By Leah McNally

One of the most fascinating processes in winemaking is the method that produces Sparkling wine, but its true origins are obscured by a haze of bubbles and romance, and wrapped up in the beginnings of the modern day wine trade.

Thanks to Moët and Chandon, the French monk, Dom Perignon, gets all the credit for discovering Champagne in the late 17th century, but historical evidence suggests otherwise. Historians point to records that suggest Sparkling wines were being created as early as 1531 by monks in the south of France.  Historical records also suggest the English (Mon Dieu!) developed the process of reliably creating Sparkling wine by adding sugar as part of fermentation in 1676 per the archives of the Royal Academy. We also have those clever English wine drinkers and inventors to thank for perfecting wine bottled with the modern version of a cork around the same time period and patenting the first corkscrew a hundred years later in 1795.

But meanwhile back in the Champagne region of France, around the beginning of the eighteenth century, Dom Perignon, and a host of other names you might recognize – including Tattinger, Clicquot, and Heidsieck – were experimenting with perfecting Sparkling wine production. There was only one problem. The tiniest and most delightful bubbles that tickle our senses are created by secondary fermentation in a small container. Glass bottles were considered ideal for the process, but their use was against the law in France prior to the early 1700s. Bottles were blown by hand and the irregular sizes made it impossible to guarantee the amount of liquid any given bottle contained. Then – voilà! A factory process was invented that made creating uniform glass bottles a piece of “gateau.” Something tells me there was plenty of Bubbly involved with the sudden change in French law in 1728.  The use of glass bottles was legalized and many of the problems with creating and transporting high quality Champagne were resolved. Méthode Champenoise was officially established.

Méthode Champenoise starts with still wine which has been through an initial fermentation. Wine may be blended from a multitude of years and grape varietals, creating a “cuvée.” The primary reason for blending is to keep the flavor profile consistent by smoothing out any yearly vintage variation in flavors. This is considered the most difficult part of the sparkling winemaker’s job.  Chardonnay and pinot noir grapes are the stars of the blend, but other whites may be used as well. The cuvee usually starts with alcohol content around 10%.

Once the blend is created, a mixture of sugar and yeast known as the “liquer de tirage” is added to the cuvée. The blended wine is then bottled in heavy glass and sealed with a metal cap. The bottles are then stored “en tirage” while the secondary fermentation takes place. The best quality Sparkling wines and Champagnes often lay en tirage for up to several years or more while the yeast consumes the sugar and the resulting carbon dioxide is trapped in the liquid.

Once the secondary fermentation process is complete, the bottles are placed upside down at a 75˚ angle and turned 1/8th of a turn each day, to force the sediment from the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle. This process is known as “riddling” and can take several weeks or more. The French call this “le remuage.” Originally this was done by hand but now machines are used to turn the bottles in precise increments to achieve the desired results.

Quelle surprise! I discovered we have Madame Barbe Clicquot to thank for inventing this process in 1816. A savy business woman who took over the winery after her husband’s death, the Widow Clicquot is also known for supplying the Russian Court and Catherine the Great with gallons of Champagne. I bet she would have been an enthusiastic WWS member if the organization had existed in the early 1800s, but I digress.

Once the riddling process is complete, the neck of the bottle is chilled in a salt and water bath that freezes the lees in the neck of the bottle. When the cap is removed, the pressure ejects the frozen yeast plug, leaving sediment-free, sparkling wine behind. This is the process known as disgorging. A “dosage,” or mixture of white wine, sugar and brandy may be added at this point to increase the sweetness if desired. The newly re-blended cuvee is then re-bottled with a thick cork, and topped by a wire cage to hold up to the pressure of the carbon dioxide trapped in the liquid. The finished sparking wine may have an alcohol content ranging from 12%-14%. Of course, you can only call it “Champagne” if it is made from the Champagne region of France. Similar wines from other locales have to be content with being called “Sparkling,” which I think has a certain “je ne sais quoi” of its own.

Á votre santé to Madame Clicquot, and to Gloria Ferrer Winery for hosting us at the next WWS event on Thursday, March 1st for bubbles and the latest WWS buzz. Ticket sales end at 9pm on February 27th. Don’t miss it, mes amis. I will see you there.

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