Exploring The Traditional Method
Making quality sparkling wine demands expertise, technical knowledge, and experience. It also calls on winemakers to see into the future and understand how a wine will taste years from the moment the grapes are harvested.
Here’s a breakdown of the method we use to make sparkling wine at CHANDON, known as the traditional method or Méthode Traditionnelle.
One of the challenges of making sparkling wine is creating a white wine (or a blush-colored wine like a rosé) from grapes with red skin. The goal is to extract the clear juice inside without disturbing the pigment in the skin.
Unlike still winemakers — who use a stemmer-crusher that shreds and crushes the grapes — sparkling winemakers use a press that coaxes the juice out of the grapes. This process minimizes the contact the juice has with the skins as it is extracted to maintain the desired color.
After fermentation, the wine is filtered to remove any remaining solids, and blending can begin. Wines that have been kept separate by grape variety and vineyard are tasted and blended with reserve wines from other years to create a cuvée. A new cuvée can contain as many as 80 different lots.
Blending is the true art of sparkling winemaking. It relies on the winemaker’s ability to blend the old and the new, the fruit of one vineyard with another, and to balance one variety’s characteristics with another. The winemaker also must consider how the different wines will marry and develop during aging but also what they will look like post-secondary fermentation with bubbles in them.
Once the cuvée is assembled, it is cold-stabilized to make sure tartaric crystals won’t form in the bottle when chilling the bottle in the fridge. If crystals were to be present in the bottle, the wine would gust upon opening. Getting the wine cold stable is an important step for sparkling winemaking.
The cuvée (or blend) is now ready for tirage, which means to “draw from” the tank into the bottle. The cuvée is placed in a tirage tank for the process.
An actively fermenting yeast is added again, and a very precise amount of sugar is added to the wine. This sugar must be added because all the natural sugar in the grapes was converted to alcohol during the initial fermentation.
As the bottles are filled, a small plastic plug (called a bidule) is inserted into the top of each, forming a tight seal. A crown cap goes over the bidule, and the bottles are placed on their sides, ready for the second fermentation.
The young sparkling wine is left to age and develop undisturbed for at least a year and a half. Early in the aging process, the spent yeast cells begin to break down. This process produces many changes in the sparkling wine.
Gradually the wine changes and evolves, creating complexity and a distinctive bouquet as it ages. When the winemaker decides it has developed to their satisfaction, they declare it is ready for the next step in the process.
After riddling, the bottles are carefully taken off the riddling racks neck-down, with all the sediment settled into the neck. The bottles are placed (still neck-down) into a brine bath at -26 degrees Celsius.
Within 15 minutes, the neck of each bottle is frozen to a depth of about an inch, trapping all the unwanted sediment in the ice.
This sediment — also known as lees — is removed by disgorging. As soon as the crown cap on the bottle is loosened, the bidule is forcefully ejected by the pressure of carbon dioxide, taking with it the ice plug and trapped sediment.
The sparkling wine is then finished with a very dry brut dosage — a syrup of cane sugar and wine.