You’ve been hired to do a seemingly monotonous job; day in and day out you perform the same simple task. But, your daily labor is of the utmost importance because it will single-handedly shape the outcome and desirability of an entire vintage of wine, specifically Champagne. You’re brought into a cool room lined with curious racks. Each rack has been fashioned with numerous symmetric wine bottle-sized holes and all holes are filled with precisely angled wine bottles. Your commission is to gently agitate and slightly turn each bottle every day for the next 15 months…if only they had iPods in the early 19th century.
Fortunately today, sparkling wines are made using an abundance of automated equipment which makes production less laborious and more precise. But how do they get the bubbles into the bubbly? The process is intriguing to say the least and begins with young early-ripening grape varietals that have reached the ideal balance of acidity and sweetness. These grapes are harvested with immense care and transported quickly to the pressing room. When harvesting young grapes for sparkling wines, it’s important to avoid damage to or rupturing of the skin; maceration and tannins are not highly desirable. The youthfulness of the grape and the gentle pressing process enables winemakers to produce sparkling wines made from not only white grapes, but also dark grapes like Pinot Noir because the juice is still lightly-hued and the skins are removed quickly.
The fresh-pressed grape juice is allowed to begin an exuberant initial fermentation later abated by exposing the wine to cooler temperatures thus slowing yeast activity. In the 19th century, cooling the wine was accomplished by opening the doors and windows where the wine was kept to allow an influx of chilly autumn air. Today, however, air conditioning provides the mechanism of decline for metabolically active yeast. The next stage in the sparkling winemaking process involves a second fermentation.
Traditionally, Champagne would undergo a second fermentation within the wine bottle from which it would be later consumed. However, there are multiple ways to satisfy the secondary fermentation process including the use of large metal pressurized vats. Less expensive sparkling wines are sometimes created by adding carbon dioxide to the wine rather than utilizing secondary fermentation. With the traditional bottle method, the secondary fermentation process is initiated by adding sugar and yeast to the initially fermented juice. This sudden increase in fermentation yields carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for the classic bubbling effect.
The bottles are kept angled just right, intermittently agitated, and regularly turned to force the lees (dead yeast and other artifacts) toward the neck of the bottle. Prior to the advent of modern equipment such as the gyropalatte, someone would be charged with manually shaking and turning each bottle of wine until the disgorging stage. Now, the task is automated using large machines that can conveniently accommodate many bottles simultaneously. When the lees have finally settled, the neck of the wine bottle is frozen, and the plug of ice containing the lees is removed. At this point, the bottle is usually topped off, sometimes with sweetened wine or slightly more aged wine depending on the goal of the winemaker.
The allure of this process is that the carbon dioxide remains lurking in the finished wine ready to pop and dance at just the right moment. How marvelous that the accidental bottling and re-fermenting of this classic French wine resulted in the beautiful sparkling wines we find so synonymously celebratory.
Guest Post By Sarah Meadows