Blinded by the light? Sparkling wine Untouched by Light

Light is something we take for granted in our everyday lives, used to controlling the amount of it in our homes with the flick of a switch (or touch of a smart phone if you’re that way inclined).

Of course we know that we should be wary of the sun’s rays and lather ourselves in SPF in the summer months. And a look in a shop window whose display hasn’t changed for a while, or the bleaching of colours of a favourite watercolour exposed to sunlight demonstrates the power of ultraviolet rays. But what about the effect on wine?

Lightstrike is the name given to a now accepted phenomenon, whereby sunlight (and even artificial light) negatively affect the quality of wines. There is some discussion on how long the exposure needs to be in order to be noticeable – as little as 5 minutes according to Professor Emerita Ann Noble in a paper published back in 1989.

And what are the effects? As with many wine faults, there’s a spectrum of effects, from dulling of the fruit through to distinctly overcooked cabbagey (sulphide) aromas. I once came across a pink sparkling wine that tasted disconcertingly of Camembert, which I put down to light strike.

What can be done to protect wines? A glance at supermarket or wine merchant shelves demonstrates one way – the use of coloured glass bottles. The popular dark green is OK at filtering out UV, but unfashionable dark brown is even better. Worst of all, unsurprisingly, is plain glass – the bottle of choice for fashionable pale rosés and pink sparkling wines.

Wine bottles in boxes are even better protected than glass alone. And once you get your wines home, a dark cupboard is preferable to a normally lit room. Some zealots have even been known to wrap their wines in foil before chilling them in the fridge, to avoid being damaged by the fridge light.

One wine producer has taken all this to its logical (or perhaps illogical) conclusion – Untouched by Light is a sparkling wine from Slovenia which is, well, need I say more.

In common with many sparkling wines and Champagnes, all the winemaking and ageing takes place in an underground cellar. But Radgonske Gorice has taken this quite a few steps further. The grapes were picked by hand, at night, the harvesters equipped with night vision goggles. The same goggles were also needed in the winery and cellar, as no artificial light was allowed. The wine was put into an opaque black glass bottle for second fermentation and ageing. And finally, the entire bottle was encased in a black plastic sleeve before leaving the cellar.

To celebrate the launch of this first of its kind wine, held over Zoom (as is the 2020 norm), a number of international wine writers were sent a bottle to taste – in the dark of course. We linked up to the producer’s cellars live and were given the wine’s backstory. It had the feel as much of a cultural happening as a wine launch, as we were serenaded by Vlado Kreslin, Slovenia’s foremost folk rock singer-songwriter, during technical scene shifting.

What of the wine itself? It’s easy to be cynical and dismissive of this kind of project. A lavish international launch, a limited production of just 2,000 bottles, quirky packaging and a hefty price tag of €100 for what is essentially a traditional method sparkling blanc de blancs aged for 3 years. You could pick up a crémant made in the same way for literally one tenth of the price.

Of course all the light protection measures taken have added considerably to production costs. And even at that price, I’m sure there are plenty of well-off fizz fans who would love to have a taste for themselves.

Price aside, I was happy with the quality of the wine. It had a lovely combination of ripeness of fruit, combined with herbaceous freshness. Flowers and tangerine mingled with mint and green apple, before a refreshing, slightly salty finish. When I put the light on (breaking regs there) the colour of the wine was quite deep – surprisingly so for a youngish Chardonnay-based sparkling wine. But I must confess that my experience of Slovenian traditional method sparkling wines is very limited, so I don’t have much of a benchmark to judge it against. And of course there is no Touched by Light cuvée for us to compare, to be able to pick apart just how much effect the exclusion of light really has.

As a way to raise the profile of the effect of light on wines, bravo to producer Radgonske Gorice. Protecting all our wines from light is important – something to consider when we’re picking up a bottle of rosé in its usual clear glass bottle. And a listing for the wine in Dans le Noir restaurant, where the whole meal service takes place in the dark is surely a match made in heaven.

If you’d like to get hold of your own bottle of Untouched by Light, see http://www.untouchedbylight.com

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