Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The basics of bubbles

Sparkling wine has long been a passion of mine; there's just something about the "pop" of a cork leaving a bottle, the bubbles in the glass, that simply makes me happy.

That being said, I know that most people get confused easily with sparkling wine, and can understand that -- the terminology is confusing (and somewhat counterintuitive), for one thing, and for another, most people might drink 2-3 bottles a year; a shame, because bubbles are for all the time.

So, here's a quick guide to the sparkling wine making process, focusing on the methode traditional (sometimes called the Methode Champanois, or champagne method, or fermentation in bottle). There are three other methods of making sparkling wine, the Methode Ancestrelle (a rarely-used method in Champagne where the wine is made as it was in the early part of that appellation's history), the Charmat method (used for Prosecco and inexpensive bubblies), and carbonation (sort of like making soda). Still, most sparkling wine is made using the method outlined below, from inexpensive Cava in Spain, to Cap Classique in South Africa, to the rarest luxe cuvees from Champagne.

Step 1: grapes are picked, crushed, and vinified into wine. Now, this is sometimes called the "mother wine," and it can be pretty... well, sharp is a polite way to put it (it's been described as drinking battery acid). This wine can be stored for years to blend several vintages together to make a nonvintage wine (which is what most sparkling wine is), or one year can be vinified alone to make a millesme, or vintage wine. Nonvintage wine is the bread-and-butter of the sparkling winemaker, while vintage wines are generally what make their names famous (sparkling wine is not unlike Port in that fashion).

Either way, in Step 2: the mother wines are put in a bottle, yeast and sugar are added, and the whole thing is capped with a crown cap (a beer-bottle cap). The yeast eat the sugar, excrete a bit more alcohol and more CO2, putting the bubbles in the wine. This is the stage where you see old French men in bicycles riding around the cellars, rotating the bottles once per day (called riddling the bottles), forcing the lees, or yeast cells, into the neck of the bottle as the bottles are slowly angled upright (neck-down). Of course, that's mainly for show, or for the prestige cuvees -- most wine now is rotated on a big machine called a gyropallete, that does the work automatically, although some producers do still hand-riddle their bottles (Schramsberg, in Napa, comes to mind). This stage can take literally years (in Champagne, the minimum aging time is 18 months if I recall, and some prestige cuvees can remain at this stage for up to 10 years).

In Step 3: the bottle neck is frozen, the crown cap removed, and the plug of frozen yeast and wine removed (well... it removes itself, due to the gas pressure inside the bottle), and a bit more sugar and wine is added to fill the bottle. That's the dosage. Then the bottle is corked with a Champagne cork, the cage and foil are added, and voila, you have bubbly. Note that the technical name for removing the yeast plug is disgorgement.

Now, for terminology, some wines will be labeled Blanc de Blancs or Blanc de Noirs -- that just means that at step 1, all the grapes were white (chardonnay, pinot blanc, etc), or red (pinot noir, pinot meunier, etc), respectively. White wine from white grapes, or white wine from black grapes.

Some wines will be labeled Brut, or Extra Dry, or Demi-Sec (there are other classifications to be found, but they're rare). That just refers to the amount of sugar in the dosage. Brut is the lowest sugar level, extra dry is slightly sweet, and demi-sec is sweetest still. Cava is also sometimes labeled Semi-Seco, which is roughly the same as Demi-Sec or Extra Dry. Why is extra dry not the driest level, you ask? Because, in the 1800's, when that classification system was created, sparkling wine was consumed much sweeter than it is now (the average dosage for a Champagne for the American market was roughly twice what the sweetest one is now, in terms of grams of sugar per liter), so extra dry really was quite dry.

Sparkling wine trivia:
  • There are six twists to the cage on a sparkling wine cap (go ahead, next time you open Champagne, count!).
  • A bottle of sparkling wine contains roughly three times more pressure than the tire of a car.
  • Although there are nine grapes allowed in Champagne, generally only 3 are used in any significant quantity; pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay. The other 6 are very rare -- arbanne, petit meslier, and pinot blanc (which together account for 0.02% of the acreage of Champagne), pinot gris (also called fromentau), pinot de julliet, and pinot rose.
  • Most rose sparkling wines are made by adding a dash of still red wine between steps 1 and 2. However, some (called saignee roses) are made by leaving the red wine grapes (the pinots) in contact with the wine for a couple of hours.
  • To open a bottle of sparkling wine properly, tilt the bottle at a 45 degree angle, pointed away from anything that the cork might hurt (a wall is OK, while a TV, pet, or person... not so much.). Remove the foil, release the cage, put your hand OVER the top of the cork (to keep it from shooting off accidentally), grip tight, and twist the bottle. Ideally, the noise that comes out will not be a resounding "pop," but a more delicate "pffft."
  • Sparkling wines are remarkably food-friendly. Try a light blanc de blancs with scallops in butter, or a rich blanc de noirs with Beef Wellington. Sweeter wines go well with salty foods (I once had a semi-seco cava with teriyaki salmon and it completely blew my mind).
  • Champagne's association with celebration comes from the fact that the King of France -- starting with Hugh Capet -- was traditionally crowned in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, in Reims. After the coronation, the local wine was featured in celebration.
  • Champagne producers are noted for early adoption of the idea of a celebrity spokesperson; they would pay noted entertainers (opera singers, etc) to publicly and conspicuously drink their wines as far back as the 1800's.
  • The bubbles in a Champagne glass form on imperfections in the glass itself. Some glassmakers will purposefully etch a small ring into the base, to provide with locations for that to happen.

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