Good news! The Rathfinny Wine Estate Vineyard (Sussex) is to begin making its Sparkling Blanc de Noirs wine in pint-sized bottles. Like the bottles of Champagne that Winston Churchill used to enjoy so regularly. Like, daily. In fact, it is rumoured that Winston’s favourite brand, Pol Roger, is also in discussion with glass suppliers over pint bottles, with an eye to post-Brexit sales.
We may have to wait a wee while – Brussels prevented use of the pint measure for wines back in 1973. Brexit will free us to go back to a great tradition and perhaps, save a few coppers with a smaller bottle as well, because as we know, bubbly can be pricey.
But why is bubbly so expensive? Not all of it is, of course. We can get Prosecco and Cava and Cremant (“what’s that?” you say) and a variety of sparkling wines that are under £8 a bottle. But the traditionally made bubbly – Champagne and others – always carries a premium price. But why? That’s where this Blog intends to go. To make our understanding of wines a little better and our knowledge a little deeper. So that we can be more educated in what we buy and drink.
I hope you can enjoy the journey with me as I explore the wonderful world of wine.
Let’s start with traditionally-made sparkling wine. With a lexicon that includes ‘Blanc de Noirs’, ‘Dosement’, ‘Disgorgement’, not to mention ‘Riddling’ it is no surprise that the language of Sparkling Wine production can be confusing. So, read on for a bit of an explanation.
Grapes is grapes, right? Well, we will cover that particular comment in a later blog, but the requirements for growing grapes for sparkling wines differs considerably from those needed for making still wine. For one thing, the grapes should be relatively low in sugar.
Alcohol comes from the process of fermentation when sugars are converted to alcohol and more sugar in the grape means more alcohol in the wine. Well, with most sparkling wine, something called ‘secondary fermentation’ takes place – it gives the wine its bubbles, but it also raises the alcohol levels of the wine by another 1.2 to 1.3% abv. So, vineyards will seek to make a still wine of around 10-11% abv. To give your bubbly that refreshing style, high levels of acidity are needed from the grapes. Finally, the grapes must be sufficiently ripe as to avoid any ‘green herbaceous’ flavours that are not wanted in the finished product. So, it’s a tricky process, made the more so by the climate; too cool and the sugar and acid levels change only slowly, but in warmer climes these levels can fall or rise very quickly. Finding the right area with a sufficiently cool climate is fundamental for producing premium quality sparkling wine. No surprise then that with climate change several major Champagne houses have been sniffing around land-purchases in the south of England….
The grapes have then to be handled with great care – in Champagne it is mandatory to hand-pick the grape harvest and this also occurs in all the best sparkling wine producing areas. In some warm areas, where inexpensive sparkling wine is to be made, machine harvesting may be necessary to get the grapes in before they develop too much sugar and lose acidity.
To get the juice from the grapes they must be pressed. Now, it is a surprise to some people that some sparkling white wine is made with black grapes. Grape juice being clear, the colour in wine comes from the skins, so pressing the grapes has to be very careful to avoid discolouring the wine. Wine makers achieve this by careful pressing of whole bunches of grapes and, in order to maintain quality, legislation exists within Europe to govern the maximum pressure and amount of juice to be extracted.
We’ve got the grapes; we have the juice from them; we have bottles and all the other trappings that go into wine production, so let’s make some sparkling wine!
In this context, the traditional method is not a version of birth control. It does indicate that secondary fermentation has taken place in the bottle in which it comes. (Interestingly, an advantage of the pint bottle over the present half bottle is that secondary fermentation can occur in the pint bottle that cannot do so in the smaller half bottle, achieving a more traditional style). It is an expensive and time-consuming process, which is one reason why Champagne and similarly-produced wines are pricey.
First thing to be done is to make some wine. This is called the ‘Base Wine’. As with most wines, fermentation takes place in big stainless-steel vats with carefully controlled temperatures (although some manufacturers still use oak barrels). This wine is dry, with high acidity and neutral flavours. Now, this turning juice into wine is a magical thing itself, but, depending on the style that the winemaker is trying to achieve, a decision will now be made whether to allow a further bit of magic called ‘malolactic fermentation‘ (or ‘MLF’) to take place. In this, lactic acid bacteria in the juice is allowed to turn the tart malic acid (such as found in apples) into lactic acid (as found in milk). These softer lactic acids give certain wines that ‘buttery’ flavour. It also produces CO2, but more about MLF another day….
A decision will be made if the wine is to spend some time maturing in oak barrels before the secondary fermentation. Most wines lie around for a year or so before they are turned into bubbly. Some will be kept for longer and these are vital for use in blending.
Blending is the main method that a winemaker will use to achieve the style for which that vineyard is famous, year after year, which is, after all, how they continue to sell their wine. It allows a balance to be made between, say, the citrus fruit tastes of the Chardonnay grape and the red-fruit and body of the Pinot Noir. Some older wine can bring flavours of dried fruit to be balanced with the fresher flavour of young wines, or oak barrels may be employed to add texture and a spicy note. Yes, lots of decisions go into making a bottle of bubbly….
Once the wines are all blended, something called ‘liqueur de tirage‘ is added in small quantities. This mixture of wine, sugar and yeast instigates the secondary fermentation. A cap is put on the bottle and the bottles are stacked in a cool cellar. More magic – a second fermentation, raises the abv by a small percentage and generates CO2, which has nowhere to go until the bottle is opened.
Now, these elements of magic leave a deposit in the bottle. These yeast deposits add flavour and style to the wine – some will have tasted that ‘bready, biscuity’, flavour in certain Champagnes – but eventually the process ends and the deposits need to be removed. But how to do that without losing the bubbles that have taken so much trouble to be made? ‘Riddling’ takes place, which is a method of gently moving the bottles into an almost upside-down position, allowing the sediment to slide down into the neck of the bottle. Riddling used to be done by hand (and still is, in some small or premium houses) but is increasingly carried out mechanically.
The neck of the bottle will then be frozen (usually by submerging it into a very cold brine solution), the bottle turned upright again and the cap removed, allowing the frozen wine holding the sediment to escape under the CO2 pressure. This little loss of wine is topped up by something called ‘liqueur d’expedition‘ – a mixture of wine and sugar, measured to meet the style of wine desired in what is called the ‘dosage’. A wide variety of style and flavour choices will determine the precise blend that is added by the dosage.
Finally, the traditional ‘high pressure’ cork and wire cage are added and the bottle is ready for labelling, ageing as desired, and sent to market, unless the decision has been made to bottle-age the wine for longer. Et voila, Champagne! So, you can see how the whole process adds to the cost of the finished product.
The Transfer Method avoids the complex and expensive riddling and disgorgement by pouring all of the wine into a sealed tank under pressure. It is then filtered to remove the yeast deposits, topped up with liqueur d’expedition and bottled. This allows a less-expensive wine to be produced in large quantities.
This method allows the wine to retain the flavours of that original base wine and is used with strong-flavoured grapes such as Riesling or Muscat as well as fruity sparkling wines such as Prosecco. It is cheaper, speedier and less laborious than the traditional method, but good quality wines are still possible. In this method, the first fermentation takes place in steel tanks under strict temperature control, retaining the fruity, floral flavours of the grapes. There is no MLF or ageing in oak, but yeast and sugar are added and the secondary fermentation occurs in pressurised tanks before the wine is filtered and bottled.
No prizes for guessing where this method is used – but the key here is that only one fermentation takes place and instead the wine is warmed to allow fermentation to take place in pressurised tanks until judged ready, when fermentation is halted and the wine is filtered and bottled.
Simply, CO2 is injected into still wine which is then bottled. Cheap and cheerful would be an apt description for the resultant fruity sparkling wine.
Vintage or not?
In Champagne, a vintage wine describes one that has come from a single year (other regions may allow a percentage of wines from different years). Where the conditions and climate make the certainty of each year’s quality difficult to predict – such as in Champagne – vintages will only be declared for the very best years; another reason for a higher price.
Non-vintage – the standard product and usually the ‘house’ style of a vineyard are wines made from grapes harvested in more than one year.
Blancs de Blancs are made from only white grapes, whilst Blancs de Noirs only from black grapes. A sparkling Rosé can be made by blending red and white base wines, or by allowing a degree of contact between the juice and the skins of black grapes. Some colour can also be added via the liqueur d’expedition.
Prestige Cuvée usually describes the best bubbly that the vineyard makes, especially in Champagne, where the mark of quality and luxury is an important sales factor.
I mentioned Cremant earlier. It is sparkling wine made in different regions in France in the traditional method, but without the hype – or price – of Champagne. Give it a go!
So that is a quick canter around the making of one of our favourite celebratory drinks – Champagne and other sparkling wines. England has a justified growing reputation for producing very high quality sparkling wine that rivals much of Champagne’s offerings. and in a future blog we will explore the world’s different sparkling wine producers.
Whether you decide to splash out on a high quality fizz or a cheap and cheerful bottle of bubbles, enjoy what it has to offer and ponder for a moment on the effort and trouble that has gone into making what Dom Perignon called “the taste of the stars”!