Find out why making sparkling wine in the méthode champenoise tradition is often preferred by winemakers.
By Penny Gadd-Coster
Making your wines sparkle can be accomplished by winemakers in different ways, using either centuries-old techniques or much newer technology in sparkling wine production. But the resulting bubbles are far from equal! At Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services, we prefer méthode champenoise because of the fine bubbles and yeast notes that come with that process. Though this process may take longer than some other methods, the quality and presence of the wine is unsurpassed.
Interestingly, the first stages of this traditional French method do not differ greatly from that of still wine production. The primary fermentation in the méthode champenoise process is like that of still wines, though a sparkling wine yeast may be used. My favorite yeast to use is prise de mousse – it keeps the fruit flavors with slightly floral notes and all but guarantees that the fermentation is going to complete. This is when the wine makes its departure from being treated like a still wine, and the processes unique to sparkling wine production begin to unfold.
The yeast culture is introduced to the wine as well as an adjuvant (the riddling agent bentonite) – the cuvee containing yeast and adjuvant is “tirage bottled,” and the bottles are placed into wooden bins where the wine then rests on its side in the bottle.
Secondary fermentation in the bottle gives the sparkling wine its signature “bubbles” – the gas trapped inside the bottle creates high pressure that is released in the form of bubbles when served. Secondary fermentation takes anywhere from one to three months to complete. The wine then ages on the lees for usually at least six months, to many years. The chemical processes while the wine ages en tirage allow the wine to develop – diminishing fruitiness as the yeast takes on more nutty characteristics. Textures become smooth and creamy, while the effervescence develops smaller bubbles that are subtler than those of tank-fermented or carbonated sparkling wines.
What I have described may sound easy, but it is not without its challenges, just as with any winemaking. Stabilities, riddling and color are all factors that can add challenges to the final product. It does take patience and many times a leap of faith that the bubbles will appear. The special challenges are part of what makes it a worthwhile and exciting process.
Below are the main processes and terms that you’ll encounter when talking bubbles – cheers!
Sparkling Winemaking Glossary of Terms
Cuvee: After fermentation the resulting base wines blended together are called a cuvee.
Tirage bottling: Base wine is bottled where it will age and undergo secondary fermentation.
Lees: The yeast added to the wine for secondary fermentation. Aging on the lees lasts at least six months to years, depending on the style desired.
En tirage: The wine bottles age on their sides “en tirage” in tirage bins; the wine is said to be “aging on its lees.”
Riddling: The process of shifting or “riddling” the lees until they rest in the neck of the bottle. Riddling – from transferring the bottles to riddling bins, riddling, and resting – takes 3-4 weeks.
Disgorging: The lees are frozen in the neck of the bottle and popped out, or “disgorged.” Dosage (optional) – a sugar mixture comprised of either water or wine – is added to the bottle at this time.
Mouthfeel: The sensation of the wine in the mouth.
Nose: Another word for “aroma,” this is the character of the wine detectible by smell.
Mousse: The frothy, small bubbles that rise to the top of a glass of bubbly. Premium sparkling wines have a fine mousse with continuous strings of bubbles that rise in straight lines from the bottom of the glass.