Happy 2019 y’all!
Exciting stuff to come in this new year and what better way to kick it off, than with some bubbly!
A guy at work (at my “real” non wine job) asked me if I made my own Champagne and how it got made. I told him, that no I don’t make my own, but there are amazing ones that I love to drink! And it gets made in a really cool way and has a lot of history and technology tied to it. Nothing seems to capture our imaginations and spirit quite like bubbles.
So, here is (a lot) of info on Sparkling wine for anyone else out there whom is curious.
Cheers to a great new year!
Sparkling wine is super cool. A tweak in style and a step beyond table or still wine leads to a new drink that has been described as “drinking the stars”! As often attributed to the monk, Dom Perignon.
Sparkling wine has many names: most known of which is Champagne. Champagne only refers to those wines made in the Champagne region of France. Spanish sparkling wine is known as Cava (from the caves it’s made in); Italy has Prosecco, Spumate, and Asti tied to their location of origin; and it is called Sket in Germany. In general, it is called bubbly or sparkling wine.
Note: Wineries that make sparkling wine, are know as a Sparkling House or Champagne House (if they are in Champagne, France).
There are three ways to get bubbles into wine, or three methods of making sparkling wine today.
Traditional or Methode Champenoise
In the traditional method, a still white wine is made and then a second fermentation occurs when the wine in already in the bottle, and the bottle is capped. The wine, some sugar, and yeast are added to the still wine in the bottle and then it is capped. A classic soda cap, called a crown cap, is used at this point, instead of a cork that will be used at the end. The yeast eats the sugar during the fermentation and creates carbon dioxide (CO2). Having no where to escape to, the carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolves into the liquid, and once the pressure is released, it slowly bubbles up to the surface of the wine. After the bubbles are created and the sugar has been consumed by the yeast, everything remains in the bottle, including the yeast. This makes the wine cloudy. So a few more steps are taken.
The yeast is a suspended sediment in the sparkling wine, so the bottles are put into riddling rack where it is slowly rotated and angled from an initial position of laying on its side, to a final position where it is pointing neck down. This is done with a twist and over time. A worker, the original Riddler, would move the bottles a quarter turn every day, increasing the incline of tilt each time. Once the bottle is fully riddled and pointed neck down, a small plug of sediment should lay at next to the cap.
The Riddler has speedy and delft hands to achieve the action. It is quite difficult to slowly move sediment to the end of the bottle, without shaking it up and turning it cloudy at each touch.
This process was historically done by hand, but now is done by machines. The bottles are stacked and locked in cages that can be 4’x4’x4’ in size. Then the whole cage is riddled by the machine. This is far easier and cheaper than a machine moving each bottle individually, or a person riddling each bottle, and doesn’t scream carpal tunnel!
The next step is the disgorging. Here, the top of the bottle are chilled to freezing to that when the cap is removed the yeast is frozen in a tiny wine ice cube. This plug is easily removed, often with a little pop due to the pressure in the bottle. The rest of the wine stays within the bottle. Some more wine and possibly sugar are added back in to the bottle. This addition is called the dosage, or dose (French), because the amount of sugar will determine the style. Then the traditional cork and cage cap it off. The cork begins as a fat cylinder when it is inserted into the bottle, and a cage is placed over the end. The pressure of the bottle as it works to force out the cork only to be stopped by the cage at its top, creates the classic mushroom shape that we think of with a champagne cork.
Trivia:The cage on a bottle of champagne is tightened with seven 1/2 turns. This can also be called 3 and 1/2 turns, but for reasons unknown to me, no one states it as such.
The disgorging and dosage traditionally were done by hand but machination has been developed to do this too. The bottle necks are dipped in a freezing bath, the crown cap pulled, the plug popped, the dosage is added, the cork is added, and the cage secured, all by machine.
There is still some sparkling wine in that frozen plug that is popped out during the disgorging. The machine allows the plugs to thaw and the liquid goes into a settling tank. Here the yeast and sediment fall to the bottom and wine is on top. This wine looses its bubbles but not its flavor. Many sparkling houses, sell this wine off for other food items, such as champagne vinaigrette.
The second method for getting bubbles into the wine requires some heavy duty tanks. The wine is made like a traditional still wine and then a second fermentation occurs to create the bubbles, just as before. But with the Charmant method, this is done in a tank instead of the bottle. The pressure in the tank is extreme, up to 90 pounds per square inch, so everything, tanks, hoses, and valves, has to be able to handle the pressure. After the second fermentation has occurred and the wine is at the desired pressure and amount of bubble, it is racked off of the yeast sediment, and bottled. A dosage is added at bottling.
This method is said to produce lower quality bubbles, but that may be propaganda more than science, as the Charmant method has been used historically in Italy and not in France.
With the Charmant method, the expensive and time consuming step of riddling is skipped. But the process still is not cheap, due to the wine being created, stored, and moved under such high pressure.
This is also known as the soda style of making sparkling wine. Here carbon dioxide is pumped into a still wine at the time of bottling. The cap holds the pressure of the bottle. This is often the cheapest way of making sparkling wine and is rarely known for its quality. Likely the bubbles in your all-you-can-drink mimosas at brunch are produced this way.
Six Types of French-Style Sparkling
There are six types of French style sparkling wine: Blanc de Blanc, Blanc de Noir, Rose, Brut, Extra Dry, and Demi-Sec. The first three refer to the grapes that go into it, and the last three refer to the sweetness. You can often find these terms on a label.
- Blanc de blanc, is white sparkling made from white grapes.
- Blanc de Noir, is white sparkling made from black grapes. Traditionally they are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier but made in like classic white wine.
- Rose, is sparkling wine made in one the many styles of rose.
- Brut, this is the dry sparking wine where very little sugar is added. The Majority fo Champagnes are Brut.
- Extra Dry, is sweeter than Brut with a bit more sugar added in the dosage.
- Demi-Sec, or semi-dry, is the sweetest of the French sparkling styles with the most sugar added.
Experiment: Throw a bubbly party! If you can’t get to France, California, or a Sparkling house. Grab one of each of the above types of fresh style sparkling wine, preferably all from the same manufacture, and through a tasting party. No need to keep the bottles in the dark. Just chill, pop and drink. Find your favorite one.
And quick tip, light salty snacks are great with sparkling wine so pop some pop corn or grab some classic potato chips and enjoy!
Storing, Opening, and Serving
Sparkling wine can be stored just like any other wine, in cool and stable place. But no need to keep it too long! Most sparkling wine is sold with the intent of drinking it shortly.
When serving sparkling wine, keep it chilled. Place it into the fridge or in an ice bucket.
Note: Remember to chill something down quickly, the best option is to soak a towel or paper towel in water, wrap it around a sealed bottle and place it in the freezer. But don’t forget it in there for too longor your wine bottle may explode in there.
To open a bottle of sparking wine you can do it with flair or finesse. Flair is fun, but finesse will leave you with more wine to drink.
The biggest flair move is to saber a bottle. We get to blame Napoleon and his soldiers for this one, when they used there sabers to cut the necks off of bottles of Champagne while still on horseback when celebrating a battle’s victory. To saber properly, the bottle is held at the base with the neck tilted away from the body. Then a saber or heavy knife, like a chef’s knife, is quickly slid up the neck of the bottle to the lip (away from your body), where the momentum and force and blade’s edge, sheer the glass lip, cork, and cage off of the bottle. Often this results with the end flying through the air and shooting many feet away. A small fountain of wine will pour from the bottle as the “solider” stands in aw of their knife skills. Warning: This is not something to be done when inebriated!
You can also get some flair by popping the cork out of the bottle. This is what we most often see in movies, but there is no need to shake the bottle before hand. First, the cage is carefully removed and then two thumbs are placed on one side of the neck of the bottle between the lip of the bottle and the cork, with pressure going up. The cork then flies up, the wine spills out of the bottle, and the sound scares everyone. Be careful with this one, because the pressure in the bottle is so great, the cork can fly out the minute the cage is removed or loosen, and you can shoot your eye out.
The best way to open a bottle of sparkling wine is with finesse. Remove the foil from the top of the bottle. Then grab a tea towel and cover the top of the bottle with it, holding the towel ends under the bottle with one hand. With the other hand, reach under the tea towel and untwist the cage (seven 1/2 turns). The tea towel will keep pressure on the cork so it doesn’t fly. Then with the same hand, grab the top of the cork and cage and slowly twist your hands in opposite directions (this can be done either on top of or underneath the towel). The cork should slowly come out and you should only hear a faint hiss of the pressure being released. Then remove the tea towel and reveal the wisp of effervesces coming out of the bottle, to the oohs and ahs of your friends.
There are two types of specialty glasses that sparkling wine is served in, the coup and the flute. The coup is the historical glass while the flute or tulip is the modern one.
The coup is a low wide bowl, said to be the same shape of Marie Antonette’s breast. (How’s that for crazy trivia!) This is the glass that was used during her day, but Champagne was very different then. We didn’t have riddling yet, so the wine was cloudy. It was also drunk at super cold temperatures, so parts of it were actually frozen and it was closer to a slushy. Without a straw, the Champagne could be sipped or eaten with a delicate spoon.
Flutes are the preferred glass today. With a tall thin cylinder of a glass, the surface of the wine is small and thus the bubbles don’t dissipate as quickly (physics 101). With the glass being tall, it also allows you to see the bubbles floating up to the surface. If you use a coup today with our modern sparkling wines, it will go flat quickly.
Experiment: To get a great stream of bubbles, etch, or scratch a small x on the bottom inside of your glasses. This creates a nucleation point where Carbon Dioxide (CO2) can gather and once their combined density is less that that of the wine, their buoyancy causes the bubble to float up to the top of the glass. It will make the wine go flat slightly fast than if you had not done this, but it looks beautiful!
There are many sparkling houses and winemakers who do not feel that any special glass style is needed. The small top of the glass restricts the notes of the wine that you can smell, and they want you to experience it all. So do what you like and use whatever glass you prefer.
Technology and Women of Champagne
As you can see there is a lot of technology and history with Sparkling wine, and many books have been written about it in beautiful detail.
The technology needs come from the difference of the wine itself. With the greater pressure from the wine on bottle, the bottle must be made with heavy glass and has a different shape. The pressure in a bottle of sparkling wine is between 70 and 90 pounds per square inch1(2-3 times of the air pressure in the tires of your car), so these alternations are necessary. The punt (small dome) at the bottle is bigger than for still wine, so give the bottle additional strength. The glass is dark green to black to protect the wine from UV damage.
The exception to both of these things (the punt and the dark color) is from the Champagne House, Cristal. At the behest of the Czar of Russia, a clear, flat bottomed bottle was created so that bombs could not arrive hidden at his table side. However, the glass of these clear bottles are often so heavy, that they could be used as a weapon on their own. Cristal wraps each bottle in paper, or more modernly, in a reflective plastic to keep it from any UV damage.
Women have made a lot of technological progress for Champagne and the Grand Dames of Champagne, Lily Bollinger, Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt and Madame Clicquot, are truly honored.2
Lily Bollinger was the great ambassador of Champagne and helped tie it forever to celebration. She is attributed the famous quote of: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it—-unless I’m thirsty.”
Marie-Louise Lanson de Nonancourt, bought the destitute Champagne house Laurent Perrier and turned it into a phoenix, creating one of the most notable names in wine.
Madame Clicquot gave us riddling and the beautiful clear sparkling wine we know today.
All three of these Grand Dames were widows when their name became known, but Madame Clicquot, or the Widow Clicquot, held it as an honorific title. In many fine bars and hotels you can still order a Clicquot Champagne by asking for a glass of “The widow”.