Taking bubbles to the dark side

Amanda Barnes finds a Slovenian sparkler that has remained untouched by light from picking to palate, while attending the funkiest of fizzy launches.

Wine launches are always a tough one to make interesting, especially during Covid times, when you can’t easily organise a big soirée. Radgonske Gorice’s wine launch last month was, however, perfectly interesting. A simple premise perhaps — a sample in the post and an evening Zoom call with the winemaker — but the unique caveat was that you had to have the call and tasting in the dark…

Untouched by Light is the new Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine release from Radgonske Gorice, a Slovenian producer with a 168-year-long history of making sparkling wines. What makes it different to previous releases is that this sparkling Chardonnay has had zero contact with light, ever since the grapes were picked at night, during the harvest in 2016. The sample arrived quite unlike any sample I’ve received before: in a box of corks and mysteriously covered from top to toe in a vacuum-sealed black bag. It was all rather avant-garde.

Sceptics might call it gimmicky, but I think as wine writers we are all too aware of the perils of light strike, most especially with sparkling wines, which can end up smelling like spoilt cabbage or wet dog in the worst-case scenario. I’ve always been a fan of Freixenet Cava’s black bottle for that very reason, and generally avoid clear-coloured bottles of bubbles when I can.

Even in the wine glass, sparkling wine loses its character at a rapid rate in direct sunshine. Years ago, I remember Argentine bubble maestro Pedro Rosell demonstrating the fact very simply by pouring me two glasses of the same sparkling wine and leaving one in the direct sunshine for a few minutes and one inside without any major light exposure. When I tasted them side by side, the one which had sat in the sun smelt bland and somewhat metallic, whereas the one that had stayed inside was still filled with aromas of apple, brioche and dried flowers. The difference was plain as night and day. (I’ve hovered my hand in a rather paranoid fashion over any glass of bubbles I drink at a sunny outdoor reception ever since…)

It was that exact same experiment which Pierre-Yves Bournerias, the sommelier from the Institut Oenologique de Champagne, encouraged everyone at the launch to try at home. “Five minutes is the time that the sun needs to damage the wine,” he said. “Light strike has a similar taste to reduction, but reduction is reversible and light strike is not.”

However, Radgonske Gorice’s new wine isn’t just trying to avoid light strike during the transport, storage or serving, but has effectively stopped any light from being part of the winemaking process. The grapes are harvested at night (not just at night, but on moonless nights apparently), and all the winemaking is done in the dark with the team using night vision goggles in the cellar. After making the wine in darkness, it goes into a black bottle for the second fermentation, later it is disgorged in the dark and then sealed in darkness in a nifty black bag before being sent out to the world.

“It was a challenge to make!” admitted winemaker Klavdija Topolovec Špur. “Our workers use these goggles when harvesting, and in the cellar, and we also use completely black bottles so you never see the wine. It’s challenging, but if you want to do something, you can make it happen!”

Aware that this wine had never even seen light in its four years of existence, I duly sat in my kitchen on the night of the launch with a candle lit, my screen brightness turned way down, a miserably dark stormy evening outside and my vacuum-packed bottle of bubbly chilled and ready for the Zoom call to start. It was already quite exciting before even opening the bag.

As part of the ceremony and premiere, there was a tour of the cellar (with night goggles, of course), with live music being streamed straight from the winery, a Q&A session and the first tasting of the wine — in darkness.

Darkness always offers a different, sensual atmosphere to any tasting. I visited a dark restaurant in London, Dans le Noir, some 15 years ago, whereby you eat the entire meal in pitch black, and the experience still remains with me today. I didn’t enjoy the food too much (there’s a lot to be said about feasting with your eyes!) but the whole experience was novel and stimulating. Opening a bottle in the dark with some 50-or-so attendees over Zoom was definitely different for a wine launch, and I imagine the experience will remain memorable for a long time too. And surely it was even more memorable for those attending the launch in person.

“It’s always an emotional moment to taste a wine for the first time, and especially as this is my first time in night goggles!” said Pierre, who with 30 years of Champagne vintages under his belt was invited to share his first impressions in the tasting: “I love the nose, it is extremely fresh [and] attractive, [with] citrus, white fruit, green tea, mint. It is very, very fresh. And you feel exactly the continuation of the nose in the mouth. It’s very harmonious and fresh in the first attack, with delicate bubbles and a creaminess to the wine.”

I also experienced it as a delicate and fresh sparkling wine, with subtle fine herb, citrus zest and blossom notes. It was an enjoyable and attractive wine to taste, perhaps less complex than I was expecting for four years on the lees, but this wine is obviously about more than just how it tastes in the glass. It is about pioneering a new way of making sparkling wine, in the dark (or ‘Crafted by Darkness’ as the winery refers to it), and drawing attention to the detrimental impact that light can have on wine.

“We want to offer the world something different and unique,” said CEO Borut Cvetkovič. “We have invested a lot of effort and knowledge in this product.” I have no doubt that the investment has been enormous, and the proposed €100 price tag reflects this.

From an academic point of view, I’d certainly be interested in tasting the difference between this wine, or any wine for that matter, made in complete darkness, as well as the same wine made with regular light in the process. We’re all aware of how damaging light strike can be on finished wines, but I’m eager to know what impact light can have during the process of winemaking. It’s a factor that is rarely discussed or studied.

Untouched by Light is a bold step into what could potentially be an enlightening experiment into winemaking in complete or near darkness. At the very least, I certainly hope that Untouched by Light touches a nerve in the wine industry and encourages a little more darkness and a little less light strike.

It will be interesting to see how sommeliers and wine merchants take this experience forward to the consumer, and if indeed drinking in darkness becomes a more regular experience. The whole experience certainly brightened up my evening!