Sparkling Wine 101

As promised, a short course on the difference between wine and sparkling wine.

The amazing thing about sparkling wine is that it still exists because in terms of production, it’s a royal pain! Every time I visit a sparkling wine house I come away amazed that the wines don’t cost more than they do! The thing is that the winemaker has to do virtually everything that’s necessary to make still wine and then add on several steps more. Here’s how it goes:

The short course: 

1. Very tart, low alcohol wine is made, blended and bottled.

2. Yeast and sugar are added to the bottle of wine before it’s sealed, which sets off a second fermentation right there in the bottle. Since the carbon dioxide gas can’t escape, it’s absorbed into the wine, later to be released as bubbles.

3. The best bubblies are aged on the spent yeast cells, which impart a toasty, yeasty character that enthusiasts adore. As the wine ages the bubbles become finer and finer.

4. Finally, the yeast is worked up into the neck of the bottle and removed.

5. Removing the yeast leaves a bit of a deficit, so the wine is topped up with more wine, usually mixed with sugar syrup to balance the high acid. The sweetness of the syrup creates the difference between Brut (dry), Extra Dry (off-dry) and so forth.

6. Final corking. Additional aging, especially for vintage dated Champagne is an option.

For those who want the whole story:

The harvest: The classic grapes for making sparkling wine are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Conventional wisdom is that the varieties contribute (of course, it depends upon where and how the grapes were grown and cellar treatment):

  • Chardonnay: Elegance, freshness, finesse
  • Pinot Noir: Body, structure, complexity – the best choice for a full-bodied style
  • Pinot Meunier: Early drinkability, fruitiness, brightness

The grapes for sparkling wine are picked earlier that the rest and at considerably lower sugars, around 18-20%. Since acid goes down as the sugar goes up, you know the wine will be tart. If you ever go to an “assemblage” tasting, where they make the cuvée (blend), brace yourself for some painfully acidic wines!

The grapes are very gently pressed in order to avoid extracting color or bitterness from the skins and seeds and the juice is fermented at low temperatures to retain fruitiness.

The Assemblage: When the wine is made, it’s time to begin making the cuvée, which determines the style. This is a big deal – experience counts and it’s a painstaking process that takes weeks.

The winemaker has to taste these very sharp wines imagining what each will contribute  to the blend once it’s been fermented again and is fizzy. She has a wide spectrum of vineyard locations, varieties and vintages to work with. It’s quite common for the final cuvée to be composed of over thirty lots – sometimes as many as sixty. Most houses make several styles – certainly a multi vintage, a vintage wine when the weather permits as well as perhaps a Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay), Blanc de Noirs (all black grapes) and/or a Rosé.

Once the cuvée is made and the wine is clarified it’s time for the second fermentation – this time inside of a sealed bottle – the very bottle in which the wine will later be sold. A little yeast and sugar is added in order to set off bottle fermentation. Of course, the carbon-dioxide gas has nowhere to go and it’s absorbed into the wine. The alcohol increases by about 1%.

Aging, riddling and disgorging:  The yeast gives the wine the toasty, brioche-like character and during the months or years of yeast contact the bubbles decrease in size as the wine increases in complexity and finesse and develops a lovely creamy texture.

The sticky yeast cells that cling to the bottle leave a cleanup job for the winemaker. The traditional clarification method was developed by the widow Cliquot of Veuve Clicquot fame. The story is that she used her kitchen table as the model. In any case, a “riddling rack” is an A-frame rack with numerous holes carved out for the bottle necks. The bottles go into the rack neck down and are given a shake and 1/8 of a turn every day to loosen the yeast. They start out nearly horizontal and with each shake and as the angle increases until the bottle is nearly vertical and the yeast has worked its way up into the bottle neck. This labor-intensive process takes about six weeks!

Today, most producers use a nifty device called the gyropalette to accomplish this far more efficiently. It was invented in the 1970s and there’s some dispute as to whether the Spanish or French deserve the credit. There’s no argument that it was first put to use in Spain.

Once all the yeast is contained in the neck it’s time to get rid of it. Disgorging the yeast in the traditional way involves submerging the bottle necks in a freezing brine to solidify it. The cap is removed and this yeast pellet shoots out of the bottle under about 100 pounds of pressure – quite exciting when done manually! There are safer, mechanical means to disgorge by now.

A little wine is lost in “dégorgement” and it’s replace with a “dosage” of wine and sugar syrup. The sweetness of the dosage determines the sweetness of the wine. And, it’s ready for, perhaps, some additional bottle aging and eventual release.

There are less labor-intensive methods for producing sparkling wine. The somewhat more efficient “Charmat”, or bulk process conducts the second fermentation in tanks instead of bottles. Of course, the complexity that comes with wine to yeast contact is lost and the bubbles are usually larger. This is quite common for moderately priced sparkling wine. The least costly method of all is the simple injection of carbon-dioxide gas.

If you want to be sure the wine is made in the traditional way look for the words “Champagne Method” or “Traditional Method.”

TRIVIA! French sparkling wine from outside of Champagne is called “Crémant”. Germany offers Sekt and Italy has Prosecco or spumante. Of course, in the US and much of the new world it’s called sparkling wine or brut.

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