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August 3, 2015

Up Your Wine Game: How do Bubbles Get in Bubbly?

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Most people can wrap their heads around how alcohol is made. It’s a simple fermentation process. Yeast converts sugar (i.e. grape juice) into alcohol (i.e. wine). Bada-bing, bada-boom, you have yourself some vino. If we’re talking about spirits, a distillation process happens after the fermentation, but that’s a different blog entry, or something to teach in a virtual wine tasting party or event!

I have always LOVED bubbly. All kinds of bubbly: This includes all forms of this delightful beverage, from the refined and complex Champagnes, the rich and nutty Cavas, right down to the light and fruity Proseccos. Count me in as a devoted member of Team Bubbly! However, as someone who was a novice in the world of wines not too long ago, I was perplexed by one key question: just how do those enchanting bubbles make their way into our favorite bubbly? Furthermore, how on earth do the bottles manage to resist exploding under the intense pressure contained within? Let’s pop the cork on this fascinating mystery and delve into the steps involved in producing this effervescent delight. The method I’ll be sharing with you today is known as the “traditional method” or “méthode champenoise,” which is employed in creating Champagnes, Crémants in France, and Cavas in Spain.

The Initial Process of Making Still Wine:

Creating a still, dry base wine, typically crafted in stainless steel tanks. This is achieved through the process of fermentation, where yeast transforms sugar into alcohol. This might sound familiar as it’s the basic procedure employed universally to produce still wine. If you were producing a regular, non-sparkling wine, your job would be complete at this stage.

Secondary Fermentation and the Birth of Bubbles:

This still wine is then bottled, and at this stage, additional sugar and yeast, referred to as the liqueur de tirage, are introduced to the bottle to instigate a second round of fermentation. This secondary fermentation takes place directly inside the bottle, which is sealed with a closure. The resulting process generates carbon dioxide (CO2), which has no way to escape the confines of the bottle. The trapped CO2 thus carbonates the wine, giving birth to those delightful bubbles we so love!

Yeast Autolysis and the Distinctive Flavor of Bubbly:

Yeast autolysis. During this period, the yeast cells that are now dead, otherwise known as lees, start to break down within the wine. These disintegrated yeast cells contribute a unique flavor profile to the wine, known as autolytic flavors. This is fundamentally the essence that gives Champagne its distinctive taste. The flavors imbued by this process include yeasty, toasty, biscuity, and doughy notes. The duration the wine spends “sur lie” or resting on the lees is contingent on the winemaker’s preference for the intensity of these autolytic flavors, which can range from several weeks to a few years.

Riddling the Wine:

Riddling the wine. In this process, the wine bottle is gradually moved from a horizontal position to a tilted vertical stance. This motion serves to usher the sediment towards the top of the bottle. This can be accomplished manually or through the use of a machine.

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Disgorgement and Removal of Sediments:

Disgorgement, as it pertains to the winemaking process, is the act of removing the sediment that has accumulated during the second fermentation of the sparkling wine. This crucial step ensures the clarity and purity of the final product. This stage is a meticulous and carefully orchestrated procedure, showcasing the exactness and precision required in the winemaking process.

To initiate the disgorgement process, the neck of the wine bottle is submerged in a specially prepared brine solution, kept at a freezing temperature. This solution is cold enough to swiftly freeze the small amount of wine in the neck of the bottle, effectively trapping the sediment within an icy plug. The bottle’s orientation, with the neck pointing down, aids this procedure by allowing the sediment to collect at the bottle’s neck, just below the closure.

Once the neck of the bottle is sufficiently chilled, and the sediment is trapped within the frozen wine, the next step is the removal of the closure. Given that the wine bottle is under a significant amount of pressure due to the carbon dioxide produced during the second fermentation, the release of the closure triggers a forceful ejection of the frozen wine plug, taking with it the unwanted sediment. The popping sound that accompanies this step is a clear indicator of the successful expulsion of the sediment, leaving behind a sparkling wine that is clearer and brighter that could be perfect for any type of virtual wine tasting party, or corporate wine tasting event.

Adding Dosage and Final Steps:

A dosage, also known as liqueur d’expédition, is added back into the bottle. This consists of a small quantity of base wine and sugar. The volume of dosage added is what determines the final sweetness level of the wine. The bottle is then securely sealed with a sparkling wine closure (including the wire cage), ensuring that the contents remain pressurized until that much-anticipated moment when the cork is popped at a wedding, birthday, or corporate wine tasting event.

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Now, armed with this knowledge, the next time you find yourself at a corporate wine tasting event or anything similar where Champagne is being served, you’ll be able to captivate your fellow party-goers with the fascinating tale of how those enchanting bubbles find their way into our favorite bubbly. In essence, it’s the result of the second fermentation process, which generates CO2 within the bottle, a gas that has no way of escaping and thus carbonates the wine. Et voilà! You’ve just significantly upgraded your wine game and have a sparkling conversation starter, perfect for any virtual wine tasting party or corporate wine tasting event!

Fun Fact: On a bottle of sparkling wine, how many times does the wire cage have to be turned you get it off?  Answer: Six…..always six turns.

I hope you enjoyed this post. If you’re looking to Up Your Wine Game and Drink Better, consider booking a private in-person or virtual wine tasting experience.
Brianne Cohen Wine Educator
Brianne Cohen is a Los Angeles-based certified sommelier, wine educator, consultant, and writer.

Brianne has educated and entertained over 10,000 people through her in-person and virtual wine tasting experiences.

Brianne holds the WSET (Wine & Spirits Education Trust) Diploma certificate, one of the most coveted wine certifications in the world. When she’s not helping people Up Their Wine Game, she can be found judging at international wine competitions

Brianne aims to make wine approachable and conversational, to surprise and delight with unexpected wine finds, and to give people knowledge (and confidence) about wine in their everyday lives.

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Sample Policy

As a wine writer, I frequently accept samples for review on my  website and on my social media channels. Please contact me at brianne@briannecohen.com to discuss sending samples for review. I promise to always be honorable with the samples. I will evaluate all wines in good tasting settings and with no distractions.

All reviews are my opinions, and mine only. Because of the volume of samples I receive, I cannot promise that all samples received will be reviewed, but I will do my best.

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