A South African, Israeli, Argentinian, Frenchman, New Zealander and Australian walk into a bar... it sounds like the beginnings of a bad joke, but hopefully not, as this will be a common occurrence come late February as our vintage crew arrives in Tasmania.
Vintage is a very high pressure time at the winery, so we require a highly skilled team to help us every year for eight to ten weeks. This year, there will be six people joining us from around the world. All of them have either qualifications in winemaking, or at least four years' experience working in high quality wineries.
The first weeks of March should see the first fruit of the 2017 vintage coming in. As you might imagine, it is all systems go here at the winery and in the vineyard, getting everything ready for another harvest.
The season so far has been relatively cool, especially in comparison to the past two years. The large volume of rainfall throughout Spring and into early Summer set the vines up for good growth, and filled the water storage capacity to a maximum, meaning water supply for irrigation should not be an issue for many vineyards throughout Tasmania.
Fruit set at this stage appears to be moderate, and when combined with some strong winds during flowering, it looks as though bunch weights may also be below average. This will in all likelihood result in a relatively small vintage in 2017. So we will be hoping for a quality over quantity outcome. The vineyard team are hard at work ensuring that this eventuates, by slashing, trimming, shoot positioning and leaf plucking to allow the optimum airflow and sunlight into the vines.
Here at the winery we are busy getting all of our remaining 2016 vintage wines into bottle, all the while waiting in anticipation for some new toys to arrive. Local stainless steel manufacturer Kolmark are building some new tanks for us, and we are waiting on a shiny new grape press to arrive from Germany. These are exciting times, but we have one eye on the clock in a race to get everything completed before the first fruit arrives. Then the real fun begins!
“Bubble bubble toil and trouble”... A Macbeth misquote I hear you say, well yes it is, but it is also the first thing that springs to mind when October rolls around, and we start looking at tiraging our sparkling wines. Tirage refers to the process where we put the bubbles into the bottle and it is an intense period of the winery year, where if mistakes happen, you’ll find me at the insurance agent significantly increasing my “accidental” death and injury policy.
Let us go back to the beginning of the sparkling wine production process. The first step is the production of a sparkling base wine. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and to a lesser extent, Pinot Meunier, are the three grape varieties predominantly used in Tasmania for sparkling wine. They each provide different characteristics and are often used in combination. Generally speaking, Pinot Noir provides body and lifted red berries aromatics, Chardonnay brings the citrus and long crisp acid profile, and Pinot Meunier provides richness and advanced ageing characters.
The grapes are harvested relatively early to attain the fresh acidity, and are fermented to form a base wine with low alcohol (10.0 to 11%). There are numerous stylistic options during this period, that help determine the house style of the sparkling, including juice oxidation, barrel ferments, yeast selection, malolactic fermentation, and lees stirring. We often create numerous sparkling base wines from multiple years with different characteristics, so we can blend our master base wines with the properties we are looking for.
Now we have reached October, and the tricky part begins... tirage. This involves adding yeast and sugar to the base wine, so a secondary ferment can begin and give us the bubbles in the bottle. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It can be if you use the easy methods. Those five dollar bottles of passionpop we all remember from our youth... I did say youth... are made in a similar way as the trusty household sodastream. Other cheap sparkling wines are made using large pressurised tanks to undertake the secondary ferment, known as the ‘Charmat’ method. However the great sparklings undertake the secondary ferment in the bottle, and this method is known as Methode Champenoise or Traditional Method.
The yeast culture must be built over an eight day period to acclimatise to the base wine, as simply throwing the yeast into a wine with 11% alcohol will result in yeast shock, and not enough will survive to ferment the sugars. Once we have a healthy yeast culture, we add the correct amount of sugar to the base wine to achieve the final bottle pressure we are after (typically 6 to 7 bar), and add the yeast. The yeast must also be an exact quantity, so the secondary ferment completes over an extended period, as it effects the condition of the sparkling bubbles or beading. This involves counting the yeast over a 24hr period through a microscope, to ensure the correct amount is present in the wine. Finally we bottle the wine under a crown seal, and let the fermentation take its course.
Unlike table wines, you only get one chance for the ferment to be successful, as the wine is in bottle and you cannot add more yeast. Decanting the wine and starting again will also not work, as the alcohol level would be too high if it goes through another fermentation. So like Eminem said, we get one chance, one shot, which is why everything is undertaken with meticulous detail. It feels wrong to quote a rapper when discussing sparkling, but they are big supporters of the ‘bub’, so we want to stay in their good books.
After fermenting the sugars, the yeast continue to be useful as they break down in the wine, which is called ‘yeast autolysis’, and this provides bottle fermented sparkling with unique flavours and texture. The longer the sparkling is left on the yeast lees, the more of these characters will integrate into the sparkling. So time spent on lees is very much dependent on wine style. At Josef Chromy Wines, our non-vintage sparkling typically spends 24 months on lees, while our vintage sparkling (currently 2008) has spent 6 years on lees.
Finally it is time to release the wines for sale, however the yeast lees must first be removed from the wine. To do this we riddle the bottles, or in simple terms, turn them upside down so all the yeast moves into the neck of the bottle. We then freeze the neck, and in a process called ‘disgorging’, pop the crown seal off the bottle, taking the frozen lees with it. We then add a small amount of liqueur to provide some sugar to balance the acidity and to top the bottle up. The bottle is subsequently corked and labelled.
The vast majority of sparkling wines that come from Tasmania are made in this traditional method, and many are considered to be amongst the best in the world. An event on this weekend at Josef Chromy Wines called ‘Effervescence Tasmania’ provides the opportunity to taste some of these great wines coming out of Tasmania. All of the great Tasmanian sparkling houses will be in attendance including Arras, Jansz, Clover Hill, Kreglinger and Apogee, and numerous masterclasses will be conducted by some of the best in the business. So come along and enjoy some of our island State’s greatest export. I promise there will be no Eminem played at the Saturday night party.
Stewart Byrne, Winemaker
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Cellar Door - Open 7 days 10am - 5pm
Restaurant - Lunch daily 11.45am - 2.30pm
(Closed Christmas Day)
370 Relbia Rd
Relbia TAS 7258
03 6335 8700