Sparkling wine has hardly been at the forefront of our minds over the last year. Not only are we not getting together to celebrate much, but online sample-based tastings are noticeably…still. Sparkling wines do not decant well, they cannot be coravin’d, vacuum-packed or argon-ned. It’s full bottles or nothing.
There is an upside, though. Even if breadth of experience has been missing, almost every sparkling wine I have tasted over the last year has been from bottle over two or more nights. No flunked, cursory auditions or flash-in-the-pan flatterers: we get to know each wine as well as we could hope to. Wine is full of simplistic binaries; natural vs conventional, big vs small, oxidative vs reductive. There is one, though, that this period of more-drinking-and-less-tasting has reinforced as true, to me at least. I’m not sure if it has a name, but I can try to describe it:
A sparkling wine either has it, or doesn’t (a division I find a bit cloudier in still wines). It is quiet, often missed in tastings and lineups. In fact, there are wines for which it seems the entire point…and then we miss that point somehow, finding the wine boring or simple, or downgrading it in preference to surface showiness. We can take it for granted if we start looking for descriptors, or pigeon-hole fillers; it isn’t a flavour, really.
To call it ‘freshness’ seems too faint. Too prosaic. It is not the same as youthfulness, or high acidity, or reductive qualities alone. For me, it is the inside of a wine. Its fuel. If a wine has energy, is that energy on the surface, furiously working away to keep to impression of life? Or is the energy itself deep, perpetual, working its way up from the core?
When the Tom Stevenson/Essi Avellan school seem to favour reductive over oxidative sparkling wines, I understand them because what they are expressing is not so much a simple stylistic preference as it is a recognition of this kind of quiet, inner brilliance. An understanding that this quality is hard-won, and that few regularly achieve it. Those that do can be hundreds of miles apart, working with totally different material, yet their best wines sit together like members of a secret international society. They can do the thing.
If you’re not bothered by the thing, then the producers that get bigged-up can seem arbitrary, baffling even. If you’re into it, though, you also feel its absence acutely. If I end up landing with ambivalence on some fêted fizz it is usually because the outside is better than the inside. It takes resourcefulness to design, but actual resources to build.
The thing also challenges those that want to believe that sparkling wines can be made passively. In a process as delicate as the Traditional Method, shepherding it requires constant effort, even if you are lucky enough to receive its potential in your grapes in the first place. There are a million places it can be lost.
It may be a difficult thing to achieve, but it is not a difficult thing to taste. In fact, it is one of those features so elemental that wine folk can quickly un-learn it in pursuit of something easier to write about. As the promise of tastings, events and visits starts to become a reality again, though, it is time to sharpen up get used to the idea of the getting-to-know-you process happening somewhat faster than we have become accustomed to. Missing (or mis-attributing) the thing is what I fear the most. The rest of wine’s shadow play I can live with.