The Frugal Wine Gal: Sparking Wine 101

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Sparkling wine is one of life’s greatest treasures. There is just something about hearing the cork pop out of the bottle and seeing those tiny bubbles in the glass. Many people like to reserve these kind of wines for special occasions, but I say drink bubbles anytime! There are many affordable options that are just too good to save.

Wine
(Photo Credit: Sam Howzit)

Recently I discussed just what exactly is in a glass of wine here. The process is of course complex and one that is constantly changing and improving. When it comes to sparkling wines though, there is a whole different approach to how they are made. The process is a long one indeed. Here in Oregon we have quite a few wineries that make this type of wine, like Domaine Meriwether, Sokol Blosser, and Argyle (just to name a few!). Another one of my favorites is the Michelle label by Chateau St. Michelle. Their brut rosé is just to die for!

Michelle
A delicious example of “Méthode Champenoise”

 

The bubbles in the glass may look beautiful and the wine itself may be crisp and delicious – but how is this kind of wine actually made? There are few ways to do it of course. Sparkling wines are essentially wines that have additional CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) in them to create bubbles. One way to achieve this type of wine is to add yeast and sugar to an already fermented wine to create a secondary fermentation. It can be done in big batches and then bottle under pressure. Wines like Prosecco are made this way.

There is another way that sparkling wines are made. This method originates from the Champagne region of France, dating back all the way to the 1600’s. While complicated and a bit time consuming, this method produces a very high quality product. Fun fact! Only wines made in Champagne can be called “Champagne” on a bottle – so that is why when you go shopping for sparkling wines most of the time they will have different names. Sparkling wine is the most common name here in America though. Many wineries still use the practice that was originally started in France. They simply put on the bottle that it the wine was made by “Méthode Champenoise” to indicate how the wine was made.

The start of “Méthode Champenoise” is picking grapes at the optimal ripeness for this type of wine – a little less sweet. They are picked a little earlier to ensure higher acid and lower sugar content. The grapes are picked, the musts are fermented and turned into wine, and are aged for a time. After they are aged for a while, they are then blended. This blend is called a “Cuvée”. The blend then has sugar and yeast added to it and placed the bottle with a soda cap on it. The addition of sugar and yeast to this blend creates the secondary fermentation. These are aged for a minimum of 3 years, but many age longer. It is required that Champagne have contact with the lees. Lees are the yeast and sediment left from fermentation.

Wine
Bubbles in the glass

 

Once the winemaker feels the the wine has aged enough, they move onto the next step. Just to get to this step can take many, many years. For example, many of Domaine Meriwethers sparkling wines (that are made with this method) started the process back in 2000 and 2001. Good quality takes time, that’s for sure. The next step in the process is “riddling”. This is a fairly simple step. Basically the wine needs to be free of sediment. By slowly moving the bottles over a long period of time in a vertical “riddling rack”, the lees start moving toward the top of the bottle.

Once they are all in at the top, the “disgorging” process can happen. Put simply, the bottle needs to be flipped upside down and the lees need to be removed without losing any of the wine. There are many ways to do this but one common practice is to freeze the top of the bottle to form a “plug” – then eject it from the bottle. I haven’t seen this process myself but I would love to someday!

There is still one last big step until the wine is ready to go. At this point it is close but the winemaker decides whether or not to add a “dosage”. That is, to add sugar to the wine the bottles. This process creates a very dry wine usually, so sugar can be added if desired. Many producers keep their wines bone dry, while others go for a sweeter end product.

There are different levels of sweetness. “Naturel” is the most dry, with no added sugars but low acid. “Brut” means that there is some sugar added but it is still very dry. Ironically, “Extra Dry” means that the wine is slightly sweeter than a “Brut”. Two other options you’ll see are “Demi Sec” (slightly sweet) and “Doux” (medium sweet).

Rosé
Brut Rosé – up close and personal (Photo Credit)

Now that the wine has had secondary fermentation, sat on the lees for a long time, and been “disgorged” and “dosaged” it is ready to be corked. The cork goes in and is pushed into a mushroom shape for safety in storage. The pressure in the bottle can pop corks if not sealed properly. That is why when the metal cap is on the top as well, for an extra safety measure.

The first time I read about how sparkling wines and Champagne were made I thought to myself, what a process! The amount of thought, love, and skill that goes into a normal bottle of wine blows me away but this takes it to the next level. The next time you are thinking of a new bottle to try, pick up some bubbles. Not only do they look good in the glass, but they are oh so delicious. They also pair well with popcorn, so it is the perfect movie accompaniment. Cheers!

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