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.”

All this is true, and especially true of producers who offer ‘swap deals’, sharing the fruit between their own wines and the wines bottled for clients much like a co-operative does in Champagne. There is, however, one major area of sparkling wine production where small-scale contract sparkling winemaking regularly fails to compete with in-house production; the use of reserve wines.
The overwhelming majority of wines made under contract are vintage. A handful of NVs have been produced, but a little digging has sometimes revealed vintage wines labeled as NV for convenience. Keeping a reserve system when winemaking is outsourced is complex for the provider and costly for the client. The blending process itself is much more difficult for non-vintage wines too, placing further demands upon the winemakers already charged with looking after a vast family of wines. 

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.

Option 2 – Normal Contract Production with Off-Site Reserve Management
Even running a modest start-to-finish winery is out of the question for many small growers. Equally the costs of storing reserves at the contract winery are prohibitive. Why not simply take away a percentage of each blend from the contract winery and store it off site? All that’s required is a small system of temperature-controlled tanks and a pump. There would be some paperwork involved with Duty, but the system would not be hugely complex. The difficulty might come from over-racking and the perils of transporting wine back and forth. Being close to the contract facility would probably be a requirement. Crazier things have been attempted, though! 
Option 3 – Contract Operators Up Their Games
The final option, and one that might prove most appealing, would be a sparkling-focused contract operator that designs their entire operation around the need for clients to have reserve systems. This needs space and investment, but would also be an attractive selling point for clients wanting to hit the highest levels of quality. They might offer a simple multi-vintage option where you pay per small tank, per year, meaning that 10 contract clients could accrue 60 tanks between them for reserves – not insignificant – but with stacking tanks and advanced planning you’d think it might be possible. 
Whether it could ever prove cost-effective is another question. It would not be a top-tier non-vintage system as the wines would probably end up simply being a blend of three vintages with a fairly rigid composition, but it could certainly help in challenging years.
How likely any of these scenarios are to come to pass is up for debate. The reality is, though, that the dynamics of the developing English Sparkling Wine industry pose unique problems not faced by young still wine industries. How to get more high-quality non-vintage wines into production is a question that might require an equally unique answer. 

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