by Don Baumhefner, winemaker
Why would any winemaker want to age their wine for 20 years before releasing it?
Particularly when it comes to my En Tirage sparkling wine explorations, that’s one of the questions my wife, life and work partner, Kay, keeps asking me every step of the way. As both a devoted home cook and professional chef throughout our continuing decades together, Kay is also quite naturally focused on the critical issues of tasting, timing and flavor development. So to answer that question for you too, here’s the backstory on my parallel realizations about the possibilities extending en tirage has to offer us all.
I started the wine program for John Ash & Co. in 1980, while I was working part time with Joseph Swan Vineyards in Forestville. Then in 1982, I started working full time with Joe. I was his only employee and helped with the pruning, cellar work, bottling and bookkeeping (on an Apple Lisa, the first computer with an internal hard drive).
Kermit Lynch and Joe returned from their annual summer trip to Burgundy in August, 1983. Joe observed that I had not cut off enough fruit during the summer thinning. He went into the vineyard and cut off hundreds of beautiful, red bunches of Pinot Noir, so as to concentrate the energy of the vines into fewer bunches as he had seen them do in Burgundy that summer. I asked if I could gather up the bunches and make something with them. That was fine with him. The grapes were not quite ripe enough to make a regular table wine, but they were ripe enough to make a sparkling wine. So that’s what started my méthode champenoise discoveries.
The 1983 Joseph Swan Estate Bottled Bubbly turned out quite well, so in 1984 I made another batch of bubbly from some Pinot Meunier grapes from my friend Bob Hopkins’ vineyard (across the Russian River from Rochioli). (btw: Pinot Meunier has always been and always will be the most widely planted grape variety in Champagne).
In 1988, there was a larger vintage than predicted, so Bob Hopkins called me and said that he had 5 tons extra of Pinot Meunier, and all his customers’ fermenters were full. Since I liked the 1983 Swan Bubbly and I liked the 1984 I made from Bob’s grapes even better, I said sure. So we went commercial and made 350 cases of bubbly in 1988.
In 1989 I processed the grapes in the same way (barrel fermentation and full malolactic before bottling), but to my surprise, it made a rosé instead of a Blanc de Noirs, like the ‘88 was. No problem, so we put it in clear bottles and called it Cuvée de Meunier, instead of the Blanc de Meunier name we used for the 1988 in green bottles. The 1990 was again a rosé, but the 1991 and 1992 were blanc de noirs, so back to the green bottles. In 1991, I decided to disgorge and release the 1988, thinking that it was ready, because it had spent three years en tirage on the yeast, a little bit more than most sparkling wines usually get. It was very well received and was even placed on the wine list at Chez Panisse (every winemakers’ dream). We then released the 1989 Cuvée after three years aging. The 1991 was released after three years aging also, and it became the Plumpjack private label sparkling wine.
Turning to the 1990 and the 1992, both of which I thought were the best of all the vintages that I had made, I decided to extend their aging process until they reached their apogee of taste. At least every month, I continued to taste the wines as they were aging, and finally in 2011, decided that they both were ready to disgorge. We created the En Tirage label to emphasize their extended aging. Dom Perignon, Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame and Pol Roger’s Cuvée Winston Churchill were usually aged for around 7 years on the yeast. Bollinger’s RD was aged even longer. Over the years, I had tasted a few bottles of Bollinger RD, and it became my favorite bubbly, with the most memorable vintages being the 1959 and 1966. I liked Bollinger RD so much more than any other Champagne, and that encouraged me to keep aging my 1990 and 1992 En Tirage.
We released the 1992 in 2011, after 18 years aging en tirage. A friend, the wine importer and distributor Bartholomew Broadbent, tasted the wine and really appreciated what it was all about. He asked if there was anything he could do for me. I did not have enough production for him to take it on. But I thought for a moment, and then said I would love it if he would just take a bottle for his father, the legendary Michael Broadbent (and my favorite wine writer), to taste. Bartholomew did just that on his next trip to England, where he also made this video. I couldn’t have felt more honored and grateful.
We have now sold out of the 1992. Because the flavors and quality of the 1990 vintage convinced me that it deserved the most time en tirage, I waited until 2010 to disgorge it after 20 years of aging. And that same year, the grapes for our next venerable vintages were harvested from the Beckstoffer Las Amigas vineyard in the Carneros region. Pinot Noir created our Blanc de Noirs, and Chardonnay became our Blanc de Blancs. After 6 years aging en tirage, these cuvées were ready to be disgorged in 2016, and that’s what we’re happy to be releasing now in 2017. But because of my ongoing curiosity about the possibilities in extended aging while still on the yeast, I am still reserving some of the 2010 vintage en tirage to be disgorged at a yet to be revealed later date. So the waiting, tasting, and evaluating continues, and I’ll keep you posted of any new developments.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll get your own bottles of En Tirage, so you too can chill them, pop them, pour them, and enjoy them.
Á votre santé!
If you would like to purchase bottles of En Tirage for your personal enjoyment, refer to the Imbibe page for restaurants and stores that have ordered our wines for your enjoyment; alternatively, contact Don Baumhefner.