By definition. But Champagne is not all that sparkles!
What I’m trying to say is that sparkling wine (what “champagne” must legally be called outside of the “Champagne” region of France) can be extraordinarily delicious. But you already knew this. I admit that before I started working at this lovely, new Sonoma winery, I was extremely excited at the prospect of working at a winery which produces such euphoria-inducing effervescent elixir and I can’t say I’ve been disappointed. In fact, with the upcoming release of two brand new Estate sparkling wines from Ram’s Gate Winery, in combination with their truly spectacular single vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, not to mention a dazzlingly crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a plump, juicy Cab, it kind of feels like I hit the jackpot. But I digress. What I came here to tell you about was the time (last week) that I rode shotgun next to our Associate Winemaker Jesse Fox for a gorgeous 90 minute ride north to visit the “custom crush” facility where Ram’s Gate produces its sparkling wines.
[For an illustrated description of how sparkling wine is made, skip to the bottom.]
First, an interesting factoid about the name “sparkling wine.” Any oenophile worth his rachus (fancy winemaker word for the stems of grape clusters) will tell you that interestingly enough, the term “Champagne” was protected for use only by the eponymous region in France as a provision of the Treaty of Versailles. You know, that old document that was used to end World War I. What?! It’s true. France wanted its region’s integrity protected. In France’s defense, they did indeed discover how to produce the substance and had already spent a couple hundred years fine tuning it at that point. Well good for them, we’ll call it what it is, sparkling wine, and it will be just as delicious, if not better! (…For more on the interesting history of Sparkling Wine/Champagne. It’s Wikipedia, so you might consider digging further if you want to be sure it’s the whole Truth and nothing but.)
Back to the story.
After an hour and a half of “coming round the (really beautiful) mountains when we come” (actually the soundtrack to our adventure was more circa ’80’s-early ’90’s once I discovered Jesse’s hidden stash of rock ballad cassette tapes, oh yeah), we arrived at Rack & Riddle, located in Hopland, California.
|Riddling Racks… we’ll get to that.|
We made the trek to Hopland on this day because this fateful Wednesday, February 6, 2013, was to be the birth of the very first vintage of Ram’s Gate’s two newest sparkling wines, a Rose and a Blanc de Noirs, both of which we produced from fruit grown on our own Estate vineyards surrounding the winery. Very exciting stuff in theory and even more exciting once we tasted the first two bottles to be disgorged. Y-u-m.
“Disgorged? That’s a funny word,” you say.
Here’s a quick summary of the sparkling wine making process. Haven’t you always wanted to know?! I certainly had. It was one of those things that I thought I understood until I tried to explain it to someone else, and then I realized I wasn’t quite the expert I thought. If questions remain for you at the end of this all, don’t hesitate to reach out. We’ll consult the Winemaker.
Sparkling Wine Production for Dummies/Newbies/Anyone Who Wants To Know
1. PRIMARY FERMENTATION occurs exactly as it does with other ‘still’ wines. Fruit is picked, pressed, the juice goes into a tank and yeast turn all the sugar in the juice into alcohol, thus creating ‘wine’.
2. Wine is BOTTLED with a small dose of NEW YEAST and a small amount of SUGAR or fresh grape JUICE. Instead of using a cork, as they would with still wine at this point, they use a CAP (which is easier to pop off, you’ll see why this is important later in the process).
3. The bottled wine is STORED HORIZONTALLY while it undergoes its SECONDARY FERMENTATION of the new small dose of yeast and sugar in the bottle.
Go Deeper: The Carbon Dioxide given off as the yeast convert sugar to alcohol is trapped in the solution of the wine. The amount of sugar added before the cap is put on determines how much pressure will build up in the bottle. Careful attention is paid to avoid having so much fermentation occur that the bottle explodes, although this certainly happens from time to time.
4. The wine is AGED in this horizontal position with the dead yeast cells (more attractively called lees) sitting along the bottom of the bottle for however long the winemaker wants. This is called TIRAGE.
Go Deeper: You will hear it said, “This wine was aged en tirage for [insert number] of months.” The verb “tirer” in French means “to pull,” so the idea is that the wine is pulling or extracting delicious toasted brioche and hazelnut flavors from the dead yeast cells. Many of the top producers of sparkling age their wines en tirage for a minimum of three to five years. We aged ours en tirage for 3 years and were told we set the record for longest tirage at their facility, woo hoo! The wine needs to be at a certain level of quality to be able to hold up through the tirage, and length of tirage is often equated to quality because of the gained complexity of flavor and texture.
5. Once the winemaker decides the wine is ready to be corked and sold, the process of RIDDLING begins, which is simply where each bottle of wine is rotated little by little until it goes from its original horizontal position to being completely vertical and upside down.
Go Deeper: There are numerous ways of accomplishing this task. The monks in Champagne would do it by hand, bottle by bottle. We have now invented several automated options, which work just as well and a bit more efficiently. This process takes as little as 3-5 days at Rack and Riddle with rotations occurring at small angles every few seconds. The idea is to roll the lees down the side of the bottle without disrupting the wine.
6. Once the wines are completely VERTICAL, they are ready to be DISGORGED, which is when the yeast cells in the neck of the vertical bottle are FROZEN (the necks are dipped into -28 degree celsius glycol for just a few minutes at Rack and Riddle), the cap is POPPED OFF and the frozen yeast-containing pellet POPPED OUT.
|These bottles are upside down in a shallow bath of -28 degree celsius glycol, which is moving slowly to the conveyor belt out of frame to the right to be disgorged.|
|Look for the frozen pellet just under the metal cap. This will be popped out, removing the lees and leaving a pure, clear wine.|
Go Deeper: The practice of adding the dosage is pretty much universal, as most sparkling wines are too acidic for the common palate. Winemakers will do dosage trials before disgorging to identify how much sweetness they want to reintroduce into the wine. The amount of sugar reintroduced during dosage for a ‘dry’ sparkling wine is so small that the sparkling wine may still be considered ‘dry’.
|The frozen pellet and cap have just been popped out. Now the wine is about to get topped off with a small amount of sugar solution, the dosage.|
8. The bottle is then CORKED, CAPSULED and LABELED and packed into case boxes, READY TO BE SOLD! Most wineries will hold onto the freshly disgorged and corked sparkling wines for anywhere from a few weeks to several months before they release it to the public so as to allow the dosage to integrate and to allow the wine to settle.
|Each and every bottle is inspected for perfection at every stage in the process. Thank you, Quality Control!|
|Jesse inspects the foil on the Sparkling Rose.|
|Making sure the foils are perfect for the Blanc de Noirs, as well.|
Well that pretty much sums up the process of making sparkling wine. But like with most things worth discovering, as soon as you think you know something about it, you realize how many more layers there are to unpeel. If you want to learn more about any of this, don’t hesitate to reach out. I can’t promise I’ll have the answer, but discovering together is twice as fun!
Keep an eye, an ear, a nostril and a taste bud out for Ram’s Gate Winery’s Sparkling Rose and Blanc de Noirs, coming soon to Tasting Room and Web! (Ram’s Gate wines are only available through the winery directly, but we ship to most states.)
|Well worth the three year wait.|