Analysis of the grapes, monitoring their sugar and acid levels will have started in early September and towards the end of September a probable picking date will have been projected. Close watch is kept on the weather forecast as the day approaches, analysis is now every 2-3 days and it then becomes a test of nerve between the winemaker, God and the vineyard. The winemaker is of course looking for the perfect grape, the ideal balance of sugar and acidity, but weather, availability of pickers and pressing slots, are all factors that have to be taken into consideration.
As new plantings and blocks come on-stream this becomes quite a complicated process. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier have historically been picked earliest at Hush Heath; Chardonnay usually follows 5-10 days later.
Picking is undertaken by planting block, variety, clone and rootstock. All grapes are picked by hand. Since the advent of the new winery at Hush Heath in 2010, whole bunches of grapes are carefully picked and placed into small picking boxes. These hold about 15 kg of grapes – it is important that the grapes are not damaged. Any diseased and unripe bunches are discarded. The boxes are collected and palletised on custom-made trailers for the short journey to the winery.
At the Winery
Once at the winery, the grapes are weighed and sampled ready for pressing.
The grapes are loaded carefully by hand into the 4 tonne Magnum press which uses a pressing programme developed and used in Champagne. This controls how hard the grapes are pressed, the various pressure stages, rotations and pomace (grape skins, pips and pulp) break-up in the press, as well as indicating when the different parts of the juice – called the “fractions” – might be taken.
The best juice for sparkling wine comes from the middle of the grape. This juice is the highest in natural sugar and acidity and is the fraction from which all great sparkling wines are made. It is variously known as the cuvée or free-run and is the first juice to be released from the fruit. You can taste this for yourself by taking a whole grape and gently squeezing it into your mouth, taste, then squeeze it as hard as you can – you should be able to detect a difference. Finally give the skin a good chew – you will find that this is more bitter than you imagined. Harder pressed juice becomes progressively less sweet and picks up more flavour compounds and phenolics the closer it comes from the vicinity of the skins. This juice is called the taille. In Champagne the taille is split into 1st and 2nd fractions. Following the taille come the pressings – known as the rebèche – which are not used at Hush Heath. Quality producers such as Balfour will also separate the first 25 litres per tonne of juice coming from the press. This is known as the “wash” and removes any potential oxidised juice from the picking and loading process, as well as any bloom and natural anti-foaming agents on the surface of the grape that affect the “moussing” potential (bubble formation) in the wine.
A typical pressing at Hush Heath might produce the following volumes of juice. Volumes are per 1,000 kg (1 tonne)
Wash approx 25 l/t – this is used for still wine production.
Cuvée (free-run – between 520 – 560 l/t – this is used for the base sparkling wine.
Taille – between 120 -150 l/t – this is used for still wine production.
The pressings are not used at Hush Heath.
So as a rule of thumb, a tonne of grapes at Hush Heath will make around 700 bottles (75 cl) of sparkling wine and approximately 200 bottles of still wine.
The juices are directed into their allotted tanks. Small amounts of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and enzymes are added to protect the juice and suppress any unwanted yeasts and microbes and assist in the settling (clearing) of the juice.
After settling for about 12 hours, the clear juice is racked off into its fermentation tank. Volume and potential alcohol are measured and the juice is inoculated with specialised Champagne yeast. A typical juice will have a potential alcohol of between 8.5% – 10%. For the “base wine” for a sparkling wine (bearing in mind that the secondary fermentation will not only create the bubbles, but will also increase the alcohol content by between 1% – 1.5%) the aim is to produce a bone dry base wine of around 10.8% – 11% (the finished wine will be 12% – 12.5%). To achieve an increase in alcohol, sugar is added – known as enrichment or Chaptalisation. Approximately 16.5 g per litre of sugar is added for each degree increase in alcohol required.
After a short lag phase the fermentation kicks off. Balfour Brut Rosé is fermented at around 16ºC which is relatively cool and the juice takes 2 – 3 weeks to ferment to dryness. Malo-lactic fermentation (the natural conversion of harsh-tasting malic acid into the softer lactic acid) is not encouraged and the wine is kept cool on its yeast lees until the New Year when it is racked and blended.
Balfour Brut Rosé is a vintage blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The individual tanks of the varietals are assessed and tasted and then assembled into the definitive blend. Typically there will be a red tank made from either Pinot Meunier or Pinot Noir which will be added to adjust the colour to the delicate pink that characterises the wine. Once blended the wine is stabilised prior to bottling.
Balfour Brut Rosé is made by the Traditional or Champagne method in which the wine undergoes a secondary alcoholic fermentation in its own bottle. Just before bottling into specially strengthened Champagne bottles, additional sugar is added to the wine (25g / l), together with yeast and an “adjuvant” (a form of bentonite) to assist the riddling process.
The wine is bottled and then the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (similar to a beer bottle cap) which also contains a small bidule which will help remove the yeast when the riddling process takes place. The fermentation that then takes place increases the alcohol level by 1.5% and the CO2, which is the by-product of the process, creates the bubbles and about 6 atmospheres of pressure which gives you the fizz.
Since 2010 bottling has taken place on Hush Heath’s GAI bottling line.
The secondary fermentation takes place over a few weeks (depending on temperature), but it will be at least 18 months after bottling that wine will make its first public appearance. After the secondary fermentation is over, the wine will lie horizontally (known as sur latte) in the dark quietly undergoing what is called the “lees ageing” process. During this process, the spent yeast cells start to break down and the wine slowly evolves, developing complexity and the typical brioche or toasty notes of all good vintage sparkling wines.
Riddling, Dosage and Disgorging
The next stage on its journey to the glass is the riddling process where the yeast lying on the inside of the bottle is encouraged, by twisting and inverting the bottle, into its cap and forms what is called the “plug”. Over a number of days the yeast slides down into the neck of the bottle and is deposited in the bidule. Traditionally this was known in Champagne as remuage and took place over several weeks on wooden pupitres. Today, in all but a rare handful of wineries, this process is now done automatically on a machine called a giro-pallet. Originally devised by Spanish Cava producers, this process now takes about 4 days. The giro-pallet at Hush Heath, supplied by Oeno Concept, holds two cages of bottles, each holding 504 bottles, and is capable of being expanded to a four-cage capacity as production increases. The wine is now sur pointe and ready to be disgorged, corked and wired.
Disgorging is almost the last point in which the winemaker influences the style of the wine and is a critical stage. The wine in the bottle, although almost certainly delicious, is a dry, relatively acidic wine which can be quite challenging in its natural state. Once the cap and the yeast have been removed leaving a clear and fizzy wine, the winemaker is able to add what is known as the dosage, usually a mixture of wine and sugar, in order to balance some of the acidity. How much comes down to a question of style. Balfour Brut Rosé is a younger, fresher style relying on fruit and purity rather than extended lees ageing and the dosage level reflects this.
To remove the yeast, the inverted riddled bottle is placed in a machine that freezes the tip of the bottle and the yeast plug, the tip of the bottle being immersed into a glycol solution at -27C. After a few minutes the neck of the bottle has frozen solid and the bottle can be placed upright without the yeast plug sliding back into the wine. The bottle is then placed on the disgorging machine, the cap is flicked off and the plug is discharged by the pressure in the bottle. Dosage is thereafter added to the wine, fill levels are adjusted and the bottle is then corked with the traditional sparkling wine cork and a wire hood – called the muzzle – to hold the cork in place under the pressure in the bottle. One final shake to mix the dosage with the wine and the bottle is ready to be washed, labelled, and boxed.
Hush Heath has invested heavily here in a neck freezer, an automatic disgorger (TDD EDDA5) corker-wirer and a shaker.
A Mecamarc washer-dryer and labeller ensures that Balfour Brut Rosé always leaves the winery properly dressed.
Well done if you have got this far, it’s taken us over 4 years to bring you this current vintage. Thank you.