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Barrel 42 sparkles

With recent acquisition of new state of the art equipment for producing sparkling wine, Barrel 42, one of Medford’s three custom crush wineries, demonstrates once again why it is known for innovations in packaging and winemaking.

For the past few years, Barrel 42 has produced several vintages of sparkling wine for Quady North using an intensive hands-on method known as méthode champenoise. With the arrival of the new equipment from France, the process will become both more standardized and more time efficient.

Méthode champenoise is a French phrase that refers to rules imposed by the French government on the process for making Champagne, a name restricted to sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region. The U.S.-made product using the same method is called simply sparkling wine.

Nicole Schulte, Barrel 42’s principal winemaker for sparkling wines, recently talked about the sparkling wine program at Barrel 42 and showed me the new equipment in operation.

We start on the crush pad, where whole clusters of pinot meunier, a red grape traditionally blended with chardonnay and pinot noir for Champagne, are being pressed very gently.

“Sparkling grapes are some of the first to come in because the sugars are lower and ... that happens earlier in the season,” Schulte explains. “I like 18.5 brix because the wine’s going to go through two fermentations.”

The gentle pressing, which can take up to five hours as opposed to about 90 minutes for a white or rosé program, limits the yield to about 120 gallons per ton compared to 150 gallons for ordinary still wine.

“We’re not looking to get any color or tannins from the seeds or the skins here, we really just want that nice free-run juice. That’s going to make the base wine that’s going to be the canvas on which the sparkling wine will be built.”

The base wine is made like any other still wine, but a yeast and sugar culture is added at bottling, so a second fermentation occurs in the bottle. The second fermentation produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct, bubbles that are trapped in the bottle sealed with a crown cap. Another byproduct of fermentation is lees, dead yeast sediment. Bottle aging on the lees gives sparkling wines what Schulte calls “that brioche and vanilla flavor.” Schulte shows me a 2016 vintage of Quady North Sparkling Rosé of Cabernet Franc that has been in bottle since 2017. The granular sediment is clearly visible on the side of the bottle.

The next steps in the process are all about getting rid of that sediment. First comes riddling, the procedure whereby bottles that have been sideways are raised to vertical, standing on the neck. When done by hand, gradually raising and turning bottles one by one takes over a month. But Barrel 42 has a new piece of equipment called a gyro pallet, a machine made in Epernay, France, that produces the same result automatically in only seven days. “It’s made by a nice old French guy who has perfected this technology,” Schulte says. This machine takes the cage — a wire crate loaded with bottles on their sides — and slowly rotates it. All the time the sediment is just creeping its way down the side of the bottle into the neck.”

The bottles are now ready for disgorgement. Schulte takes me to watch as a winery worker uncrates bottles that have just left the gyro pallet and passes them through a neck freezer. “You have to have very steady hands to work with these bottles,” she comments, “because each of them has about 90 psi of pressure inside. A car tire is about 30 psi. These are 90 psi in glass, so it’s really imperative that everybody is being safe around here.”

The neck freezer uses glycol, a food-grade antifreeze at negative 23 degrees Celsius, to instantly turn the sediment in the bottle neck into a plug of ice. The next step is accomplished by the semi-automatic disgorging unit, where the crown cap is popped off and the pressure in the bottle ejects the plug of sediment. To compensate for a slight loss of wine, the equipment tops up each bottle to the correct level and then inserts a cork secured with a wire hood, or an alternate closure if desired, all without losing the bubbles.

“As far as I can tell, we’re the only people on the West Coast of the U.S. who have this equipment right now,” Schulte says.

Schulte regards the elegant finished product, what she calls “brunch in a bottle,” and reflects on the years of work that have led to this moment.

“Back in 2014 was our first year at this winery, and so we decided to make a very small batch of sparkling wine in the traditional method, but we did it from a nontraditional varietal, cabernet franc.” That first sparkling rosé set the tone for the Barrel 42 approach to making wines in the spirit of tradition but with a modern flair.

“We started off with 35 cases in 2014. Last year we did 1,000 cases. In 2019 we’re upping that to about 1,500 cases and have capacity here to do at least two or three times that. So we’re excited about opening up the opportunity for small lot producers in Southern Oregon to make their own sparkling wines under their own labels. Barrel 42 has invested in a lot of equipment to offer this service. The great news is we’ve been working on this for five years now, and every year we’ve been learning more about the process and perfecting it. So now we’ve gotten to the point where we feel we can really offer this as a service to clients and open it up to even the smallest of producers.”

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mdaspit@jeffnet.org. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.