The newest wine style from Canada’s newest wine region is a beguiling nod to the past. Neon-pink, gently spritzy and moderately sweet, it might on the surface summon dreaded memories of Baby Duck-era “pop” wines. But I’m talking distant past here, a handcrafted bubbly with pre-Champagne cachet.
Ancestral, from Hinterland Wine Co. in Ontario’s Prince Edward County, follows a tradition kept alive by old-school producers in Bugey-Cerdon, a relatively obscure appellation in the Jura mountains of eastern France. The name derives from méthode ancestrale, a technique that put fizz in French wine more than a century before the birth of Champagne as we know it.
Though it comes in a standard sparkling-wine bottle, Ancestral diverges from regal Champagne in one critical technical aspect, the source of its spritz. In short, there’s one fermentation, not two.
To make Champagne, one must first produce a still wine, letting yeast feed on grape sugars to yield alcohol and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide becomes an unwanted byproduct, intentionally expelled through the top of the open fermentation tank. The bubbles come only later, during a secondary fermentation, induced by adding fresh sugar and yeast at the bottling stage. The micro-organisms once again feed off the sugar, as in the primary fermentation, only this time the carbon dioxide is trapped under pressure of the sealed bottle in a technique known as méthode champenoise, or the “traditional method.”
With méthode ancestrale, producers instead play a game of early intervention, trapping carbon dioxide from the primary fermentation by bottling before the original yeast can finish its sugar-mopping job. It’s a relatively rogue approach, because a winemaker can’t easily control how much sugar and yeast are left in the tank at bottling. The results are inconsistent at best, but, some might argue, the wines come with their own idiosyncratic appeal. If méthode champenoise is digital precision, méthode ancestrale is a scratchy analogue LP.
The method was pioneered in the southern Limoux region in the early to mid-1500s and is also used to produce spritzy moscato d’Asti in northwest Italy, arriving in Bugey more recently. In Limoux and Asti, however, ancestrale wines are all white, whereas in Bugey the technique is used for red – or, rather, delicately pink – wines based principally on light-coloured gamay, the same red variety used at Hinterland.
“It’s like neon lingerie,” Jonas Newman, Hinterland’s co-owner, says of Ancestral’s feminine, rose-petal hue. The flavour might be called seductive too, a tad sweeter than off-dry, evoking strawberries and watermelon as well as a grapey quality that would be familiar to anyone who has sampled still-bubbling grape must. “You want to bottle the flavours of fermentation,” Mr. Newman says.
The technique is considered more “ancestral” than that of Champagne because bottled sparkling wine got its start this way, initially as a happy accident. In cool climates, yeast would occasionally become paralyzed as temperatures dropped in autumn, stalling the fermentation. Frustrated but undeterred, winemakers would bottle anyway. Then in spring the dormant yeast would awaken to feed anew inside the bottles. Froth was not the only surprise that would ensue. Because such early wines were contained in regular glass and sealed with conventional cylindrical corks versus the wire-collar contraptions of modern Champagne, unsuspecting cellar hands would often be forced to seek cover from flying corks and exploding glass.
As consumer taste for bubbles grew, producers began sourcing heavier glass to minimize collateral losses (and, presumably, liability claims). In Champagne, they also developed the secondary fermentation technique to introduce more precise and certain carbonation. After all, there was no guarantee the weather would co-operate to halt fermentation in autumn.
There’s another advantage to the Champagne method. By precisely measuring sugar and yeast levels for the secondary fermentation, it’s possible to insert just enough into the bottle to create a dry wine, with virtually no residual sugar. In the ancestrale technique, residual sugar is a virtual certainty.
Méthode ancestrale wines also tend to be lower in alcohol, roughly 8 to 9 per cent by volume. In fact, at 8.9 per cent, Hinterland’s barely qualifies as wine under Ontario law. Lower than 7 per cent and it would fall ingloriously into the “wine cooler” category.
Mr. Newman and his wife and business partner, Vicki Samaras, got the idea for the wine from a friend, John Gay, a Toronto-based sommelier turned wine merchant. Mr. Gay had been captivated by a hard-to-come-by Bugey he had begun selling to restaurants, imploring the couple to come taste. Ms. Samaras rushed to meet the merchant while the latter was on a sales call at Toronto’s Granite Club. The pair popped a cork and “clinked” plastic cups in the tony private club’s parking lot, and Ms. Samaras became smitten with the wine. (It probably helped that it was a hot day in July, perfect weather for a fizzy sweet wine.)
To be fair, Hinterland’s wine (which sells for $23 direct from the winery) would not qualify for France’s méthode ancestrale designation in the end. Rather than relying on the vagaries of ambient temperatures, Mr. Newman forcibly arrests fermentation by chilling the fermentation tank after achieving the desired sugar-yeast balance. In other words, he doesn’t wait until spring to bottle, as they do in Bugey. He also filters out sediment prior to bottling, a necessary step to qualify for Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance seal. (Turbidity is a no-no under VQA standards.) French appellation laws, by contrast, prohibit filtering where ancestrale is concerned, the dead-yeast sediment considered part of the wine’s charm.
Hinterland produced just 4,000 bottles of Ancestral this year, double last year’s maiden – and mainly experimental – vintage. Much will be sold to intrepid restaurant managers seeking something other than icewine to offer as a homegrown dessert partner. Fresh-fruit concoctions are a classic match, though moderately sweet cakes and cookies work well. David Loan, owner-manager at Zen Kitchen, a gourmet vegan restaurant in Ottawa’s Chinatown district, plans to offer it on Valentine’s Day with a tres leches cake, a spongy dessert made with milk. Ancestrale-style wines are little known, Mr. Loan says, but they “can be beautiful and lively – happiness in a glass.”
Perhaps counterintuitively, Ancestral also would not be out of place with salty charcuterie, the wine’s sweetness counterbalancing the salty-smoky quality of many cured meats. And Mr. Newman has his own favourite match. “It works awesome with curry,” he says, adding that the wine plays a yin-yang role similar to that of fruit-based chutneys in spicy Indian cuisine. Call it an untraditional pairing for a very traditional wine.
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