What’s better than arriving at a dinner party or special luncheon and being greeted with a bubbling glass of fine sparkling wine? It’s a wonderful start to an event because it sets the tone as a festive occasion. The guests love it.
Sparkling wine/Champagne is indeed different from still wine — in how it tastes, how it looks, how it feels in the mouth and how it is taxed. Why is it different and how does one produce sparkling wine from still wine? Let’s find out…
First, a little history:
The earliest winemakers could see that fermenting wine gave off bubbles of gas. As most of the world’s earliest wines were consumed very soon after fermentation, we can surmise that the first wine drinkers liked the taste of CO2 bubbles in their wine. Without containers to store it in, they either drank it right away or it spoiled. But, it was only after wine containers could be sealed well enough to prevent the escape of fermentation CO2 that true sparkling wine was born.
The story begins in 1668, when a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon was appointed head cellarer at the Abbey of Hautvillers near Reims in the French district called Champagne. His experiments are credited with producing the first deliberate sparkling wine in the world. This was a wine so unique and dramatic that it assumed the name of the whole district, Champagne, for its own identity.
Dom Perignon was one of the first to use natural corks to seal wine bottles. Then, as now, corks were carved from the thick bark of old ‘cork oak’ trees that continue to grow all around the Mediterranean Sea. Before Dom’s use of cork, it had been a common practice to close bottles with a piece of wood wrapped in hemp previously dipped in olive oil. His cork did a much better job of sealing wine bottles and protecting the contents from exposure to air. Also, it avoided contaminating the wine with small amounts of olive oil. I like olive oil as much as the next guy but I don’t want it floating in my wine.
Dom Perignon and others had noticed previously that new wines came to life in the spring after winter temperatures warmed. The Champagne region is cold, making the grape harvest late in the season. Yeast couldn’t always complete its fermentation before winter cold slowed the action to a stop, leaving a residue of unfermented sugar in the wine over the winter. Later, when warmer days returned in spring, the yeast resumed fermentation — giving rise to CO2 bubbling out of the new wine.
It must have seemed that every spring, this carbon dioxide gas gave new life to the wine. At some point, probably a bottle or two had been closed tightly enough to prevent loss of CO2 before all the sugar could be fermented. Upon opening that bottle, who knows? Perhaps Dom Perignon really did utter those words attributed to him: “Holy smoke, Pierre! Come quickly! I’m drinking stars.” Or, maybe not.
In telling the Champagne story, we must be careful not to short change the English. It’s not just that I feel a special closeness to the Village of Wrotham, in Kent, England. In truth and fairness, the English may have been producing sparkling wine for a full decade before Dom Perignon did! They certainly had been producing strong glass bottles by that time. They also used corks (the only other necessity for Champagne) long before the Champenoise did. English wine merchants were receiving new wine in casks from Champagne each winter. It is likely that they bottled some of it before all the original sugar had fermented. When the remaining fermentation took place in spring, they had unique, carbonated “Champagne” to enjoy.
English wine merchants even understood that adding sugar to wine prior to bottling would increase the eventual sparkle. Six years before Dom Perignon took the job at Hautvillers Abbey, it was reported that English wine coopers had used sugar molasses in all sorts of wines to make them drink “brisk and sparkling.”
Wherever and whatever it was that happened to create the first sparkling wine, the wine world has never been the same since. For my own taste, sparkling wine, including Champagne, is my favorite of all wine types. Oh sure, I love a great Cabernet Sauvignon all right. But sparkling wine, well, great sparkling wine has Pizzazz!
How does Sparkling Wine or Champagne differ from ordinary still wine? How does one produce sparkling wine out of still wine? Sparkling wine is defined as table wine that contains high amounts of dissolved CO2 that bubbles effusively when poured into a glass. To use the Sparkling Wine (or Champagne) name legally, the carbonation must arise in the wine from natural yeast fermentation. It cannot be artificially carbonated!
In France and many other countries, the name Champagne is reserved for sparkling wines only if they were produced in the Champagne region of France. Thus, German sparkling wine is called Sekt, Italian sparkling wine is Spumante and Spanish sparkling wine is Espumoso. In America the term champagne (not capitalized) is considered generic and many of the lower priced sparkling wines are called champagne. However, even though legally acceptable, it has become more and more frowned upon to call the higher quality American sparkling wines “champagne.” The preferable term is “Sparkling Wine,” and this term is used on all higher priced sparkling wines in the U.S.
You could have predicted what the French would name the process for making sparkling wine. So let’s go ahead and use this method to make a bottle of sparkling wine. To produce it we have only to add yeast and sugar to our best still wine and then seal it up inside a strong bottle. Instead of a cork, we must use a steel crown cap similar to those used on early Coca-Cola bottles to hold the pressure inside.
Over the next few weeks or months, our yeast ferments the sugar into alcohol and CO2 just as it did in the initial winemaking step. However, because a strong cap closes the container, this CO2 cannot escape. Much of it remains dissolved in the wine, but the excess produces a high pressure (five to seven atmospheres, or nearly 100 pounds for every square inch inside the bottle!). This pressure is so high that great care must be used in handling the bottles at this stage. Owing to random bottle defects, occasional bottle explosions happen under the best of conditions in all wineries where this process is used. For this reason handlers always use face protection when handling the bottles.
We now have produced a bottle of new champagne, but one in which there is a considerable residue of unsightly yeast inside. Tasty, sure, but unsightly nevertheless. The yeast cloud will settle to the bottom within a month or two, but that doesn’t exactly solve our problem. As soon as that bottle is opened, the act of pouring would stir up the yeast and the consumer wouldn’t have a crystal clear sparkling wine to enjoy any longer. How can we get the yeast sediment out of the bottle without losing the CO2 pressure that we’ve so carefully cultivated? Early champagne producers didn’t bother. They poured the clear champagne off carefully so as to disturb the sediment as little as possible — or, more likely, they just drank it, yeast and all.
Modern methods rely on the fact that CO2 is most soluble (the bottle pressure is lowest) at temperatures just above freezing. We all know that water freezes at 32°F. But table wine freezes at about 23°F depending upon its alcohol content. By chilling the bottle to about 25°F and handling it carefully, we can open it, remove the yeast, and then quickly re-cork the bottle with the loss of only one to two atmospheres of pressure. Getting the yeast to pack itself tightly into the neck of the bottle for easy removal is no mean feat. The procedure for doing so is called ‘riddling’ and it requires a great amount of hand labor and six weeks of time.
Using riddling racks called ‘pipitres’ (A-frame shaped, wooden racks containing bottleneck-size holes), the riddler places the neck of a bottle of new champagne into each of the holes. The rack holds the bottles only by their necks. A paint line is made on the bottom of each bottle to act as a marker, with all markers pointing in the same direction. Daily, over the next few weeks, he twists every bottle a few degrees. At the same time he raises the bottle bottom imperceptibly, lowering the neck only a centimeter or two each week. In the beginning all the bottles in a pipitre appear to be almost horizontal. After a few weeks, the riddling is complete and the bottles are slanted to, perhaps, a 60 degree angle with the necks pointed downwards in their holes.
Riddling causes all the yeast to pack down into the neck of the bottle closest to the cap. From this point on, the bottles must be kept upside down, cold and handled only when absolutely necessary. Next, we freeze the liquid inside the neck of the bottle while carefully keeping the main volume of liquid in the bottle unfrozen! Imagine a tub of super-chilled (maybe minus 20°) liquid anti-freeze over which we have placed a plywood lid with holes in that lid. The holes are just large enough to allow the necks of the bottles to stick through about 3½ inches, but the whole bottle cannot drop through.
The level of super-chilled antifreeze liquid below this “lid with bottle holes in it” is such that all the bottles are held upside down with about 2 inches of each bottleneck sticking into the cold liquid. We place our bottle into one of the holes for a few minutes. After we see a plug of ice form inside the neck of the bottle (containing the glob of yeast) we can remove the bottle from the rack and set the bottle upright. The frozen plug remains where it is, just under the crown cap. After rinsing the excess coolant liquid off the bottle we remove the crown cap using a common church key.
Bam! The ice plug is blasted out of the bottle by CO2 pressure inside the bottle. Quickly, we place our thumb over the bottle top to prevent the escape of clean sparkling wine and fit the bottle up to a pressurized dosage machine. The dosage machine adds a little more sparkling wine from an identical bottle to make up the volume lost when the plug escaped. Most importantly, it does this without losing any more pressure from the bottle. This act of removing the plug of ice and yeast from a bottle is called disgorging.
Now we can remove the bottle and quickly force a new compressed cork into the bottle mouth. It is fastened in place with a wire hood that grips an outside lip of the bottle, designed for just that purpose. After that, our bottle of sparkling wine is finished, except for rinsing it off, drying, and labeling the bottle. If all this (including the grape growing and winemaking) had been done in the Champagne region of France, we would call our sparkling wine Champagne. In California, we call it Sparkling Wine.
One of the safety features of this process is that it tests every bottle at higher pressures than the bottle will contain when it is sold to the public. The internal pressure is always 15 to 20 pounds per square inch less when the consumer handles it than when the production people handled it, so there is an extra safety factor for the public built in to the process. Also, the bottles themselves are designed to hold considerably more pressure than we ask of them. For its part, the public has a responsibility to avoid pointing the cork end at anyone when they open the bottle. Corks have been known to fly out of a bottle with reckless abandon and it’s a good idea to pay attention when opening sparkling wine.
Mechanization creeps into hand operations over time and sparkling wine is no exception. Although we could riddle all the bottles by hand, it is cheaper to do it in bins, 400 bottles at a time. Four hundred bottles are stacked upside down in a square bin about 3 feet on a side and 3 feet high. A motorized unit on a timer holds the bin and slowly rotates and tilts it a little more, 24 hours every day. The whole bin moves a little at a time, with the same motion as if all those individual bottles in the bin were riddled by hand to shake the yeast down against the bottle cap. The big saving is that, working continuously, the machine shakes the yeast down into the small end of the bottles in half the time. After that, all 400 bottles in the bin are ready to be chilled and disgorged as explained above. Yes, we do pass the savings on to the consumer.
There is a very good reason to buy the very best when you buy sparkling wine. It might seem odd at first, but the reason lies in the high taxation of sparkling wines. Because sparkling wines are highly taxed (as a luxury), the price of the product cannot be low. Federal tax in the U.S. is $.68 per bottle, or more than triple the tax on still wines (wines without carbonation). This is in addition to state alcohol taxes and on top of all product, processing, distribution and sales costs. The state and federal wine taxes are paid by the winery when the product leaves the premises — this expense becomes part of the winery’s original cost.
All the later markups will multiply the champagne tax as well as the winery’s other costs — forcing the retail price even higher. In the end, the federal champagne tax paid by the winery will cost the consumer $1.36 at the cash register. Since the retail price for every bottle of sparkling wine in the U.S. includes $1.36 in luxury taxes, you can expect to get more for your money if you buy only the best.
Any bottle of sparkling wine selling for, say, $4.99 includes $1.36 in “luxury tax.” Subtracting this tax, the cost of the bottle, label, cork, capsule, wire hood and production costs leaves precious little room for the winery to have used high quality wine as its starting material.
By contrast, the higher retail price for a quality sparkling wine includes that same $1.36 per bottle for luxury tax. Subtracting out the costs of this tax, the bottle, label, capsule, wire hood and production costs makes it obvious that the winemaker can easily use the finest grapes, processing methods and long aging in producing this sparkling wine for you to enjoy.
With R.G. Wrotham Pinot, it is a bonus that this wine alone is produced from a truly antique variety with a unique history and without any shortcuts in winemaking. Richard Grant produced a total of only 400 cases of the 2000 vintage. Even our heaviest crop (2003) will total only about 600 cases when released. To my knowledge, no other winery in the Americas, Australasia or continental Europe has Wrotham Pinot grapes.
Now you know all that’s important to know about the finest sparkling wine. Surprise your best friend and make this an evening to remember: Go forth and ‘drink stars’ together.