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This week in the winery: Disgorging

2021 begins in earnest this week in the Oxney winery. Disgorging is one of the most enjoyable stages of the winemaking process, as well as one of the messiest. It’s the final step in the long journey from beautiful organically-grown grapes to beautiful traditional-method sparkling wine.

Right now, our bottling room is packed with pallets of upside-down sealed bottles, each containing a little cluster of dead yeast cells (or lees) resting on the inside of a crown cap. Those yeast cells have been the agents of the fizz-producing second fermentation, having been added to it months and years ago.

Over that time the yeast has consumed the sugar and emitted just the right amount of CO2 to create the frothy delights lurking in every bottle of sparkling Oxney. But this fermentation only took a matter of weeks. So why did we leave those expired yeast cells floating around in the wine for all this time?

The answer is one of the most important words in the world of sparkling wine: autolysis. This is the process that sees dead yeast cells break down and impart the delicious bakery-shop flavours that elevate traditional-method fizz above its hastily-carbonated counterparts. Whenever you get a whiff of bread or brioche or pastry in your glass, that’s autolysis.

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re slightly in awe of the capabilities of the winemaker’s miraculous microbial helper. Autolysis is the final proof that there is alchemy at work when yeast meets humble grape juice. Those lees deserve the celebratory send-off provided by disgorging.

So, back to all those upside-down bottles in our bottling room. One by one, we take those bottles and pop off the crown cap. Under six atmospheres of pressure, the yeast launches on one last glorious arc out of the bottle, along with a small quantity of wine.

This loss gives us one final opportunity to finesse the wine with a dosage of organic beet sugar and a small but perfectly prepared draught of base wine. Then we seal the bottle under cork and a wire cage, before leaving it to rest for a final few months.

Sounds simple? In practice, there are many disgorging choices that complicate things. There are a few different methods (à la volée is our favourite), while many producers flat-out refuse to disgorge before a set period of time on lees. But once again, we’re more interested in making wines that express their origins than sticking to a self-imposed timeframe. So when we decided this week to disgorge our 2017 Classic, Estate NV Rosé and cider, it’s because we know this moment is the culmination of the fruit’s epic journey, when everything inside the bottle is in perfect balance, ready to proudly don the Oxney label. You’ll be able to taste the results for yourself later this year!

And thanks to Mark and Julie for posing for our photo!