Well, this one was… different!
Last year, I was invited to (virtually) taste a brand new wine release, during its world premier unveiling event. The star of what turned out to be the slightly bizarre show was the 2016 – and inaugural – vintage of Untouched by Light by Slovenian producer Radgonske Gorice (who have nearly 170 years of sparkling wine experience under their belts, though this one was brand new even to them).
The idea – gimmicky or brilliant, depending on your point of view and level of skepticism – is that this particular bubbly is billed as the world’s first sparkling wine made, sold, and tasted in complete darkness.
Yeah, I’m serious. And yeah, I’m sober (right now, anyway). Some details from their press release:
“This wine is unique because of its production process. The night vision goggles are used for harvest, bottle rotation and packing. The wine is left to age for two to three years in Gornja Radgona cave in Slovenia, where it is untouched by the outside world, completely lightproof. In the jargon of Radgonske gorice this is popularly known as the ‘Crafted by Darkness’ method. Once out of the cave, the wine is protected in a black lightproof bottle, packed in a vacuum-sealed bag blocking any additional light or air contact.”
Really? Yep, really. According to Borut Cvetkovic, the CEO of Radgonske gorice, “We really do try to avoid any light and we’ve been more or less successful at it. We harvest in the dark, we only transport the grapes when they are securely covered under the tarp, and so on. Night vision goggles do help in each step of the process as you can see everything, but you only have to get used to them. We have also found that a sense of touch can compensate what we lack in vision – other senses really do come alive when you are deprived of one of them.”
The premise behind the endeavor is to avoid light-struck aromas (essentially the thing that makes all Corona beers tasted like they’re skunked). According to Radgonske gorice’s sources, only 5 minutes of exposure to harmful light is enough to reduce aromas in a wine, and potentially increase/introduce notes of wet dog, rubber, or cooked cabbage.
Interestingly and somewhat quixotically, during the world premier the bottles were literally opened in total darkness, with the assistance of night vision goggles (the same ones used for harvesting – on a moonless night, naturally – riddling, etc.), and a night-vision camera to show us the subsequently very green-washed and very blurry proceedings. So was it all worth it?…
2016 Radgonske Gorice ‘Untouched By Light’ Sparkling Brut (Slovenia, €100)
First, the vitals: 100% Chardonnay, from vineyards located in the northeastern Slovenia, and vinified in the classic Champagne method (tirage in April 2017, 36 months on lees, and disgorged at the beginning of 2020).
Next, some on-the-ground commentary from Klavdija Topolovec Spur, Radgonske gorice’s oenologist: “It was quite a challenge. The whole processes goes through in darkness. Our workers use goggles; the first time it looks like they’re at war. We also use totally black bottles.” During the media sessions, no one really mentioned whether or not this process was fun. But if I got to use night-vision on the regular, I’ve got to think it would be a blast.
Anyway… This is a fine and elegant sparkler, with bruised red apple flavors, hints of grilled lemons and peaches, and a lovely brioche character that is persistent right through a very, very long finish. You know from its texture that it’s the result of top-notch craftsmanship. Did its vampire-like repose impact it where it matters most (in your mouth)? Maybe… while no one would mistaken it for vintage Champers, there is a purity and richness to it that is simply difficult to find when you’re not shopping in the Champagne or Franciacorta aisles. It’s probably more gimmick than necessity, but as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke…
And in case you were wondering, yeah, I did open it (mostly) in the dark.