Wine journalist Matthew Jukes recently penned a piece for Vineyard Magazine (the UK’s main viticultural and winemaking industry publication) outlining the benefits of contract winemaking. It makes for a very neat summation of all the very positive aspects of the contractual relationship that growers enter into with producers such as Hattingley Valley, Wiston Estate and Ridgeview:
“Contract winemaking is not only a contract but a commitment, a relationship, a mutual respect mechanism which benefits both parties, and ultimately the most powerful way to improve the quality, year on year, of an impressively large number of wines in our country.”
The truth remains, though, that non-vintage (or multi-vintage) production is one of the major steps many smaller producers could take towards more consistent quality. It would be unthinkable to only offer only vintage production in Champagne, whose vintages are arguably less variable than our own. It would be a shame, though, if this basic tenet of quality sparkling winemaking was only available to larger producers with their own wineries.
Thinking Outside The Cage
So how could more Non-Vintage production be achieved for small producers that can’t run their own start-to-finish winery? The parts of the sparkling wine process that are especially difficult and expensive to achieve well are the bookends – the pressing and the disgorgement. In Champagne it is quite normal to see juice pressed in one place and moved to another. With more high-quality presses being installed in England, might we see more producers building their own simple wineries and opting simply to press at contract facilities? It could work for some producers, but might be simply too fiddly for others.
As for end of the process, there is currently at least one mobile disgorging line that works its way through a surprisingly large percentage of English Sparkling Wines. Rustic hand-disgorgement on a small scale is a false economy, risky for quality and only suitable for the very smallest of producers. I’ve also heard producers complain that small semi-automatic lines can be slow and inconsistent, so the appeal of specialist mobile contractors is obvious.
Bottling is another area where inconsistency can arise in sparkling wine production, so dedicated, experienced mobile lines could be good for quality here too. Again, some does occur already, but with more availability, competition and agility in these areas, could it be possible for small producers to achieve proper non-vintage production by taking full control of their own library of wines without having to run a full scale winery?
Whilst mostly hypothetical, some of the following scenarios are not completely inconceivable. They partly reflect research I undertook when discussing potential plans for a small winery with an estate a few years ago. Some producers already appear to be operating quite close to these models.
Option 1 – À La Carte production of a modest NV wine, split between a contract operator, the producer’s own winery and mobile operations.
This would essentially involve only the pressing and disgorgement being undertaken under contract, requiring the producer to have a fairly substantial winery with facilities to settle, ferment, bottle, store, riddle, label and package. Disgorgement would be carried out by a contract operator.
Cheap or unsuitable small presses can be a problem in sparkling wine production, whereas good presses are frighteningly expensive. In this model the producer takes away the freshly pressed must (or settled juice, depending on circumstances), thus retaining maximum control over fermentation vessels, all fermentation dynamics, MLF etc in their own winery. Timing of riddling would also be easy to control.