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A little on Champagne and sparkling wine made by the Traditional or Champenoise Methode… I’m sure you’ve heard – Dom Perignon invented it, right?  Wrong.  We owe some viticulture techniques and artful assemblage or blending techniques to him, but otherwise, he thought the sparkles were bad and spent many of his years at Abbey of Hautvillers trying to rid of the bubbles.  What about Widow (Veuve) Clicquot?  The mother of the bubs, right? While we can thank her for the likes of remuage, the technique of riddling, she and some of the other Champagne widows likely poisoned or suffocated their husbands in the early 1800s.  At least that’s the vibe that I get…

Anyway…

When it comes to wine style, terroir, single vineyards, obviously single vintages, cuvees, etc are prized across the world.  Champagne is greatly different, unless we’re talking about growers that have changed the last 20 years – many a Champagne houses made (and make) their reputation upon their house style.  Non-vintage champagnes are the most prevalent style of Champagnes and they are a blend of grapes (one, two or all three of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier), blend of vineyard areas and blend of vintages.  Champagne is one area of the old world where the process and decisions of the producers has as much to do with and is as important as where the grapes hail from.  Let’s break it down…

The Champenoise Methode or Methode Traditionnelle are the same save for the fact that Champagne can only come from eh ehm… Champagne.  Some of the ageing requirements vary also.  Otherwise, here’s my go at explaining this complicated process in an uncomplicated way:

– pick the grapes
– press very soon after, especially the black grapes to avoid that the juice acquire any color
– the first 2,050 liters is the vin de cuvée
– the following 500 l is the vin de taille and tends be richer in color and tannin
– allow the juice to settle for between eight and 15 hours, sediment will fall, then rack
– the must may or may not be chaptalized at this point
– primary fermentation occurs and results in a high acid wine that we’ll refer to as the base wine. Its abv is approximately 11%.  It takes place in either stainless steel or used barrels, some growers experiment with a percentage of new oak
– clarify the base wine by fining, filtering or centrifuge
– keep the base wine in the stainless steel or barrel until the following February or March
– blend. I’m talking grapes, vineyard areas, vintages. Some don’t do this.  Notably, Cedric Bouchard – he does single vintage, single varietal, single vineyards Champagnes.  But for those producing wines with a “house style” this is where the art of blending comes in.
– cold stabilize. maybe.
–  rack & bottle, add a mixture of wine, yeast & sugar called liqeuer de tirage to ignite the secondary fermentation that occurs in the bottle.
– secondary fermentation takes place for up eight weeks. Abv rises by 1.2 to 1.3%. About 5 to 6 atmospheres of pressure develops as a result of the CO2.
– while secondary ferm is happening, autolysis also occurs.  That’s the breakdown of dead yeast cells.
– age on the lees for a minimum (in Champagne ) of 12 months for non-vintage
– there’s all kinds of yeast cells in there now; we want to trap them in the neck and expel them. So…
remuage or “riddling” = if old school or elite cuvee, lay the bottles sur latte (horizontal) in a pupitre. That’s a thing that looks like two doors leaning against one another in an “A” shape, holes in the side for all the bottles.  Over the course of 8 weeks or so, someone (with patience) rotates the bottles and tilts downward each bottle ever so delicately and precisely so that the yeast slowly gathers and falls into the neck. OR, use the Spanish-invented gyropallette: a machine that does the same thing over the course of I think 24 hours with 504 bottles at a time.

Patient French men.

– when the bottle is totally upside down it’s sur point.  Bollinger’s “RD” champagne is left like that for a long, long time, not moved into the next step of disgorgement until order. That’s cool.
degorgement or “disgorgement”: dip the tip of the bottle into frozen brine solution to freeze the yeast cells. pop off the crown cap and the frozen portion will expel itself. some wine is lost during that step, so more is added.
– that’s called dosage.  It’s a combo of wine and sugar syrup.  here’s the chance of the house to further define their style and level of sugar.  There’s a big move for “non-dosage” wines these days.  I’ll touch on that in a sec.  Anyway, the level of dosage and grams of sugar that might be added determines the level of Champagne it is (extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec or doux). Brut is most common and the grams of sugar can be between 0 and 12.
– then put a cork and cage on it. The cage wire is twisted 6 times.
– non-vintage Champagnes must age 15 months in the bottle (this includes time sur lie)
– vintage must age 36 months

I quote below, one of my favorite wine writers yet again, Terry Theise, from his 2011 Champagne sales catalog in regards to the issue of dosage.  I can’t say it any better than him, and he cites a great example / experience:

“I opened my existing Champagne catalogue and saw I’d written a desperate note; ‘Must we talk about residual sugar any more?’  This is the inevitable downside of the Champenoise entering the current.’  In 2008 I detailed a revelatory tasting we did with Hebrart in which we looked at six different dosage options for his 2004 club, and learned what you always learn when you taste through different sweetness levels.  Sugar acts upon every other facet of the wine in unpredictable ways.  More sugar doesn’t invariably mean a greater sense of sweetness.  Sometimes the “sweeter” option tastes drier than the less sweet wine.

Among the trendy young growers there’s a sad tendency to see this question in obtusely broad strokes.  Less dosage is not always better.  It doesn’t make your wine more honest, more pure, more transparent, more sophisticated or more honorable; it just makes it more dry.  Among the many dubious things we owe the big Champagne houses is that they’ve poisoned the well by making their commercial bottlings treacly-sweet in order to mask the deficiencies of the base product, or because they presume their “market” wants the wines sweet.  And so we all beleive that less sweetness is more desirable.  First we let them dupe us, and then we duped ourselves.”

My tasting group’s bubbles tasting was great, we ended up with a good variety of styles and it prompted me to look further into bubble-related topics like decanting Champagne; more on that later.

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Xarel-lo is a grape found primarily in the Northeastern region of Catalonia.  Go here to hear how to pronounce this word.  It is commonly used in the production of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine).  The two other grapes often used in Cava are Viura and Parellada.  I have tasted a handful of 100% Viura wines but only recently stumbled upon a 100% Xarel-lo and jumped at the opportunity.

Albet i Noya is a producer with a long history.  In 1998 they began a project in collecting and planting seven different varieties that have been more or less lost over the ages.  Along with the experimental varieties they produce, they make a few classics as well such as Tempranillo and Chardonnay.  Check out their whole selection here.

My notes on Albet i Noya Xarel-lo, 2008: Great clarity with very little color.  Medium strength aromatics of stone fruits, asparagus, and a touch of warm bread.  This wine has fairly high amounts of acid, is very crisp on the palate with flavors of cream, tart stone fruits and grass.  The finish is lacking, but all in all I was very pleased.  I would describe this wine as somewhere between a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc with its crispness & a Gewurtz with its generous aromatics and heavier body.  I paired this wine with a Tempura fried artichoke hearts with a mild chipotle sauce & it went over very well with guests.

If you can find a 100% Xarel-lo at your local wine shop, snatch it up.  Add this to your list of interesting wines that you have experienced.

Sparkling wine, such as Champagne or Prosecco is one of the most frequently sipped celebratory beverages. Even consumers who typically stray away from wine tend to enjoy the refreshing nature of a nice sparkling Moscato d’Asti or the like. But where do those bubbles come from?? There are a couple of different methods to create a carbonated, quality wine, the first being the “Traditional” method. It is the process used to make Champagne (meaning, sparkling wine from the region of Champagne in France), high quality Cava made in Catalonia, high quality Sekt or Germany sparkling wine, as well as other sparkling wine of fine quality from any region. The base of any sparkling wine is wine that has been put through typical alcoholic fermentation. The growing and selecting of these grapes tends to be a bit less intense than that of say, a Bordeaux blend. This is because the base wine for Champagne is intended to be combined with other must and put through quite a bit, therefore the vintner is aiming for a grape and juice that is high in acid and low in flavor rather than a complex and perfectly balanced grape. This base is called “vin clair.” The grapes making up the vin clair from Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier. The grapes are fermented separately into their own vin clair and then blended in the process of “assemblage.” The blender is choosing not only different varietals to combine, but different vintages and possibly, product from several vineyards. Sugar and yeast is then added into the tank resulting in “Liqueur de Tirage.” The next step is to bottle and top with a temporary crown cap for in bottle secondary fermentation. The yeast and sugar react to create alcohol and carbon dioxide. During primary fermentation in a larger vessel, the CO2 escapes, but in the bottle, the CO2 is forced into the liquid, giving us bubbles.

The long-term contact of the yeast with the wine imparts unique flavors that we find in Champagne and the like. The dead yeast, however, is solid matter and must be gathered in the neck of the bottle and removed. This can be done in a couple of different ways, one of which being “remuage” or “riddling.” The bottles of the “Liqueur de Tirage” are stored horizontally on a large wooden shelving structure called a pupitre. The bottles are rotated by hand several times a day over several weeks until the bottles are vertical. This allows the yeast to gather in the neck of the bottle rather than being dispersed throughout the wine. A more modern method is the mechanized gyropallette, a machine that does the same thing over the course of three days rather than weeks.

The next step is “degorgement” or disgorgement. The bottle neck is dipped in freezing solution so as to harden the dead yeast, the crown cap is removed and the yeast forced out by the excessive CO2 within the bottle. When the yeast flies out, some of the sparkling wine is also lost and must be replaced. This is done by adding “Liqueur de Expedition,” wine that has been sweetened with sugar. It is this step when the wine maker determines the color (if any) and level of sweetness. The bottle is closed with a cork and cage, ready to be released.

Understanding the label on a bottle of Champagne? To be continued…

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