What’s All the Buzz?
Honey in Wine and Alternative Dosage
While Champagne, as with other Old World wine regions, has always been steeped in tradition when it comes to expected practices and required production methods, experimentation is not only common but encouraged in the New World. This is especially true when it comes to sparkling wines. Without rigid restrictions and adherence to ancient laws of production, United States vintners can take some liberty with their sparkling winemaking processes, resulting in unique wine expressions that often tell their own story.
Winemakers like Joe Wright of Left Coast Cellars and Josh Hammerling of Berkeley-based sparkling wine house Hammerling Wines are pushing the envelope when it comes to creative techniques for producing their offbeat bubblies, using honey in tirage. Whereas producers Adam Campbell of Elk Cove Vineyards and Aaron Lieberman of Iris Vineyards are using sweet dessert wines in place of cane sugar for their final dosage.
“We’re experiencing an ‘anything goes’ moment of winemaking; so it’s an exciting time,” Hammerling says. “Consumers want experimental offerings. Our goal is to participate in that genre-bending to a degree, but also to keep the wines precise and focused.” This experimentation isn’t only happening in the United States. Kathleen Willcox reveals in Wine Enthusiast how French producer Lelarge-Pugeout doses one of their wines with honey as well.
Wright is bucking some of the traditional methods of winemaking. “The French have spent over three centuries perfecting the art, a technique I have a passion for in its truest form,” he explains. “That said, if the French only knew of all the un-bee-lievable benefits of honey tirage…”
The base for Wright’s sparkling wines are either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, picked from cooler meso-climates within the Left Coast Estate. “We use honey from hives placed throughout our 500-acre estate for the secondary fermentation and only let it sit for an average four-to-six months on tirage before release,” he says.
Using their own honey means they bring different elements from their estate into play to more completely reflect their unique terroir. “Honey lends itself to an entirely different end profile in the sparkling wine,” Wright explains. “It inserts a slight baking spice, earthy, golden quality that can magnify the brioche-y nature of the sparkling wine, making it richer, rounder, and possibly more approachable earlier than later.”
Cane sugar is actually Wright’s preferred catalyst for secondary fermentation. While sugar, unlike honey, is inexpensive and less reflective of terroir, it does have its benefits. According to Wright, it imparts focus and tension in sparkling wines undergoing longer tirage.
The Spirit of the Beehive is a wine by Hammerling made in partnership with Landmass Wines in Oregon. This traditional-method sparkling wine, intentionally crafted to challenge “terroir purists,” is made from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier from three different states – Washington, Oregon, and California. Hammerling also wanted to include the use of a non-traditional form of sugar that’s more raw and alive, so the secondary fermentation of the wine is carried out with honey.
Using sugar in sparkling wine is like using salt in cooking; a little brings out all of the other flavors, but, according to Hammerling, a judicious hand is key. “Sugar adds so much texture and breadth to sparkling wines,” he says. “Too much sugar can overpower the wine, especially important in California, where sparkling wines show the sunny, round quality of the fruit grown here. My theory was that using honey could be a fun way to provide another layer of depth, like you get with regular sugar, but that would also complement the fruit-driven quality with something more brooding and savory.”
The most surprising thing, Hammerling says, was how long it took for the honey flavor to integrate completely into the wine. “The wine tasted absolutely unhinged for about eight months after tirage bottling,” he recalls. “But then the edges rounded out and the honey began playing a lovely supporting role, where it gave off a subtle textured glow that complemented the wine’s structure and flavor profile, as opposed to dominating it. It’s honestly one of my favorite wines I’ve made.”
Campbell utilizes their estate Ultima for dosage, a dessert wine made of Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat from some of the oldest vines in Oregon, dating back to the 1970s. Ultima not only adds richness and body, but also adds an aromatic enhancement to their sparkling wines in a way that cane sugar can not. “It’s a little bit over-the-top and makes the math a bit more complex, but we love the results we get with this method,” says Campbell, noting that the complexity from older vines so present in the dessert wine is part of what drives the complexity in the resulting sparkling wine.
Lieberman is also using a dessert wine for dosage to add an extra dimension of aroma and flavor with more palm fruit and less citrus notes. “We’re really happy with the results,” says Lieberman. He explains that his late-harvest Pinot Gris liquor is more microbiologically stable, with an inhospitable environment for yeast and bacteria, so it’s easier to store for longer-term use in stainless steel drums. Lieberman also feels that using wine that comes off their estate makes it more sustainable and environmentally friendly.
There is a greater cost to using dessert wines for dosage, however. Pinot Gris liquor production is more costly than using sugar, but Lieberman says it’s just a few cents and not really affecting margins. On the other hand, if using it for tirage, a lot more of the Pinot Gris liquor would be required to achieve the needed carbonation, which would be at least ten times higher in cost. Lieberman believes it would lead to an increase in quality, but says he will have to do some trials first. “If it’s practical, I would look strongly at using grape sugar for tirage and am considering experimenting with it in the future,” he says.
Hammerling sums up the argument for innovations in dosage and tirage best. “What if someone told you you could only play Beethoven because it’s the most classic, traditional music?” he asks. “It’s great and all, but it gets boring after a while. Write a new song.”