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Champagne the Old-Fashioned Way : Simply Put, It’s Merely a Matter of Making Wine Twice

Times Staff Writer

Producing Champagne, in essence, involves making wine twice.

Within this two-tiered process, there is an incredible array of choices available to each Champagne master. The numerous decisions, such as what grapes to use, the length of aging and the degree of sweetness, account for vast differences in the wine’s style, taste and color.

Certainly the most complex procedure for making wines that sparkle is through bottle fermentation, known as the classic French methode champenoise . A little more than half of the state’s 30 wineries producing Champagne follow this intricate approach, which was pioneered two centuries ago by the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon.

Most methode champenoise wines are made primarily from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes. Here in California there are also several other varietals used in the blends, including Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.

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The first stage of this two-tier process involves the production of still wine, which begins with juice from grapes selected, harvested and crushed especially for sparkling wine. Yeast is then added in order to convert the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol, a technique known as fermentation.

Desired Characteristics

When the still wine has obtained the desired characteristics sought in a Champagne, then a blend of several companion wines is made. The blending, known as the cuvee, can combine wine from different grapes, regions or even years. This is the crucial step in Champagne and the point at which a winery creates a particular style.

Once the proper blend is achieved then the wine is bottled. Before being sealed, a small mixture of sugar and yeast is placed in the container. This combination starts the fermentation over again.

However, during this second fermentation the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast converting the sugar to alcohol is subsequently trapped in the bottle. This gas is the ingredient that creates the natural effervescence or sparkle.

After about 30 days, the yeast becomes dormant and begins to break down, thus releasing some of its flavor components into the wine. In the methode champenoise process, the bottles are stored with the yeast remaining sealed inside from between 18 months to 48 months, depending on the wine.

Blind Taste Test

The aging completed, the bottles are placed on diagonal, or A-frame racks, neck down, in order to settle the yeast particles at the bottle’s tip. The containers are turned frequently for as many as 12 days to ensure the yeast is concentrated and easily removed.

Once the yeast is settled, the necks of the bottles are frozen. The bottles are then unsealed and the frozen yeast particles are instantly disgorged by all the accumulated pressure.

Before the bottle is resealed, the Champagne maker replaces the liquid loss during disgorging with what’s known as a dosage. The dosage determines whether the wine is to be extremely dry (natural), moderately dry (brut, blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs), or more on the sweet side (extra dry, demi-sec, sec).

After the dosage, the bottles are corked, topped with a wire crown, labeled and wrapped in foil.

Only those California Champagnes produced under just such a methode champenoise procedure were selected for a blind tasting recently conducted by The Times’ Food staff. Twenty-eight different sparkling wines from 16 different wineries were chosen and all were purchased at either wine stores or food markets.. The range of quality, style and variety found within this group was impressive.

The tasting was broken into five categories: natural, non-vintage brut, vintage brut, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs.

The Champagnes were evaluated for color, bouquet, sparkle and degree of dryness. Panelists were then asked to rate the wines based on overall taste.

A simple scoring system was used, and a number between 1 and 10 could be assigned to each Champagne with, for instance, 10 points awarded for excellence and 1 point for unacceptibility.

A listing of those wines included in the tasting, along with a brief description, approximate price and the composite rating, follows.

NATURAL

Champagnes labeled as natural are the driest of all. During the dosage, no additional sugar is added. The sparkling wines selected in this category represent three different regions: Sonoma, Monterey and San Diego County.

Gloria Ferrer, NV, (Freixenet Sonoma, Calif., Caves), Brut Natural, Cuvee Emerald, $8.99. Pale with a strong bite, sharp aftertaste and a slight effervescence. Score: 4.16.

Mirassou, 1981 Monterey Champagne Au Natural, $10.30. An attractive white-gold color was negated by acidity, tartness and insufficient sparkle. Score: 4.91.

Culbertson, 1983 California Natural, $16.50. Tiny beads, a rich, deep gold color and smooth finish made this a well-rounded wine. Refined. Score: 5.83.

NON-VINTAGE BRUT

Champagnes labeled as non-vintage bruts strive for consistency from year to year. These sparklers include not only a mixture of different grapes, but also wines from different years. A Champagne master from one of the great French chateaux was once quoted as saying that he preferred to produce non-vintage brut because if the wine was great then the credit was all his. On the other hand, to make a vintage brut would require sharing the credit with God.

Domaine Chandon, NV, Napa Valley Brut, $7.97. Complimented for a pale pink appearance and a decent balance between fruit and yeast. Score: 5.83.

Korbel, NV, Brut, $7.49. The wine has a distinct fruit-filled bouquet and was generally well-received. Score: 6.08.

Hanns Kornell, NV, California Champagne, Brut, $6.29. The overall taste was sharp, dry and tingly. Golden in color with a slight effervescence. Score: 5.16.

Sebastiani, NV, Brut, Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $7.99. Though described as having a distinctively fruity bouquet and flavor, this entry was faulted for being out of balance. Score: 3.91.

VINTAGE BRUT

Wines in this category receive a slightly sweet dosage, but are generally dry.

Culbertson, 1983 California Brut, $14. Straw-colored with hints of yeast, firm body and a nice finish. Score: 5.5.

Iron Horse, 1982 Brut, Sonoma County Green Valley, $14.95. An exciting gold appearance with fine character and finesse. Smooth and elegant. Score: 5.58.

Piper Sonoma, 1982 Sonoma County Brut, $8.99. A faint rose tint, full-bodied, but a bit tart. Complimented for subtle bouquet. Score: 5.5.

Scharffenberger, 1982 Brut Mendocino County, $10. Dry with a pretty pink hue. A slow sparkle with a nice finish. Score: 6.08.

Wente Bros., 1981 Brut Arroyo Seco Sparkling Wine, $9.99. Too tart, somewhat hollow and sharp. Score: 4.83.

Mirassou, 1981 Monterey Champagne Brut, $8.79. A pale platinum, explosive sparkle, dry, full of character. Score: 6.83.

Chateau St. Jean, 1980 Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $17.88. Distinctive yeasty bouquet with a medium-dry flavor. Small beads. Score: 3.58.

BLANC DE BLANCS

A blanc de blancs is made only from white grapes which, technically, should be Chardonnay. However, in California the varietal character of Chardonnay tends to be strong. Consequently, some wineries soften their blanc de blancs with other white wines such as Pinot Blanc. This is a generally delicate collection of sparklers that are more expensive, as a group, than any of the others.

Hanns Kornell, 1980 Blanc de Blancs, California Champagne, $14.79. Dry with a decidedly tart finish. A floral bouquet matched a pale golden color that was tinged with green. Score: 6.07.

Schramsberg, 1983 Blanc de Blancs, Napa Valley Champagne, $13.62. A slight Chardonnay bouquet and a fine balance. A pale, white-gold color and a delicate sparkle. Score: 5.14.

Beaulieu, 1981 Napa Valley Champagne de Chardonnay, $13.49. Sophisticated and well-rounded flavor. Deep color and dry on the palate. Score: 7.42.

Chateau St. Jean, 1981 Brut Blanc de Blancs, Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $11.20. Straw-colored with small beads. Yeast is predominant. Score: 5.64.

Scharffenberger, 1982 Blanc de Blancs Mendocino County, $12.80. Fruity and full-bodied. The finish was slightly tart but smooth overall. Lively sparkle. Score: 7.21.

Shadow Creek, 1982 Blanc de Blancs, Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $9.98. Refreshing with hints of honey. Full-bodied and well-developed. Score: 6.64.

BLANC DE NOIRS

A blanc de noirs is a white wine made from red grapes. In order to get a pale or slightly pink hue, the red skins of the grape are removed almost immediately after the fruit is crushed. This category of sparkling wines tends to have a stronger overall taste and a wider range of color than the blanc de blancs.

Korbel, NV, Blanc de Noirs California Champagne, $13.41. Dry, with a pink hue. Slightly tart. Score: 5.78.

Domaine Chandon, NV, Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley Sparkling Wine, $8.99. Some fruit in bouquet. Very drinkable, but lacking in classic style. Score: 5.85.

Mirassou, 1980 Blanc de Noirs, Monterey Champagne, $12.99. Soft and balanced. Dry, with a faint straw color. Score: 6.42.

Shadow Creek, 1981 Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $10.59. Toasty. Somewhat weak in overall character. Score: 5.64.

Schramsberg, 1981 Blanc de Noirs, Napa Valley Champagne, $15.98. A medley of rose and gold tones. Yeasty characteristics and a smooth, dry finish. Score: 5.92.

Piper Sonoma, 1981 Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma County Sparkling Wine, $12. A rich gold color and fine balance. Dry with fine beads. Score: 6.92.

San Pasqual, 1982 Brut Blanc de Noir, San Pasqual Valley Sparkling Wine, $14. A rose hue with hints of orange. Fruit is emphasized. Score: 6.71.

Culbertson, 1983 California Blanc de Noirs, $14. Distinctive peach color with decided berry fruitiness. Elegant, nice finish. Score: 7.78.


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