How it's made: Sparkling Wines Edition

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Horrible wordplay aside, ever find yourself on the NASCAR victory podium after a grueling 300 lap race celebrating your hard-fought victory, only to think to yourself, “Hey, how did they get the bubbles in this bottle?” If you’re like me, probably*, but if you’re not, perhaps you’ve been weaving through rush hour traffic when Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” comes on, and suddenly you find yourself rapping along with the line “Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip Champagne when we thirsty.” You continue with your day but like an itch you can’t scratch, that question won’t leave your brain all day, “What kind of magic is used to get bubbles into wine?” Well friends, it’s not magic, it’s simply SCIENCE! And believe it or not, I’m here to try clearing up some of those basic questions you may have. There are several methods of making sparkling wine, but I’m going to focus on the two processes: the traditional method (méthode champenoise) and the tank method (Charmat method).

The Traditional Method Cuvée Kind of Love

A cuvée is your base wine which is created through traditional winemaking means. The key factor here is picking wines that are slightly younger (so they have a higher sugar level and acidity) and fermenting them into a dry wine with a low alcohol content. This is necessary, as the second fermentation increases the alcohol content and the acidity helps preserve the wine over a longer period of time.

The most common grapes selected to make cuvées for Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. However, additional blends can be used. You may notice that these aren’t all white grapes. Pretty confusing, considering that sparkling wine is generally white or rosé. Again, I’ll keep reminding you, champagne is not made by means of magic. Blanc de noirs (literally translated as “white of blacks”) is a white wine produced from black (red) grapes. The juice produced by these grapes is actually white, only the skins are red. Blanc de blancs (“white of whites”) is a white wine produced by white-skinned grapes. Finally, rosé wines are produced by a simple method of blending a small amount of red wine into a white wine base. Or they can be produced through a bit more complex process of crushing red grapes and letting the juice sit with the skins. This action, known as maceration, allows for the white wine to extract color from the red grape skin pigment.

Stop talking about T-Rex and tell me about Tirage!

About this time on the NASCAR podium, the other drivers turn and stare at you as the crowd goes silent. They are dumbfounded as they notice your vacant expression while you stand there, limply staring into a mostly empty bottle of Champagne, pondering the process that allowed those bubbles to arrive in your hands. And so we continue…

* I have never been on the Nascar victory podium and do not plan to. This was a goof, I am sorry for misleading you. The secondary fermentation begins by creating a mixture of sugar and yeast called a liqueur de tirage which is added to the still wine. The bottle is then capped. The yeast goes to town eating all the sugary goodness and releases carbon dioxide (CO2) which, in turn, carbonates the wine. When the yeast gets full on sugar and can’t possibly eat any more, it dies. What a way to go. The dead yeast particles, or lees, sit in the bottle with wine for varying amounts of time. The amount of aging time depends on the type of wine being produced. Most people believe longer aging “on the lees” (sur lie) gives the wine a greater complexity and can lead to a creamier, fuller-bodied wine.

Riddle me this...

After the bottles have been aged, the lees must be gathered at the neck of the bottle in preparation for removal. No one wants all those dead yeast cells in their wine! This is done through a process called riddling where bottles are stored at 45 degree angles with the cap pointed down. The bottles are turned gently by a riddler, an actual person who manually twists the bottles ⅛ to ¼ of a turn at a time until the sediment is collected in the neck of the bottle. In modern times, this can be done in larger volume by using gyropallets, large cages able to emulate the same motion through mechanization.

More steps to make dis wine gorgeous

Once all the lees have been collected in the neck of the bottle, the process of expelling them is called disgorgement. The bottles are placed upside down into a liquid that freezes the necks of the bottles, causing the lees to become icy plugs that are then pushed out by the pressure of the bottle once the cap is removed.

A Dose and a cork

Meanwhile back in Nascar land, the bottle slips out of your hand while questions flow into a never ending stream through your cerebral cortex, like so many bubbles through a Champagne bottle. You fall to your knees and you turn your eyes skyward towards the sun, yearning for closure. And there you find insight. The final pieces of the sparkling wine production puzzle fall into place, as though through divine inspiration. “Closure,” you mumble to yourself as a smile forms across your face and your mental state snaps back into sharp focus... The final step in this process is called dosage. Once the lees are removed, liqueur d'expedition (a mixture of wine and sugar) is added to the bottle. This dosage helps balance out the acidity and allows winemakers to control where they would like the wine to fall on the scale of dry to sweet. Once the dosage has been added, the bottles are closed with a cork, wire cage, labeled, and ready to make their way to your doorstep!

The question answered….

As your thoughts become clearer, you look around and realize you are not staring at the sun but, instead, a large projector shining directly at you. You’re in the middle of the conference room, it’s Monday, and you’re giving that presentation you worked on for the last quarter. So far, not off to a great start. But hey, you’ve got that bottle of sparkling rosé in your fridge at home, and after this, you’re going to need it. The Charmat Method The Charmat method, also known as the tank method, is very similar to the traditional method with a couple of exceptions:

  1. During the tirage step, instead of being performed in individual bottles it is performed in a large, pressurized tank.
  2. After secondary fermentation, the wine is filtered before dosage.
  3. The wine is typically bottled without aging.
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