"THERE’S NOTHING QUITE LIKE THE SOUND OF A CORK POPPING FROM A BOTTLE THAT SAYS SMILES, CELEBRATIONS AND …SECONDARY FERMENTATION! " --NICOLE HITCHCOCK"
Over the years, we’ve talked to many visitors in our tasting room who’ve enjoyed sparkling wine for years but know little about how it is made. Most are aware that to be called Champagne, the wine must be produced in the Champagne region in France. These wines are made in the méthode traditionnelle, meaning the secondary fermentation happens inside the bottle. We use this same method at J. Here’s how it works.
FIRST, SOME HISTORY
Winemaking monks in France discovered the first sparkling wines by a fortuitous accident. While producing still wines in cold conditions, the monks found that fermentation would often cease before the wine had been fermented to dryness, but fermentation would start back up once the weather got warmer. The monks noticed that carbon dioxide bubbles would form in the bottled wine due to a secondary fermentation of the wines’ residual grape sugars. Initially, the bubbles were considered a nuisance – the bottles often exploded – but eventually the phenomenon led to the intentional act of double fermentation.
PRIMARY FERMENTATION & ASSEMBLAGE
Today, sparkling winemakers begin with grape juice that is low in sweetness and high in acidity and is subsequently fermented to dryness. Low sugar equates to low alcohol in the fermented base wine – a necessity when two fermentations are involved. High acid ultimately complements the wine’s sweetness, adds liveliness and makes sparkling wine an excellent match for food.
We use traditional Champagne grapes at J – both red (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and white (Chardonnay). We handle the grapes as gently as possible, including night-harvesting into small bins and whole cluster pressing using our Coquard press to ensure the highest quality outcome.
We keep every lot from each vineyard block separate during pressing and fermentation. We then blend dozens of individual wine lots to create a cuvée that is bottled along with a mixture of yeast (to start up the secondary fermentation) and sugar (to give the yeast something to consume) called liqueur de tirage. We seal each bottle with a temporary crown cap, like the kind you find on a beer bottle, to contain the pressure is produced with the secondary fermentation.
Once the in-bottle secondary fermentation is complete, the wine rests sur lie on its spent yeast cells. As the yeast cells break down, they release polysaccharides, proteins and amino acids giving the wine nutty and toasty flavors and aromas as well as a fuller, creamier mouthfeel. The carbon dioxide also breaks down to form ever-smaller bubbles.
Riddling is the gradual movement of the wine bottle from a horizontal to an upside-down vertical position. During riddling, the spent yeast cells, called lees, gradually come to collect in the inverted neck of the bottle. If you’ve visited us at J, you may have seen the riddling racks at the entrance to the visitor’s center. A common practice in the past, skilled workers would turn thousands of bottles very slightly within the riddling rack notches each day until riddling was complete. Today, we avoid carpal tunnel syndrome and employ gyropallettes for this purpose.
DISGORGING AND DOSAGE
Once the sediment has collected in the neck of the bottle, it is ready for disgorgement. We chill the bottle causing the sediment to freeze into a slushy state, then remove the crown cap and allow the pressure in the bottle to expel the yeasty slush (and along with it some of the wine). A dosage replaces the few tablespoons of wine that is lost. The dosage consists of wine from a compatible cuvée, plus a few grams of cane sugar. Most sparkling wines, even very dry styles like extra brut, have some sugar added – it’s necessary to offset the wine’s high acidity.
Following disgorgement, it takes several months or more for the dosage to integrate into the wine before we release it for sale. The wine continues to gain complexity with bottle aging.