How Sparkling Wine is Made

Jun 1, 2016

Why and How We Make Méthode Champenoise California Sparkling Wine

Refreshing and invigorating, sparkling wine is becoming increasingly popular across the United States. Everyone from Millennials to Boomers are reaching for the bubbles. With people indulging everyday and not just for special occasions, wineries today recognize that serving a glass of bubbly to patrons as they walk through the door creates the ultimate sense of celebration and welcoming.

Sparkling wine, with its fine mousse and finish that begs for another sip, is especially appealing to consumers because it pairs well with virtually any food. My personal favorite is pairing bubbly with caviar on potato chips with crème fraiche — yum!

A Popular and Profitable Commodity

Production of bubbly is ramping up at wineries nationwide, and so are sales. In fact, bubbly sales are driving the growth of the U.S. wine market. For more than a decade, the sector has outperformed still wines, as reported by several media outlets.

Our client, Paso Robles-based Mooney Family Wines, says of the winery’s impetus behind venturing into sparkling winemaking, “We started our sparkling program due to the demand created when we began doing weddings at the estate winery. The feedback to our Mooney Family Blanc de Noirs has been great, particularly from the ladies,” said owner, Michael Mooney.

Sparkling Wine — A Labor of Love

While sommeliers and wine buffs have still wines seemingly figured out, there is still some mystery in sparkling wines. The time, labor and specialized processes behind sparkling winemaking dwarf that of still winemaking — and so few people specialize in it — that sparkling winemaking remains a rather enigmatic category of wine.

In fact, it took me a couple of years being a winemaker before that “ah hah” moment when I didn’t have to figure out how and when the bubbles came to be! I remember as a winemaker early in my career taking a bottle fresh off the disgorging line and worrying, “Are the bubbles going to be there?” The answer is of course, yes — the bubbles are born in the bottle when you put the yeast in, and they remain there in the bottle.

The short of it: sparkling winemaking is a true labor of love. The movies make it look simple, with someone quaintly twisting the bottles on an old wooden French riddling rack, but the answer is, well, it’s not quite that easy. There is much hard work behind every bottle.

Each process of sparkling winemaking has its own intricacies, such as disgorging — the process of freezing the lees (sediments) in the neck, and having it pop out of the bottle. Disgorging isn’t used in still winemaking at all. Tiny details must be monitored, such as how big the ice plug is, making sure it’s not concave, and mitigating gushing when the crown cap is pulled off and too much wine pours out of the bottle (much like when you pop the cork on a bottle that is still too warm, and the wine overflows out of the neck).

How It’s Made at Rack & Riddle

If you’ve ever been curious about what’s behind your glass of bubbly, here’s a practical guide to sparkling wines crafted in the traditional French method:

  1. First thing’s first: Look at the label. When sparkling wine is produced in the traditional method, sparkling wine houses will want to tout the age-old methodology to their customers. The wine label will typically state “Methode Champenoise,” “Methode Traditionelle,” or “Traditional Method.” They cannot state “Champagne” unless it is made in the Champagne region of France.
  2. Sparkling wine grapes are picked earlier than their still wine grape counterparts to maintain high acidity and low sugars—typically at 17-20 brix. Traditionally in France, sparkling wine grapes are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay—this is what most of the United States follows. Many other varietals can be blended to create bubbly as done in other areas of France and the surrounding countries. Many sparkling wines are non-vintage. This blending of different varietals from different years allows a sparkling wine to maintain a consistent profile year after year, regardless of what the last harvest produced quality-wise.
  3. In the vineyard, certain data is collected at harvest time: total tons, yield per acre, average clusters per vine and average cluster weight—just as one would do with still wine grapes.
  4. The grapes are whole cluster pressed. Different fractions are taken—cuvee, taille, rebeche—at certain pressures during the pressing cycle. After the grapes are pressed, additions like SO2, Bentonite and for non-organic wines, enzymes may be added to the juice, which then goes into settling tanks. Analysis occurs along the whole process: Brix, TA, pH, and So2 levels.
  5. After the juice is racked and ready for the fermenting tanks, pre-fermentation analysis takes place; once fermenting, daily checks are taken of brix and temperature.
  6. Once the first fermentation has occurred, the wine undergoes post-fermentation analysis, including tests of TA, pH, F/T, So2, Malic, residual sugar, VA, and alcohol. Wine goes through centrifuge or is settled and racked then into storage tanks. So2 additions are made, though at lower levels than many still wines. Free and total So2, and VA monitoring are monthly.
  7. Assemblage blending (if being blended with other wines) now takes place to blend different varietals and fractions—cuvee and taille—together. The wine is cold stabilized and crossflow filtered. Additions at this point include sugar and yeast nutrient, possibly tannin or gum for retaining color in rosé. Then the wine goes through a final membrane filter at 0.45u.
  8. Here is where the wine goes from being treated like a still wine and goes into sparkling mode. A yeast culture is introduced to the wine as well as an adjuvant (riddling agent bentonite). The wine with yeast and adjuvant is ‘tirage bottled’ into wooden bins where it then rests on its side in the bottle.
  9. The second fermentation occurs in the bottle, taking anywhere from one to three months. This is when the bubbles are created. Aging on the yeast (lees) takes place and lasts at least six months to years, depending on the style desired.
  10. The wine is transferred with shaking (to release the yeast from the bottle) to riddling bins where it settles. Bins are put into the riddling machines where riddling takes place from three to seven days. This is where the yeast ends up in the neck of the bottle along with the bentonite. The bottles are allowed to rest as they are active (just like shaking up a soft drink can). This entire process takes three to four weeks.
  11. The bottles are then placed in a neck freezer and then disgorged. Disgorging is the process of the yeast lees being released out of the bottle in the frozen ‘plug’. Dosage (optional) can be added at that time. The dose can be anything from sugar water to sugar and brandy or in some cases color can be added to the wine via a wine sugar mixture.
  12. Wines are then corked, wirehooded, foiled, labeled and ready to ship! Remember though that the bottles have been through trauma and should be allowed to rest before consuming.

The sparkling process may take a little longer, well maybe a lot longer, than many still wines, but it is well worth it to have and share the bubbly experience!

—Penny Gadd-Coster, Executive Director of Winemaking