So, I’m taking some wine business classes right now and we just had to write about the different methods sparkling wine and Champagne producers use. It occurred to me while writing that most people probably don’t even know there are multiple ways to achieve the similar (or not so similar) result of bubbles in the wine. I’ll share parts of the paper below…enjoy!
Method Champenoise vs. Other Methods for Sparkling Wine Production
Many of us think of Champagne or Sparkling Wine as a beverage for special occasions, toasts, weddings, New Year’s Eve or anniversaries. If the bubbly beverage is being poured if must be an extraordinary event. Most probably never think about how those tiny bubbles got there in the first place, but there are several methods and the processes and finished products are as different as Chardonnay and Coca-Cola.
First, let’s tackle the traditional Method Champenoise. This wine is generally made with high quality Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier or Pinot Blanc grapes from cool regions. In the Champagne region of France the first three are almost exclusively used. In California Pinot Blanc is generally used instead of Pinot Meunier. In all sparkling wine production the grapes are picked earlier than still wine to retain higher acidity and to have sugar levels that are low. As grapes mature on the vines acidity drops and sugar increases, so it is important not to pick too late. From here the grapes are pressed and the juice fermented into still wine. The next step is really what sets Method Champenoise apart from the other approaches. Sugar and yeast are added to the tank to start the second fermentation. Immediately this wine is added to bottles where the fermentation will occur over the next 30 days. This process called tirage sets the stage for the quality of the wine. The bottles are sealed with a stainless steel cap (like a beer bottle) and left to age sur lie – on the dead yeast cells – to create richness, depth and flavors. This part can take anywhere from 1-4 years depending on the producer.
The dead yeast cells do create some solids that must be dealt with prior to the final closure (typically a special cork) can be affixed. The process to remove the yeast cells is called riddling. This is most commonly done by machines nowadays, but it used to be done by hand. Riddling requires the bottles to be placed at an angle with the neck side down so the lees can collect near the cap. Prior to the installing the final cork and cage closure, the neck of the bottle is frozen, then the wine is heated slightly to push the yeast out. All of this is labor and time intensive leading to a higher cost, however from a wine-lovers viewpoint the outcome is far superior to other methods and well worth the extra money that is paid.
There are two other methods that are used to create sparkling wines. The first called The Transfer Method basically uses the same process as Method Champenoise, but uses special equipment to remove all the wine from the bottle and filter out the yeast before replacing the wine back in the bottle. This process is not common and is being phased out in favor of Method Champenoise.
The other method is called Charmat and is different from start to finish. The first difference is in the grapes that are used, generally high production grapes like French Columbard or Chenin Blanc and grown in warmer areas to capitalize on larger crop sizes. Those grapes are harvested (earlier as usual) and made into still wine. Then that wine is pumped into specialized temperature controlled pressurized tanks for secondary fermentation. The huge difference here is of course that the second fermentation is not taking place in the bottle. Once that fermentation is over, the sparkling wine is then put into bottles for minimal aging and sent into the market. The producers of these wines feel that their method works well for their target market and I guess at the end of the day that is what’s important. To me though they are as different as Chardonnay and Coca-Cola.