I love seeing people take chances. I’ve always loved watching drummers in bands try to do crazy stuff. (Is he going to drop the sticks? Is that fill going to finish on time? Will anything break??) Things can go off the rails quickly but watching and hearing music that is so close to that tipping point is pretty exciting. It’s the same in any art when the artist pushes boundaries or demonstrates such a high degree of control, with either going well beyond what everyone else does.
When wineries take chances with things, there is also a possibility that things can go sideways, perhaps more so. The fun part is taking the risk because one never knows what will happen until they try. If, over the history of humanity, nobody tried anything, we would all still be living in caves and swinging clubs at each other. Unfortunately, there are so few wineries that take these kinds of risks. Even though there are more wineries in BC each year, it seems that a declining percentage of them are willing to experiment a little. Of course simply starting a winery is already fraught with enough of a financial risk that most owners understandably want to mitigate against disaster as much as possible.
Noble Ridge has taken chances with their sparking program and the results have been really cool to watch. It is pretty clear that they can produce wines of profundity, nuance, and complexity across their whole portfolio. But is there consistency across these vintages of their sparkling wines? I recently had a chance to taste 3 consecutive vintages of “The One” sparkling wine (technically the 2013 was The Wild One” – more on that later) and the experience was truly memorable.
The One 2012
This is the big One. The One that won all of those awards. After popping the cork and taking the first sips, it was pretty clear as to why this wine stood out. It had a beautiful light golden colour and I found that the nose was full of bready-yeasty aromas, baked pear, caramel, delicate floral notes (daisies), and green apple skin. The wine appeared relatively dry, crisp acidity, light alcohol, and I noticed flavours of bright pears, brioche, and ripe lemon rind. The finish was medium in length and completely pleasant to the last.
This wine was a cogent, complete statement and set the bar rather high for the two wines that were going to follow it. The One 2012 had everything – complexity, nuance, appealing flavours, balance, texture, and beautiful bubbles throughout. This is one instance where the judges at the various competitions (The Lieutenant Governor’s Awards, All Canadians, Wine Align, etc…) were all on the same page and got it right by giving this wine top marks.
Did it set the bar too high for the following wines? It certainly made the task a little more difficult…
The Wild One 2013
This wine intrigued me from the start and, of the three wines, this was the one that I was the most eager to taste. They took a big risk with producing this wine in this way and for me, as a semi-professional wine nerd, I was looking forward to it.
How exactly does one do a second fermentation using wild yeasts?
Wild yeast fermentations are done using the yeasts that are present on the grape skins. The fermentation started spontaneously in barrels or in tanks. The whole process is maddeningly slow and can go off the rails in many different ways. For this reason, most wineries prefer to use cultured yeasts which can perform more consistently and predictably.
Sparkling wine made with the traditional method goes through two fermentations – one (the primary fermentation) happens normally in a large vessel (tank, vat, or barrel) and the secondary fermentation happens in the bottle. The secondary fermentation is what gives the wine its bubbles because the carbon dioxide that the yeast produces is trapped in the bottle so it dissolves into the wine. A wild yeast fermentation is easy enough to accomplish for the primary fermentation because the skins are there and it an easy environment for yeast to survive. But how can it happen once the wine is securely locked away in a bottle and surrounded by alcohol that make it hard for the yeast to survive?
This is where the real risk comes in. Noble Ridge’s winemaker Benoit Gauthier informed me that the wines were bottled with the regular dosage that included sugar and yeast nutrients, but no yeast at all! Instead, he relied on the yeasts present in the air of the winery and that may have survived through the primary fermentation. It was incredibly risky to do this because there was a real possibility that no fermentation would occur at all (something that did happen with more than a few bottles).
So what’s in the glass? Well, it was pale yellow in colour and had very tiny bubbles. I found the wine to be extremely aromatic with a strong yeast / autolytic character, concrete dust, lemon rind, dried bitter herbs, dried flowers, and wet straw.
The next part was what I was waiting for – how much sugar was there going to be in this one? The spec sheet for this wine states that there will be significant bottle variations in residual sugar because of the unpredictability of the wild yeasts present in each bottle. The range that they stated went from 5 to 15g/l, which is a not a small variation. Even people with casual tasting abilities would be able to tell the difference between a wine with 5g or 15g of sugar. My particular wine sample appeared to be dry. Very dry, in fact. Desert-like is another way of putting it. It made me think of the Okanagan in the summer kind of dry. I like that but some people might not. I left a small glass of it out to get flat and tasted it again the following day which confirmed to me that my wine was absolutely on the drier end of the spec sheet’s range. While it gives the wine a cool, adventurous, and unpredictable attitude (dare I say, “wild”), food pairings could be a bit difficult with this wide a spectrum to play with. Some chefs or sommeliers might think twice before listing this on their menu for that reason however it is unlikely that this wine will appear in any restaurant as I am told that Noble Ridge is only selling it to the wine club and in the wine shop.
Beyond that, the wine was medium in acidity and body and had a delicate, creamy mousse. I found flavours of this wine to be slightly bitter with lemons, bitter herbs, and lemon cough drops / medicinal flavours, which was followed by a very long and pleasant finish.
The Wild One 2013 seemed to raise more questions than anything else. The bitterness on the palate was a bit off-putting at first and I wonder if that might have been lessened with a sweeter version of the wine. Giving it the “Wild” name is certainly an appropriate moniker. This wine will appeal to those who look for unpredictable styles from their wines. I am one of those people and for me, a good part of this wine’s enjoyment was the anticipation of the experience in tasting it. Unfortunately, the only preconceived notion that I’d had about it was that it had to compete against the 2012 from the previous evening. That is a position that would be difficult for any wine to live up. Given the choice between the three of these to purchase again, The Wild One would make my list every time just because of the anticipated adventure with every bottle.
The One 2014
The third wine in the flight was a return to The One, but without the Wild things from the previous vintage. This wine was again in the unfortunate situation of having to live up to the 2012 with inevitable comparisons. Could this wine cruise at the same level?
This wine was a pale gold colour with a light tinge of salmon colour and was almost like one would expect from a Pinot Gris. There was a persistent mousse with tiny bubbles. I found the nose to have aromas of fresh-baked French bread, lemons, green apple skins, thyme, mandarin peel, Orange Julius, pears, and minerals.
On the palate, this wine was the sweetest of the trio although, at a stated 7.6g/l residual sugar, it isn’t going to be winning any sweetness competitions. There was some good acidity to balance it and a soft mousse. I found flavours of ripe tangerines, tropical fruits / mango, flowers, soft wet minerals, and some medicinal flavours. There was no bitterness on this wine at all like there had been on the Wild One 2013. The wine had a medium-length finish but I found that the bubbles subsided rather quickly. Over the course of the meal that accompanied it, the wine kind of lost it’s mojo the longer it sat in the glass. Bubbles got fewer and farther between.
The contrast between The One 2014 and The Wild One 2013 was huge, almost like they were from two different wineries. I see the 2014 as a crowd-pleasing sparkler that will appeal to many different palates without offending anyone whereas the 2013 will be more polarizing and have definite friends and enemies.
For people looking for absolute consistency in style or flavour from year to year, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wines may not be for you. For adventurous, small-batch, boutique, sparkling wine lovers who look for new taste sensations with every bottle, you should really add Noble Ridge to your list. They are clearly capable of making some top-drawer wines like the 2012 and are able to handle adventures and experiments like the 2013.
One thing that did stick out for me is purely visual – the packaging. I have a friend (and Wine Country BC podcast co-host) who collects sparkling wine caps. Some of them are beautifully designed and branded. For a $40 sparkling wine, I expected to see some additional visual elements to these wines beyond a plain silver cap under the wire cage. Yes, it does match the silver colour scheme, but for a wine in this price point, a simple, branded top would make the presentation a little more elegant.
In sum, if you are an adventure-seeking sparkling wine enthusiast, Noble Ridge’s sparkling wine program is waiting for you to discover.
Cheers from wine country!