Wine lovers gather together tonight as we experience Sparkling wine of California. Out of all the wine produced in California and the wine producing regions, none is more challenging than sparkling. From the moment when Dom Perignon uttered the words” I am tasting stars” to the last “pop” of a cork sparkling wine has enraptured us. With its velvety texture to its long goose like necks to it’s sturdy bell shaped bottle. Sparkling wines has satisfied many over the past decades. The history of sparkling wine in California only spans a few decades where as in Europe it spans centuries. We will sample this wonderful wine this Saturday evening (tonight!) from 5pm until 8pm here at Ralph’s. Such producers as Chandon owned by the same makers ad Dom Perignon and Veuve Cliquot and Hennessey are some of the wine we will try tonight. Sparkling wine is made with some of the same process still wine is produced. Grapes are still harvested the same and crushed. Yeast is added to start fermentation and the alcohol process begins. The difference mainly lies in the second fermentation in bottle. This process is called “Methode Champenios” roughly translated to “Champagne method or in bottle fermentation. Wine is added bottled and more yeast culture is added with a sugar and wine based liquid. The bottle is then capped with a beer type bottle cap and set down to ferment with the yeast in the bottle. After a set time the bottle is riddled slowly over several weeks. Riddling is a technique used to slowly release the yeast sediment in the bottle and slowly bring it into the long neck creating a plug of spent yeast waste. In wine production this is called fermentation on the lees.
Once this yeast is trapped in the neck of the bottle the neck of the bottle is dipped into liquid nitrogen, this freezes the yeast plug and the bottle cap is opened and the pressure from the bottle disgorging the frozen plug. The next step is called “Dosage” this step is a crucial part of the process. When the plug is blown out a good quantity of wine is lost in the process this volume must be replaced and allowed to ferment again, hence the second fermentation. This balances the wine and replaces the lost volume and allows the wine to rest. As this process is happening, a cork top replaces the bottle cap. The mushroom shape most people see in stores starts out as a thick cylinder of good quality cork. In the labeling and packaging line workers must be careful to handle the sparkling wine. Great pressure has built up in the bottle and can still explode if not handled gently.
The first time I entered a sparkling wine facility was in Chandon in Napa County. Chandon is a beautiful sprawling acreage in the southern tip if Napa. Old growth oak trees and shrubs of rosemary adorn the hillsides and gravel walking paths from restaurant to the winery. Once inside gargantuan stainless steel tanks rise up from the processing floor like ship smoke stacks of years past. Oak is not used to age the wine at champagne or sparkling house, the expression of the fruit character and subtle brioche notes are what are sought after. Even on rose style sparkling wine oak is not influenced in any way. Pipes and hoses line the floor connected to stainless steel valves looking like a giant monster from an HG Wells novel. This monster produces a delicate elegant product instead of havoc and despair. I hope to see you tonight at 5pm, good cheese and perhaps a bit of caviar await those bold enough to try it! Cheers!!!
Mike Berger Wine guy