Please don’t attempt to rush Eric Fry.
It’s not that he’ll get mad at you. Actually, the Lenz winemaker will probably laugh—a deep, easy, bubbling guffaw—like he did when I told him about the tasting room manager’s response to my question concerning the whereabouts of the latest Lenz RD sparkler: “Ha!” she blurted. “Tell Eric we’d like to know the answer to that, too!”
But this is the thing about the RD—in order for it to go quickly (the tiny bubbles, that is), at first it must go very, very slowly.
“I don’t make a lot of it,” he cautions. “And until it’s ready, it’s not ready!” This means that the RD—“récemment dégorgé,” or recently disgorged—will sit quietly in the dusty, dark cellar beneath the tasting room for a good decade, give or…give.
Sparkling wine made using the traditional Champagne method goes through two fermentations—one for the base wine, and then another to make the bubbles. That second fermentation occurs when a semi-magical mix of yeast and something called liqueur de tirage—basically, a combo of sugar and wine—is added. Yeast eats the sugar, creating alcohol, carbon dioxide and exhausted dead yeast deposits. Trapped beneath its temporary crown cap, the CO2 becomes those famous bubbles. “What happens is the yeasts that are in there are decomposing, but at the same time they give little tiny proteins to the solution,” explains Fry, “which helps generate smaller bubbles, which is verrrry desirable!”
What would happen without that extra time on the yeast?
“Have you ever had sparkling wine that just kind of tastes like soda pop?” Fry asks. “That means they left it for a very short amount of time on the yeast. You end up with bubbles that are like Coca-Cola bubbles—big ones that go right out of the solution real quick. That’s what’s done with cheap wine—whether you paid a lot for it or not.”
The other reason Fry prefers to let sleeping bottles lie is the resulting flavor, which can’t be produced by anything other than calendar flipping and patience. “The point of the RD is to sort of push the envelope,” he says, “and to give it a long time on the yeast to really increase that bready, toasty, caramel-honey character. The flavor changes and increases over time, and it adds a smooth, rich, nice creaminess.”
If you want to know what it might be like, look to the Lenz Cuvée (perhaps bring a bottle of the 2001 to your favorite local July 4 celebration?), which is where the RD gets its start. After about five years, Fry disgorges the Cuvée, but he leaves a bunch behind to sit and continue the process. “I put it in a bin and forget about it for 5 or 6 years.”
So what can we expect of this elusive 1996? According to Fry, it was a gorgeous growing season; a cool and lovely string of months that allowed more hang-time for the grapes, thus affording a natural fruitiness to the resulting wines. In the sparkler, this means bright, pretty sour cherries from the pinot noir (70 percent, give or take), and green apple from the rest, which is Chardonnay—flavors that Fry says beg for local oysters and shellfish as soon as the bottles hit the shelf. “For me, all the aging necessary for any bubbly in the world is done by the winery. When you buy it, you should consume it. The idea of taking sparking wine and putting it in the cellar and aging it for years…to me, it’s crazy. It doesn’t improve. Or, it improves for the first year, then it hits a plateau, and then it starts going downhill and oxidizing.”
He still hasn’t answered the question, though: When is the 1996 being released?
“It’ll happen this year—I’ll probably disgorge it before harvest. And then I like to give it three to six months in the bottle, because the yeast flavors are kind of hidden when you first disgorge it; you need a little time for it to wake up. But it’s getting into the right time period—I’m thinking about it….”