Building Flavour

Base Wine

 

Flavours from the original base wine are the building blocks for the next two stages.

  • The grape varieties used, the vineyard characterists and the growing conditions of the vintage will give rise to a set of ‘primary’ flavours, of which fruit flavours are the most important. Balance, texture, length and complexities such as mineral, spice and floral flavours can be established here.
  • The conditions of the first fermentation will affect the character of the base wine. Cool temperatures and stainless steel tanks will emphasise fresh, fruity flavours, whereas oak barrels can bring a range of flavours from obvious creamy, spicy oak characters to very subtle effects from older oak.  
  • Use of the malolactic fermentation (MLF)  will soften acidity and round out the texture of the wine. Sharp, powerful malic acid in the young wine is converted via bacterial action to creamier, less powerful lactic acid. Most producers don’t want MLF to impart any dairy/lactic tones into the wine. Letting the wine rest on the lees of this first fermentation can introduce richness, body and creaminess to the wine even at this stage, especially if the lees are stirred (bâtonnage) 
  • Much as for still wine, producers may seek a style that is deliberately reductive (avoiding oxygen impact) or oxidative. Reductive styles are often quite ‘clean’ and transparent, allowing space for flavours from the next two stages. More oxidative styles can emerge with plenty of character just from the base wine, but may not develop with as much elegance. Many producers look for a middle way – the best of both worlds.

Lees Ageing

 

Time on lees brings new flavour and texture in the absence of oxygen.

  • 4-6 months after the yeast finish the second fermentation in bottle, the lees begins to break down and introduce new flavour and texture into the wine. This Autolysis introduces subtle sensations of creaminess, baked goods such as breads, biscuits and pastries and sometimes fresh flavours of fresh nuts and white flowers. It adds roundness and creaminess to the texture, filling out the often lean and tight nature of the base wine.
  • The autolytic stage is reductive. The yeast lees scavenge what little available oxygen arrives through the crown cap used for secondary fermentation. For this reason, wines that spend long times on lees can emerge fantastically fresh, as if they were frozen in time. 
  • It can help to think of the flavours of this stage as being white or pale yellow in colour in contrast to the darker, golden flavours of post-disgorgement ageing.

Post-disgorgement

 

Oxygen and dosage bring a different type of flavour development

 

 

 

 

  • After the lees are removed from the wine there is nothing to protect it from oxidation apart from sulphur dioxide added at disgorgement and sugar added as dosage. The more careful the disgorgement, dosage and closure, the more gracefully the wine will age. Slow ageing post-disgorgement allows the delicious flavour development this stage can offer whilst retaining essential freshness from the first two stages. 
  • The Maillard Reaction occurs in wines that have sugars in them (either residual or more likely from dosage). These flavours are flavours of ‘browning’, such as caramel, toast and eventually dark marmalade and are an essential part of bottle-aged flavour.
  • Most wines are not sold with much post-disgorgement age. Be wary of old bottles if you cannot vouch for their storage. To experience these flavours you often have to cellar the wine yourself. These flavours usually start to appear from around 1 year post-disgorgement, although much depends on how this was carried out.
  • Wines with no sugar added at disgorgement (Zero Dosage) do not have the same potential for Maillard Reaction flavours, so age differently. They may still develop some of these flavours thanks to other compounds in the wine, but they may appear less ‘caramelised’ in tone and more savoury/nutty.

The Traditional Method features on process that sets it apart from almost all other styles of wine: extended contact with yeast lees, or autolysis

Taking The Time

For a wine with such a detailed, careful genesis, the final consumption of fine quality sparkling wines can sometimes feel a bit hasty – a prequel, perhaps, to a fine meal or an accompaniment to a celebration. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with knocking back a fine glass of fizz, it can be rewarding to treat it as you would a still wine of equivalent value. When not served too cold, and with a little time to breathe in a tulip-shaped wine glass (rather than a traditional flute), the flavours can be complex and engaging.

Unpicking the flavour profile of fine fizz can resemble looking at a geological cross-section, with deposits created over three main time periods: base wine production, lees ageing and post-disgorgement ageing. The interaction and harmony between these layers is key to a great flavour experience.

 

Extended lees ageing coupled with plenty of time post-disgorgement contribute to the complex flavour of aged Prestige Cuvée champagne.

The perfect moment

Winemakers are looking for a perfect balance between the primary character of the base wine and the effects of autolysis. The very finest sparkling wines are of a build that can integrate well with the effects of extended lees-ageing. Most Prestige Cuvée Champagnes fall into this category. More youthful, fruit-led styles might be swamped by so much lees ageing, so are released younger, with perhaps two years on lees, whereas good non-vintage wines from the classic varieties usually benefit from at least three.

Disgorgement is usually carried out on a rolling basis, meaning that later releases of the same wine can show a more pronounced autolytic character if they were also riddled at a later date.

Texture and sensation

Texture is about the way the wine feels on a palate. The wine itself may be light, elegant and delicate or bold and rich. It will probably not feel too intense, bitter or ‘grippy’ – these can be signs of over-extraction or oxidation, although some regional styles such as Cava can work with these characters.

You can only judge the bubbles on the palate, not visually. This is because the appearance of the bubbles is largely dependent on the glass itself, rather than any inherent properties of the wine. The wine will form a mousse that can feel anything from coarse and brisk to fine and silky. Some wines, such as crémants , satén from Franciacorta and certain champagnes, are made at lower pressure levels than the standard six atmospheres. This technique, used especially with Chardonnay, can make the mousse feel especially gentle and creamy. 

 

Awaiting riddling in the cellars of Champagne

Balance

Traditional Method Sparkling Wines are often some of the most acidic in the world of wine. Despite this, the softening effects of age and autolysis, combined with the correct dosage, should lead to that the wine is lively, bright and refreshing rather than tart. Conversely, too little acidity combined with big, ripe flavours or bitterness will mean the wine may feel heavy and unrefined. 

Balance also exists between elements of flavour. Fruit, floral/spice flavours, savoury or mineral complexity, dairy and creamy flavours, oak flavours, bakery flavours, caramelisation flavours, oxidative or reductive flavours….if any of these strongly dominate, the wine will not seem balanced.

Unbalanced wines are tiring to drink, so the best test is often a very instinctive one – does the wine make you go back in for the next sip? 

Hand-riddling on pupitres, Champagne