrifying the birds for us in the morning. And best of all, we get to make the year’s really important decisions in the winery at the close of play.

I have spent literally years telling anybody that will listen that one can only foul things up in the winery and that the really important things happen in the vineyard. You can throw as much money as you like at your winery and employ a million consultants, it is still pretty much impossible to make anything decent from rotten or very under ripe grapes. We have had a certain amount of luck with keeping the grapes clean, this is probably because our land is at the top of a small hill which sees lots of breeze, which in turn keeps the grapes nice and dry and the dreaded botrytis (that grey mouldy stuff that eats your strawberries when you aren’t looking) at bay. The hill is probably also responsible for the gales that keep smashing the trellising to bits, but let’s just gloss over that for the time being. As per our last meeting, we are obliged to cross our fingers to some extent for the sunshine at the end of the season to finish off ripening the grapes, we also spend quite a lot of time in September stripping the leaves around the grapes to show them as much sunshine (and air) as possible.

The poor old wine maker is therefore left fretting in the winery hoping that the chap rolling around the vineyard in his tractor has taken good care of his grapes and that they will arrive in good condition in a timely manner. In my experience, the wine maker will also be making unreasonable demands of the vineyard staff and their sodden pickers at this point too, but, due to the unique way that Huxbear Vineyard is staffed, they happen to be the same person here, so they are pretty much pulling in the same direction.

You know what? I’m beginning to think that I might have been doing fake news all this time (apparently there is a lot of that going around, so at least I’m in good company). This probably isn’t entirely true in somewhere like Burgundy or Champagne as they don’t have a lot of options for diversification. By way of explanation, let us assume that we have just been appointed head wine maker at a large Champagne house. With a winning smile, we inform our owner that we have turned his very ripe Pinot Noir (for it has been a hot year) into still red wine and are immediately escorted off the premises. Probably at gun point.

A major advantage in the, ahem, enlightened wine making world is that we can make pretty much anything we like, within reason. The fact that we have options is probably more important to the wine maker than you might first think. Chardonnay can find its way into still and sparkling wine (and something called orange wine, more on this at some point – we have plans). Pinot Noir is a real hero, one can turn him into red, white and rosé still and sparkling wine. The important bit is that these different styles of wine require grapes that are of different levels of ripeness: sparkling is usually for the least ripe grapes (hence the northerly location of Champagne), reds need the most ripe grapes and whites can be made from something in between. Our tame British wine maker rejoices and snatches back some control from the chap in the water proofs and the elements.

Our German grape varieties (for the record, Schonberger, Siegerrebe and Bacchus, Germans are terrible at branding) came off nice and early and arrived in the winery ripe and in good condition. Which is as well, because in spite of the incoherent rambling above, they can be turned into still white wine and not much else. We have turned those early grapes into a very approachable, easy going and thoroughly modern white and are very pleased with it. I have a vague plan to have a bash at turning some of it into fizz, if this is the last you hear of it, assume that this experiment was less than a resounding success; it certainly won’t be available for purchase, whether or not I manage to explode some bottle in the process remains a mystery to both of us.

More on non-experimental fizzy wine next time.