In part one of this series, you learned where different types of bubbles are made and why it’s important to know their various names. If you haven’t yet read it, click here. Next, I share all the different ways winemakers get bubbles into their wines.
Pronounced meh·thuhd sham·pən·wah, it refers to the way the Champagne winemakers create bubbles in their wine. Also, know as the traditional method, it’s when immense pressure is created when the wine goes through secondary fermentation in the bottle. As the little yeast cells feast, the remaining sugar in the wine is converted into alcohol and the yeast dies. The expired yeast are commonly referred to as lees. Winemakers like to leave the wine on the lees (also known as sur lie, pronounced sir-lee) as doing so adds texture and complexity to the finished product.
However, leaving the lees in the bottle would make for a cloudy sparkling wine so winemakers developed a process called riddling that gently coaxes the lees down into the neck of the wine bottle. A person, called a riddler, places each bottle at an angle and gives it a small turn at regular intervals. Over time the angle is increased so that the lees form a plug at the mouth of the bottle. These days, an automated device called a gyro-palette often replaces the riddler but many small sparkling producers still rely on a human to riddle their bottles.
Before these wines can be considered finished, the winemaker must reopen each bottle and extract the plug of expired yeast cells that have collected at the mouth of the bottle. Since the wine is now under serious pressure, the neck of the bottle must be frozen before the plug can be extracted. This process, called disgorgement, leaves a gap in the wine bottle where the plug once resided. The winemaker then adds a small amount of still wine and often some sugar to top the bottle back up and give the wine a little sweetness. Once disgorged, each bottle is corked and caged to prevent it from blowing its top.
Cava, Champagne, Crémant and other sparkling wines from around the world are made this way. Since this is such a labor-intensive way to produce wine, the label will proudly proclaim méthode champenoise or traditional method front and center.
Tank Method/Charmat Method/Metodo Italiano/Italian Method
This method involves a second fermentation in a tank, rather than in individual bottles. Not only is the Tank (or Charmat) Method easier than méthode champenoise, it’s much cheaper too. After the wine finishes secondary fermentation, it’s filtered to remove the lees and bottled just like traditional method sparkling wines. The resulting bubbles aren’t quite as elegant and plentiful as those in wines made using the traditional method… sometimes all you crave are bubbles and it doesn’t matter how they ended up in the wine!
This process uses an injection of carbon dioxide gas (CO2) to add bubbles to still wine, the same way they make soda pop. It’s easy, cheap and makes a bubbly wine that you should plan to drink rather quickly before the bubbles dissipate and vanish back into the still wine.
As you may have guessed, the ancestral method is likely the oldest way to get bubbles in wine. If you’ve ever tried a Pet-nat, you’ve tasted wine made in using the ancestral method. It can be a little risky to do since the winemaker stops the primary fermentation process early by chilling the wine. The unfinished wine is then bottled under crown cap (rather than cork and wire cage) and allowed to finish primary fermentation in the bottle. Since the wine is left to finish itself, the winemaker has to trust the process and hope for the best. Wines made in the ancestral method are a little bit wild and can have differences between bottles.
Bubbly wine is under some pressure with all that trapped CO2. But did you know that the winemaker must use a bottle made of thicker glass, strong enough to maintain that pressure without bursting?
Thicker glass utilizes an inverted cone shape, called a punt, to give it even more strength while keeping those bubbles within the bottle.
Did you know that the wire cage helps to keep the cork in place? And that said wire cage always requires exactly six turns before it can be loosened from the bottle?
Look at you, getting your sparkling wine knowledge on! But we’re not done yet… bubbly wines run the gamut from sweet to dry. In the final series article, I explain how you can tell the sweetness level of a wine before you pop that baby open. Stay tuned! If you need to catch up, follow this link for the first bubbles…explained article.