So…some sparkling wine basics to start with. The bubbles were first looked at as a flaw, but the Brits got a taste and liked it! During the 17th century the English glass production used coal ovens rather than wood like the French and were able to create a more durable bottle that could better withstand the pressure in sparkling wine. Prior to this it was not unusual for a cellar to loose 20-90% of their bottles to instability.
How did it get to England and hook the Brits you ask? Well Champagne is a cold region and sometimes the fermentation process would be prematurely halted due to the cold temperature leaving dormant yeast and some residual sugar in the bottle. They would box up the wine and ship it to England, where it would warm up and begin a second fermentation in the bottle and thus when opened in jolly old England it would be bubbly!
There are two methods of making Champagne or sparkling wine. The first is the “Methode Traditionnelle” and the second is Charmat.
The Traditional method “Methode Traditionnelle” is much more complicated and time consuming and therefore much more expensive. After harvest the grapes are put in vats for the first fermentation which can be up to a year. Then the wines are carefully blended and may be blended with previous years wines to create the house style. This is known as assemblage. The idea for French champagne makers is to create a champagne that is consistent from year to year. After assemblage the liquer de tirage is added. This mixture of still wine, sugar and yeast is what will trigger the second fermentation. The wines are then bottled and capped (with simple bottle caps (anyone remember those?). Then the 2nd fermentation begins and can take 10 days to 3 months. After the 2nd fermentation the next step is Remuage. The bottles are transferred to “pupitres” which are rectangular boards where the bottles can rest almost upside down. This allows the lees and sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle. A process known as “riddling “ is applied here. Originally “Riddlers” would slowly turn the bottles, a bit of a turn gently each day to get all the sediment to settle in the neck, now there are machines that assist with this. After the riddling the wine will be aged again on its lees for a minimum of one year for non-vintage champagnes and at least 3 years for vintage champagnes. This aging allows the lees to breakdown which is what gives Methode Traditionnelle sparkling wines their bouquet and flavor. But we are not done yet…you don’t want all that lees clouding up your beautiful sparkling wine! The next step is Degorgement where the sediment is removed. The neck of the bottle is put into a nitrogen solution to freeze it. Then the bottle is opened and the solid frozen plug of lees is removed. How in the world did they figure out how to do this? Well for this tradition thanks the Veuve Clicquot. Veuve in French is widow and Madame Clicquot’s husband died during the bottling process. Legend says that she could not figure out how to get the lees out of the bottles and in her frustration threw them out into the snow, where….the necks froze first allowing them to easily remove the lees. The final stage is to add more sugar and still wine to again fill the neck where the lees was removed. This last “dosage” as it is called, determines the wines sweetness which goes from Brut to Sec. Strangely enough, Extra dry is not as dry as Brut. The Brut labels were added later to indicate a dryer wine. It is a bit of work!
In this method the Champagne is made in large tanks and CO2 is added to add the bubbles. This method is used for less expensive sparkling wines. The bubbles tend to be larger and “rule of thumb”, the larger the bubbles the bigger the headache. These bubbles tend to disperse quickly also.
Blog Post(s) on Champagne
Sparkling Wine, and those tiny bubbles