Making wine from grapes is, at its heart, a simple natural process. But certain wines have their own unique character that depends upon more direct intervention on the part of the winemaker. We look at some of those unique wines in this article.
Champagne and Sparkling Wine:
According to legend, a French monk named Dom Perignon at Haut-Villiers in France was the person who discovered the secret of capturing the bubbles in wine, making the wine that today we call champagne. Those bubbles are carbon dioxide produced in the natural fermentation that turns grapes into wine. By keeping the fermenting juice in a closed container – a wine bottle – the gas bubbles cannot escape into the air, and so are kept dissolved in the wine inside the bottle. As you might expect, this results in a tremendous increase in the pressure inside the bottle, so in the early days, exploding bottles eliminated most of the crop! Special heavy glass bottles were developed to address this issue, but even today 1 to 2% of Champagne production is lost when bottles explode.
The other thing kept in the bottle with the bubbles is the sediment formed during the fermentation. In early days, champagne was a cloudy wine, filled with bits of this sediment, all stirred up by the bubbles. If you look at antique wine glasses from the 19th century, you will see they are made of frosted glass to hide this murkiness. It was the Widow Cliquot (Veuve Cliquot), one of the first woman entrepreneurs to head a champagne house, who discovered a process for removing the sediment without losing the bubbles. This process involves riddling (remuage) by turning the bottle upside down and shaking it gently over a long period of time to gather all the sediment on the end of the bottle’s closure. (which is usually a simple cap at this point; the classic wire-wrapped mushroom shaped corks are not added until the end of this process.) Just the neck of the bottle is then frozen solid, and the cap removed. The high pressure inside pushes the frozen plug out, (dégorgement or disgorging) a dose of sugar syrup with brandy (the ‘dosage’) is put into the bottle to replace the frozen plug, and the fancy wire-wrapped cork is inserted. Now the champagne is clear and ready for sale, and when you open it, the cork will pop, pushed by the pressure from inside. Learn to control this by holding the cork firmly in one hand and slowly but firmly twisting the bottle with the other hand holding the bottom of the bottle. Be sure the bottle is not pointing at anyone; an uncontrolled pop of the cork can be extremely dangerous.
Other countries around the world and other regions of France make sparkling wine, but it is not ‘champagne’ unless it is grown and made in the Champagne region of France. (In the bad old days, many countries used to call their sparkling wine champagne, as in Canadian Champagne or California Champagne. Most jurisdictions have ceased this fraudulent practice; unfortunately it persists in Canada.) Many of these sparkling wines are of very fine quality, sometimes quite competitive with champagne. But only champagne is champagne!
On the label of many of these other sparkling wines you may see the words “Traditional Method” (Méthode Traditionelle, Metodo Classico). A wine with this term on the label has been made by the same method of in-the-bottle fermentation, just like champagne, complete with riddling, disgorging, dosage, and fancy corking.
Champagne and other sparkling wines may be labelled as vintage or non-vintage; the non-vintage wines usually say ‘brut reserve’ or ‘special reserve’ on the label but will lack a vintage date. All the major producers keep stocks of reserve wine on hand from previous years, blending them to try to achieve a consistent house style. But in great years, when the wine is perfect as it comes from the vineyard and winery, the best wine of that year will be bottled separately, with that vintage stated on the label. The producer will usually keep some of the wine of that vintage to add to their reserves for blending in future years.
The fermentation process turns the sugars in grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As all the sugar in the wine is used up in fermentation, the finished wine is dry. Winemakers have discovered a number of ways to keep some of the sugar from fermenting, so that the finished wine will be naturally sweet.
Remember that the alcohol formed during fermentation is toxic to the yeast; once the alcohol concentration reaches 14% or so, fermentation will naturally stop. In Portugal, winemakers developed the technique of dumping a measured quantity of brandy into the fermenting wine, instantly raising the alcohol content to about 20%. This high level of alcohol kills the yeast and stops the fermentation, so there remains a significant quantity of unfermented sugar in the wine, making it sweet. This is how they make port. Port is a very strong, high alcohol product, and will keep for a very long time, in part due to the preserving qualities of the alcohol. Kiddush Fountain