SPARKLING WINE SUCCESS IN THE HUNTER VALLEY
Producing Australian made sparkling wines has been a challenge accepted by a boutique wine maker in the Hunter Valley, Peterson House. Their experience over more than 15 years and ongoing investment in extensive facilities, now enables them to offer a range of winemaking methods for the production of quality sparkling wines to other growers across Australia.
This wasn’t the original intention of Peterson House the winemaking establishment as we know it as today. Ian Peterson’s original vision was to produce sparkling wine from Hunter Valley fruit to mark special occasions in his own extended family. But since 1995 Peterson House has been producing fine sparkling wines for the wider commercial market. When reading Peterson House wine descriptions, terms familiar to the production of French Champagne become evident, ‘lively fine beads form a firm mousse on the palate’ or ‘the citrus tones blend with subtle yeast characters…’ or ‘the aging of yeast lees during bottle fermentation has given this wine creaminess and character which fills the palate to give a smooth rewarding mouthfeel…’ and so on! While Australian sparkling wine makers are forbidden to label their variety ‘champagne’ this clearly does not prevent the use of traditional techniques in fermentation applied in France, and in achieving the same wonderful outcomes!
Of course, France is known as the home of champagne, but the process of champagne making is simple, according to Tom Stevenson (2003) the acknowledged British authority on Champagne:
“Fermentation converts sugar into alcohol and carbonic gas – if the gas is set free the wine is still, if not, it is sparkling. To capture the gas, the wine undergoes a second fermentation in a sealed container. The gas gushes out in the form of tiny bubbles when the container is opened.”
A very simple explanation indeed, but it is evident to all of us who consume sparkling wine, that variations exist, and they exist due to a number of reasons: the grape variety, fruit maturation and time of picking, the quality of the base wine, the winemaking methods used as well as the skills of the sparkling wine maker! The latter is an important element in the equation, for each wine maker develops expertise as they strive to achieve an average of 250 million bubbles in every bottle - a number winemaking researchers would have us believe!
Developing in-house skills has helped the company grow.
Confidence in the success of their own sparkling wine making has enabled Peterson House to contract their expertise and facilities to others, providing a growth opportunity for their business through access to excellent facilities to other grape growers. “We are now making sparkling wines for growers across the eastern states of Australia. From local Hunter Valley operators to Queensland and South Australian winemakers and vignerons, are using our services,” says John Reid, Operations Production Manager for Peterson House.
While their facilities capacity can handle large quantities of wine to cater to the bigger vineyards, they are also available to small-holdings, such as those owned by ‘city escapees’, bent on producing their own wine! And like the bigger competitors, these customers are able to take away bottled wine that is ‘market ready’, an end product that is appealing to the small producer.
To ensure secondary fermentation is successful, Peterson House provide advice and consultation on base wine preparation. Their fist requirement is that base wine delivered has no potential for the precipitation of solids in the finished bottle.
And prior to secondary fermentation they like to meet with the supplier to identify anticipated characteristics of the finished product so that the wine maker work towards this outcome in the final product. Ensuring the grower is satisfied with the final product is a service Peterson House pride themselves on.
Production methods for making sparkling wine – Traditional Bottle Fermentation method.
Standing amongst the well-equipped facility, Reid explains the three methods of sparkling winemaking they undertake. The romantic association of champagne production most consumers are aware of, involves the process of riddling, or turning bottled wine during secondary fermentation, previously termed Methode Champenoise but now known as Traditional Bottle Fermentation method - at the insistence of the French. How often have we seen in movies, the depiction of dark cellars, old wooden stocks filled with spider web covered bottles being systematically turned – riddled - by a devoted vintner? Well, sorry to say technology has removed this process - and saved the wrist action from growing arthritis! At Peterson House an automated process using Gyro pallets fills the back of the large processing shed, minus the cobwebs! It is still a slow process, but the turning and tipping is automated, controlled and monitored, moving each bottle 40-90 times over a 5 day period.
Traditionally, in Champagne, Pinot Noir is blended with Chardonnay. But as with all wines, the result is largely determined by the quality and condition of the fruit. A base wine is first produced from blended wines, determined by the winemaker to achieve specific styles. Following this the wine is tiraged into bottles with the addition of desired sugar and yeast quantities.
“Here at Peterson House we produce wines with up to 10 years ageing on yeast lees. We also offer storage facilities to cover the 8-12 weeks, though normally the client uses their own.” To demonstrate the aging process, Reid holds up a slightly dusty bottle showing the way yeast lees gather in the base as the bottle rests on the Gyro Pallets.
The riddled wine is then cooled in a refrigerator complex to let 3-4cm ‘plugs’ of yeast and wine freeze in the bottle neck ready for the amazing age-old process of disgorging. Finally a finishing liqueur - liqueur de triage – developed by the winemaker, is added, the bottle corked and sealed with a muselet. Sealing, applying wire, muselet and label is all automated to enable faster handling of quantities as well as reduction of costs.
But making wine using the Traditional Bottle Fermentation Method [Methode Champenoise] has its drawbacks. “While this process makes complex and wonderful wines, the bottles are handled many times making it a labour intensive process.” Reid adds. Perhaps this can account for the higher cost of quality sparkling wines, but it also means that Peterson House can offer services to other growers unable to make the same investment in people and equipment.
There are other ways to produce quality sparkling wines…….
Large stainless steel tanks fill one end of the clean facility where ‘Charmat’ or Tank Fermenting methods are undertaken. Tank fermentation was first developed in France in 1910 where the secondary fermenting process is shortened, but still yielding an enjoyable sparkling wine.
These modern facilities at Peterson House have an extensive capacity to undertake Tank Fermentation, with three different sizes of tanks available. However, the minimum batch size accepted for fermentation is 2,000 – 2,300 litres of base wine! This is a more economical method and appeals to larger growers keen to put sparkling wine on the consumers table and their brand top of mind! At the completion of secondary fermentation in the tank, the wine is filtered and additions, often decided on in consultation with the client, are made to the tank. From here bottling, capping and labelling are all completed.
The time difference for production using the Tank Fermentation method from that of the Traditional Bottle Fermentation Method is significant, with a completion time of 4 weeks from receipt of base wine, making it a more cost effective fermentation method, often preferred by clients.
The third process of making sparkling wines is a hybrid of ‘Methode Champenoise’ and ‘Charmant’.
This process – the Bottle Fermented Transfer method, occurs where wines are tiraged directly into bottles. At the completion of secondary fermentation and lees aging, the wine is removed from the bottles under pressure using a Transvasa, and transferred into a pressure tank where retaining all the C02 and the wine flavours. The whole batch is clarified, the wine filtered and liqueur – a mixture developed by the wine maker - is added prior to bottling.
Peterson House expertise is evident when they discuss the opportunities of being able to blend wines across vintages, varieties and age on lees, all possibilities using the Transfer Method. This method also allows growers the opportunity to experiment with sparkling wine varieties and to work with the winemaker in blending wines. Of course, the winemakers can’t work miracles, the liqueur de tirage helps, as do the tastes reflective of the region in which the grapes were grown and the fruit characteristics achieved during ripening. But the winemakers ability to blend wines for optimum drinking is always at the forefront.
Carbonation is also a service offered by Peterson House. This gives the option of producing sparkling wines in a number of non-traditional styles. Carbonating prior to transfer to line with tight controls on gas levels, makes it is possible to attain lightly carbonated spritzy wines up to the levels of a full sparkling C02 wine.
Peterson House are leading the charge in experimenting with sparkling wines using Australian grown grape varieties, testing styles and looking for pallet pleasers. It is this innovative approach and preparedness to invest in equipment and expertise that helps the Australian wine industry to grow.
Ever ready to try other styles and grape varieties, they have added a Hunter Valley ‘twist’ producing Semillion Pinot and Pinot Noir Chardonnay Viognier - their own way of tempting the pallets of the growing consumer market interested in Australian sparkling varieties.
Traceability of all bottled products
Producing their own sparkling wine as well as fermenting and bottling for wineries others, meant Peters House had to provide not just a great product, bottled and labelled, but to offer their customers the ability to trace every bottle throughout the distribution process right to the end consumer. Long journeys of this nature require permanent marking so John Reid turned to Raymax Applications to install a CO2 laser for glass bottle marking. The LINX SL301 is now installed on the production line, where after the drying process, each bottle is engraved with company information and Julian Code, leaving a permanent, traceable mark, while operating at a capacity of marking on 2,500 bottles per hour.
The software used to program the LINX SL301 lets Reid make changes to meet customer requirements by simply entering the information on the hand held key pad. Information can be scanned in using bar code data, but Reid prefers data entry by hand, ensuring he is meeting his customer requests.
“Our strategy is to offer our expertise to others. So selecting a LINX SL301 to mark permanent identification codes provides our customers with traceability. It’s yet another service we’ve added to our expertise in the production of quality sparkling wine!”
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