Dan Berger

The art behind bubbles in the bottle

A man who makes wine for a large wine company once was offered a glass of sparkling wine, from a very fine California producer. His disdain couldn’t have been more obvious and though he was seemingly satisfied to consume his flute, he groused.

“Anyone can put bubbles into a wine,” he grumbled “Why it’s used for special occasions is anyone’s guess.”

Two other winemakers at the table found the remarks to be hypocritical – in view of the fact that the guy was, after all, drinking this elegant bubbly.

And the fact was, it was awfully nice wine, and the only occasion in this particular case was five wine lovers getting together for a nice meal.

After a bit of back-and-forth, some of the truth came out: the winemaker said he didn’t like making sparkling wines because it was, he said, counter-intuitive.

“When you make wine – real wine,” he said, “you pick ripe grapes and you taste them, and they taste like wine. When you make bubbly and it’s sour and tastes terrible.”

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The winemaker was right. Making fine quality sparkling wine (mainly from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) is one of the most difficult things a winemaker can do and is due to what he said: the grapes for sparkling wine are picked so early that even the best wine maker has no real understanding of what he or she will be dealing with.

Also, the winemaker was right that anyone can put bubbles into a bottle. But the method of getting those bottles to sparkle is a huge part of the quality that results. It’s not just the grapes.

To start with, you typically pick grapes for sparkling wines far earlier than for table wines.

One reason for the early harvesting of fruit is to retain acid, which declines over time on the vine. For balance, sparkling wines have to start out tart.

But allowing grapes to remain on the vine also adds a “very-ripe” aromatic to the sparkling wine after it undergoes the second fermentation (which produces the bubbles). And the result can be a wine with a bit too much flavor.

Fine sparkling wines ideally are delicate and refreshing (except for those rare examples of red sparkling, which are not extremely popular in the United States).

So imagine what the sparkling winemaker has to do: pick grapes long before they have any of the fruity aromas and tastes we commonly associate with table wine, and then he or she has to imagine what the resulting bone-dry wine, after the first fermentation, will be like. And then he or she has to put the juice through a second fermentation to create the bubbles, and along the way gain added complexity from the added yeast contact.

The strategies the winemaker employs start with how the blend (cuvee) should be constructed. Should it be more heavily reliant on one grape? Should the wine be aged in barrels or stainless steel? Should it undergo the acid-lowering tactic of malolactic fermentation?

The choice of how to do the second fermentation is one of the most complicated aspects in all wine making. There are at least six different methods of getting the bubbles into a bottle, though they are related. Three of the techniques are common. And the one that typically makes the finest sparklings is colloquially called the Champagne method, and it is fraught with pitfalls.

What yeast is best for the second fermentation? How long should that fermentation be, slow or fast? Should that fermentation be done cooler or warmer? How do you choose to remove the sediment that’s remaining from the second fermentation? How much sugar should you add to the final product just before the final cork goes on?

Every decision is critical to maintaining a house style, and that style is both major and trivial, depending on who consumes the wine.

For newcomers to a house that makes fine-quality bubbly, the style is not terribly important.

For sophisticates, what is important is capturing the perfect balance between subtle fruit, the subtle tension between mid-palate weight and acidity, and the subtle aftertaste -- not too sweet, not too dry.

As you may have noted, the word “subtle” comes up a lot with fine-quality sparkling wines, which sets them apart (far apart) from the cheaper bubblies with their (usual) large bubbles and loads of residual sugars.

And finally is the remarkable fact that when the method used to make the bubbles is considered to be the finest (Methode Champenoise), each of the bottles that makes the second fermentation is, in effect, its own tiny fermentation tank, and as such each fermentation is potentially a time bomb of erratic bubbly behavior.

So the wine maker who derided bubbly production was happy to drink the product of someone else’s expertise with this product, but he was secretly thanking his good fortune he didn’t have to make it.

I related this tale a few years ago to a man who had spent his life making bubblies from different grapes and using all three methods of production – Methode Champenoise, Transfer, and Charmat (the so-called bulk method). He laughed and said he was thrilled to make bubbly since it was a lot more predictable than table wine.

“Look, you’re picking early – sometimes the grapes are being picked in late July! – so you never get hit with bad weather like rain or heat. The fermentations are simpler, and after you get the wine into the chai (the winery’s bottle-storage area), you can go on vacation two months earlier than all those other guys who are slogging about and praying for good weather.

“What’s not to like?”

And then he capped his defense of bubbly production by saying, “I can honor sparkling wine with my own product!”

So THAT’s the reason to celebrate!

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