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About Sparkling Wine

by Jim LaMar

Wines with bubbles are associated, for many people, primarily with festivities and celebrations. More precious and complicated to make than still wines, they have traditionally been considered as occasional extravagances. With higher acidity, more delicate flavor, their unique palate tingle and lower alcohol than most table wines, they are, however, some of the most versatile wines to accompany food. Modern production techniques have brought sparkling wines to market that are more affordable and accessible for everyday enjoyment.

As a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, carbon dioxide is released in the liquid to provide a "sparkle." In the Northern climates, cold weather sometimes arrives early after harvest, stopping fermentation before the sugar is completely used up. Warm weather in the spring often causes it to start up again, resulting in carbonated wine. The English imported wine in casks and bottled it in bottles that were much stronger than those in France and not as inclined to burst when the pressure built. They found also that adding sugar to tart, acidic wine would often soon cause it to sparkle and they developed a liking for it.

Early success making sparkling wines in the French district of Champagne made its name famous, so much so that "champagne" has become generic for sparkling wine, to the eternal aggravation of the resident producers1. The Champagne Appellation has some of the strictest, most exacting standards for growing, producing and labeling in all the wine world. Cheap American brands copy the Champagne name, but neither the standards, nor the methods. Quality American producers emulate the standards, apply the traditional production methods and, out of respect and in deference, leave the Champagne name to the originals.

The Méthode Champenoise involves many specialized steps in both viticulture and enology has taken centuries to evolve, through the contributions of scores of nameless inventors, innovators and workers. Modernization and refinement of the "traditional" sparkling wine process continues to this day, although its beginnings are in antiquity.


The First Champagne: "I am drinking stars!"

Around the 1690s, a blind Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon made some very significant developments as cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers in Epernay. He had the idea to harvest selectively, over a period of days rather than all at once, so that only the ripest fruit was taken with each pass. He also is credited with inventing the Coquard or "basket" wine press and using it to make the first "Blanc de Noir". Another of his major developments was to blend wines of different vineyards and varieties to achieve better balance between their individual characteristics. He was an excellent taster and his cuvée system is still followed closely to this day by the house of Moêt & Chandon to produce their finest Champagne. Finally, although corks had already been used by the Romans as closures for wine bottles, he found, that by securing these stoppers in the bottles with string, he could retain the sparkle for long periods of time.

His celebrated remark "I am drinking stars" brought him great fame, but Dom Perignon did not, in fact, "invent" Champagne. There is even a possibility he may have uttered his phrase, not out of jubilation, but rather from remorse. It is fairly certain that Frere Perignon long attempted to find a way to remove or prevent the bubbles, before he accepted and embraced them. His innovations of selective harvesting and blending were probable experiments towards this end.


Traditional Methods

The traditional way of making sparkling wine begins with the grape harvest, which is always early in the season, compared to the picking of still wines. Picking when sugars are relatively low keeps the alcohol low, since secondary fermentation will boost it later. Also, the youthful acids help to preserve the wine over the long course of its development. The grapes are pressed immediately, by-passing the crushing equipment, to avoid both oxidation and color in the wine.

The initial fermentation takes place most often in stainless steel tanks, although many varieties of container, from concrete vats to redwood tanks, are used. After the usual period of three weeks or more, when all of the natural grape sugar has been converted to alcohol, the wine is "dry." While the wine rests in a cold environment, solids and particles settle to the bottom. The clear wine on top is then racked or siphoned off the murky lees. Sometimes it is aged in oak barrels during or after this clarification and racking. The new wine is quite weak in flavor, very tart and low in alcohol. It may then be blended with stocks of older wine saved from previous vintages, to keep a consistent "house" style, or cuvée.

At bottling, a small amount of sugar that has been dissolved in old wine, along with special yeast is added. This liqueur de tirage assures a uniform secondary fermentation in the bottles. Until the application of three scientific contributions, making sparkling wine could be more dangerous than making bombs. The proper amount of sugar to add for balanced wine was quantified by M. Chaptal in 1801; Pharmacist André Francois invented, in 1836, a way to measure the remaining amount of sugar in wine; and Pasteur explained the fermentation process in 1857.

Some producers now insert a small plastic reservoir, called a bidule, which later aids in collecting and removing the sediment. After closing with cork-lined metal crown caps, the bottles are stored on their sides in cool cellars while the yeast ferments the sugar, boosting the alcohol and producing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. At this point, the wine is only half made, although the wine will become complete and reach the consumer in this same bottle. The cuvée is now en tirage. This phase may span from two to several years. Meantime, the bottle stacks are observed for the inevitable breakage that occurs; flawed glass is sometimes unable to withstand the pressure that gradually increases to 100 pounds or more per square inch.

During the secondary fermentation, sediments form from dead yeast and solids left behind during the initial clarification procedures. Consolidating the sediments for removal is another long process, known as remuage. This sediment is very fine, sludgy and sticky. Removing it from the bottle, without removing the wine, is a problem. Getting it to collect in the neck, near the opening, is the first step. In 1805, Nicole-Barbe Cliquot Ponsardin, became a young widow and head of a major Champagne house. Seeking assistance from gravity, she cut holes in her kitchen table, in order to invert the bottles. She found that shaking helped loosen the sediments, although some still stuck to the bottle bottoms. In 1810, she employed Antoine Muller and he improved the procedure by beginning with the bottle at a 45° angle, gradually increasing the angle with each shaking, until the bottom was up, the neck straight down.


Degorging the Sparkling Wine

Whether riddled by hand or machine, in the end, the bottles are standing nearly straight upside down, with the sediment now resting on the caps. Keeping in this position, the bottles are transferred to bins where they are stored, necks down, until ready for shipping to market, at which time the sediment is removed, the contents are topped up and the sweetness adjusted, and the crown caps replaced with corks, wire hoods, and foils.

Removing the sediment from the bottles is a process called dégorgement, or disgorging. The bottle necks are dipped in a solution of freezing brine or glycol. This freezes a plug of wine and sediment in the top of the neck. Skilled workers then invert each bottle as they uncap it, releasing a small amount of wine as the plug of frozen sediment flies out. The bottle is then topped up with a dosage of reserve wine, sweetened to the right amount for the determined style, also known as the liqueur d'expedition. Modern bottling lines accomplish these tasks mechanically with amazing speed and precision. Méthode Champenoise takes normally from two to five years to complete, depending on the house style.

In addition to the normal smell and taste criteria of still wine, sparkling wine quality is judged by the size of the bubbles (smaller is better), their persistence (long-lasting is better) and their mouth feel (how well they are integrated into the wine and the relative smoothness or coarseness of their texture).


Other Methods

There are, in fact, other processes to put the sparkle in wine. Techniques have been developed that are very different and, many would argue, inferior to the Méthode Champenoise, based on these areas of judgment. Twentieth century technology brought, besides injected carbonation, the Charmat or "bulk" process and the "transfer" process.

Sparkling wine made by the transfer process, follows the same procedure as Méthode Champenoise, up to the point of bottling. The secondary fermentation does not take place in the actual bottle sold to the customer. The wine is bottled en tirage. However, following secondary fermentation, the fermentation bottles are emptied under pressure and the wine filtered. This replaces the rémuage, riddling and dégorgement steps. The transferred wine is then bottled under pressure into a new set of bottles that are shipped to market.

The transfer method, invented in Germany, does not have a proprietary name (possibly because no individual or commercial entity would claim it). On wines sold in the United States, it is only announced by a deceptively subtle packaging regulation. The label statement "Fermented in this bottle" means Méthode Champenoise, whereas "Fermented in the bottle" refers to the transfer process; so much for reading the fine print.

Transfer is considerably less expensive and time-consuming than Méthode Champenoise. The transfer method goes from harvest to bottling in as little as ninety days, up to one year. Proponents claim the transfer method produces a more consistent product from bottle to bottle; detractors say the process strips flavor elements, especially yeast flavors. Many Champagne makers commonly use the transfer method to produce any size bottle smaller than 750 milliliter or larger than 1.5 liter.

Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, invented his process in 1907. Instead of individual bottles to produce the secondary fermentation, he invented the glass-lined tank. The wine stays under constant pressure in bulk, through the filtering and bottling process, which takes as little as ninety days from picking to bottling. It is also known as the bulk process.

Both the transfer and Charmat process are time and money savers. There are knowledgeable wine critics who contend that the different methods of producing sparking wine can each produce equal quality product given the same fruit to begin with. These critics are in the minority and commercial attempts at high quality Charmat or bulk process sparklers are few and far between.

Differences between the processes are readily noticeable in their end products. Both the transfer and Charmat wines usually have larger, less-long-lasting bubbles. Méthode Champenoise bubbles are usually more integrated into the wine and longer lasting. Also, because of the additional time Méthode Champenoise takes to clear the wine of sediment, the flavors of yeast autolysis (chemical breakdown) add complexity and a creaminess to the wine that is absent in the faster methods.


Styles of Sparkling Wines

Style is determined by the maker. There is a Common Market Standard for levels of residual sugar (in parentheses) in sparking wines, but adherence is voluntary. Brut nature (.0-.5%) should taste bone dry. Brut (.5-1.5%) should taste dry with no perception of sweetness. Extra Dry (1.2-2.0%) tastes slightly sweet and is a style invented for the American market that "talks dry and drinks sweet." Sec (1.7-3.5%) literally translates to "dry", but is noticeably sweet. No wonder the public is confused! Demi-Sec (3.3-5.0%) is very sweet and Doux (over 5.0%) is extremely sweet. (see our Tasting Notes)

French sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region is labeled Vins Mousseux. Italians call their sparkling wine Spumante, the most popular one made in a sweet style with Muscat grapes grown around the town of Asti. Sekt is the German designation for sparkling wine. The Spanish call their sparkling wines Cava, if made by Méthode Champenoise. When labeling their sparkling wines, American producers don't conform to the European standards. The general guide for American "champagne" is: the cheaper they are, the sweeter they taste.


Grape Varietals and Vintages

The major varietals used for (French) Champagne are Chardonnay, Meunier, and Pinot Noir. Many California producers of quality sparkling wines adhere to this list, although very little Meunier is grown there. Other sparkling wine producers worldwide can and do use anything from Thompson Seedless to various clones of Muscat. Blanc de Blancs is used to designate white wine made only from white (green) grapes; Blanc de Noirs is white wine made only from black (red) grapes.

Most sparking wine is non-vintage, which allows the winemaker to blend older wine with the new, to achieve a consistent flavor style. These non-vintaged wines are ready to consume immediately. Slowly but surely, they will begin to deteriorate; further aging does not improve these wines at all.

Vintage-dated Champagne or sparkling wine can usually benefit from some bottle-aging, provided the consumer enjoys the older, richer, fatter, less vivacious flavors that will ensue. There is generally no improvement more than ten years beyond the vintage date.

Sometimes a Méthode Champenoise producer will leave the wine en tirage for an extended period of years and then bottle a "Reserve" or "Late Disgorged" bottling. These wines are mostly vintage dated, usually a decade or more old when released for sale, and immediately ready to consume.

by Jim LaMar


Jim LaMar is editor of Professional Friends of Wine, instructs Introductory Sensory Evaluation of Wine at California State University, Fresno, and has been drinking, thinking, teaching and writing about wine for 30 years. He is a member of Professional Friends of Wine.




Sweetness of Sparkling Wines

In ascending order of sweetness, these common definitions are used to distinguish the most popular styles of sparkling wine:

  • Natural: Bone dry sparkling wine
  • Brut: Very dry and crisp
  • Extra Dry: Despite the term "Extra Dry," 2% residual sugar makes this slightly sweeter than either of the above.


How to open a bottle of sparkling wine?

Message in a Bottle: Hold bottle angled away from you. Make sure it's not pointed at anyone else, a window or at a light fixture.

Let's Twist Again! Carefully pull off the foil. Keep a protective hand over the exposed cork beneath to prevent it from flying out prematurely. If there is a wire over the cork, gently untwist and remove it. Keeping a firm grip on the cork with one hand, twist the bottle (as opposed to the cork) gently with the other hand, while also trying to pull the bottle away from the cork. Cork and bottle should part company with the merest hint of a pop.

A Word to the Wise: Another option for those of a cautious disposition: wrap a linen napkin around the the neck of the bottle before easing out the cork; this should all but eliminate the risk of sending the cork into orbit.

All Shook Up? We hope not! To preserve those precious bubbles and prevent a sparkling wine from frothing over the top of a glass, pour no more than an inch of wine into each glass. As the froth subsides, go round a second time, topping up the glasses.

The most elegant way to hold a sparkling wine bottle as you pour is to place your thumb inside the "punt" (hollow area at base of bottle) and extend your fingers around the bottle, without obscuring the label. Until the bottle is entirely empty of its contents, keep it well chilled in an ice bucket by the table.

Ever wondered how to conserve the fresh taste and bubbles of a half-full bottle of sparkling wine?

An old bartenders' trick is to leave the handle of a silver spoon in the bottle before storing it on the refrigerator shelf.


INTERNATIONAL TOASTS

No matter where you are, a toast is never out of place and always a fun part of the ritual of taking that first sip of sparkling wine.

Czech: Na Zdravi (Na zdrah vi) To Your Health

French: A Votre Sante! (Ah Vot-ruh Sahn-tay) To Your Health!

German: Prosit! (Proh-sit) Cheers!

Greek: Stin Eyiassou! (Stin Eye-ee-yass-ooh) To Your Health!

Hebrew: L'Chaim! (Le Hy-em) To Life!

Hungarian: Le! Le! Le! Egeszsegere (Lay Lay Lay Egg-esh Ay-ged-reh) Down! Down! Down! To your health!

Italian: Cin! Cin! (Chin Chin) Cheers!

Japanese: Kampai! (Kam-pie) To an empty glass!

Mandarin: Gan bei! (Gan Bay) To an empty glass!

Polish: Na zdrowie! (Naz-drove-yeh) To your health!

Portuguese: Saude (Sow-ooh-jee) Cheers!

Russian: Zdorovie (Zdo-RO-vee) To your health!

Serbo-Croat: Ziveli! (Zhi-vol-ee) To Life!

Spanish: Salud! (Sah-lud) To your health!

Swedish: Skal! (Skoll) Cheers!

Yiddish: Zei Gazunt! (Zye Gah-zoont) To your health!



Riddling the Bottles - Hand Riddling is Time Consuming!

Traditionally, the bottles are placed at a forty-five degree angle, necks-down, in specially built "A-frame" racks, called pupitres. An experienced worker grabs the bottom of each bottle, giving it a small shake, an abrupt back and forth twist, and a slight increase in tilt, letting it drop back in the rack. This action, called riddling, recurs every one to three days over a period of several weeks. The shaking and twist is intended dislodge particles that have clung to the glass and prevent the sediments from caking in one spot; the tilt and drop encourage the particles, assisted by gravity, to move ever more downward; the time in between riddlings allows the particles to settle out of solution again.

Computer-automated machines called Gyropalettes accomplish the riddling chore in batches, using movable bins containing hundreds of bottles rather than by the individual bottle. Invented in Spain, they became common in all sparkling wine producing countries the late 1970s. This mechanization has meant saving time, space and production cost for the producers. Hand riddling requires a minimum of eight weeks to complete; gyropalettes finish the task in under ten days.

While automation means that a bit of the romance of wine is lost for consumers, this application of modern technology compensates by increasing product consistency from bottle to bottle. Production cost savings also has allowed the introduction of traditional method sparkling wines into the lower price end of the market where formerly only bulk produced wines competed.



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