Worth the wait
Published: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 24, 2012 at 4:54 p.m.
With New Year's Eve just days away, Wine Country is in a bubbly state of mind. Sparkling-wine-lovers are preparing to uncork a frothy surf of bubbles.
Melissa Stackhouse is just as excited when it comes to sparklers. The vice president of winemaking at J Vineyards & Winery in Healdsburg said being new to the world of bubbles has give her a behind-the-scenes appreciation for it.
“My interest in sparkling wines has intensified by producing it,” she said. “It's very festive ... I doubt you'd ever open a bottle of sparkling wine and be sad.”
Sparkling wine, Stackhouse said, is a curiosity, a bit like unwrapping a package.
“Nuances reveal themselves,” she said, “each time you taste a glass and possibly a second.”
Stackhouse produced pinot noir for a decade at La Crema winery in Windsor before she entered the world of sparkling wine. She joined J Vineyards in 2011, but the first bottle of sparkling wine that she has her fingerprints on is the J Vineyards Cuvee 20, just released for the holidays.
She said she pushed for a crisper version of the sparkler, opting to lower the “dosage” or liquid sweetener, blended from sugar and either wine or water.
At 4 stars, the Cuvee 20 wasn't the highest rated of The Press Democrat flight, but it won our wine-of-the-week contest because it's a great value at $28. It's elegant, with a creamy texture and refreshing acidity, and tasty notes of lemon, herbs and mineral.
“It was just on the outskirts of being too sweet for me,” she said, thinking back to the dosage trials last April.
To navigate her way through the world of sparkling wine, with its “vexing” procedures and new lingo, Stackhouse said she “held on to Scott (Anderson's) coattails all harvest long.”
There were plenty of sparkler surprises, Stackhouse said, including the short window of optimum picking time during harvest and the long hibernation before these sparklers go to market — between two and seven years.
“As a 46-year old woman, when I think about when these wines will be released, if freaks me out,” Stackhouse joked.
Zak Miller is another sparkling-winemaker who knows all about “delayed gratification.” The assistant winemaker of Domaine Carneros in Napa began working there in 2008, yet the 2008 Le Reve Blanc de Blancs won't be released for another two to three years.
Miller said the biggest surprise in producing sparkling wine is “how nuanced a fine sparkling wine can be. There are obvious similarities to still wines, but there is another side that is completely different. Sparkling wine will change tremendously in the bottle. ... Although still wines age over time, the process is a lot slower and a lot more predictable.”
To help the uninitiated get a sense of how these nuances develop, Miller often explains the mystery of Methode Champenoise, the French process of creating magic right in the bottle. This process is known as “the second fermentation,” commonplace in high-end sparkling-wine houses.
In a nutshell, yeast and sugar are added to the base wine right before it's bottled and stoppered up. This process is considered the action-packed part of producing sparklers because this is when the yeast gobbles up the sugar. (Other methods besides Methode Champenoise include creating the bubbles by adding yeast and sugar to the bulk tanks, then bottling under pressure.)
In devouring the sugar, the yeast releases carbon dioxide gas, unleashing a spiral of pinpoint bubbles. The bottle then is laid up “en tirage,” a hibernation of sorts that typically lasts anywhere from two to seven years before it's released.
“The process teaches you patience,” explains T.J. Evans, another winemaker at Domaine Carneros, who began producing sparkling wine in 2008. “You cannot rush Methode Champenoise.”
Evans said the biggest surprise in producing sparklers for him was falling in love with them.
“I was never a huge fan of bubbles in the past,” he said. “There is sophistication, elegance and restraint in these wines. I love how quiet they can be, yet so fulfilling. You could say I drank the Kool-Aid.”
Kathleen Inman is yet another sparkling-wine rookie of sorts. The winemaker and owner of Healdsburg's Inman Family Wines began making sparkling wine in 2009, and the Inman Family Brut Rosé called “Endless Crush” went on the market in 2011.
Inman said the biggest challenge for her making sparkling wine was calling the harvest date and then setting out to make the sparkler.
“Mistakes are expensive,” Inman said with a laugh. “Without a consultant or prior experience, it was a bit scary.”
The most gratifying part of producing sparklers, Inman joked, is sipping them.
“I feel it's hard to be in a bad mood when drinking bubbles,” she said. “In our family, when asked if you'd like some sparkling wine, the stock answer is: ‘Never knowingly refused.'”
Staff writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or email@example.com.
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