Méthode Champenoise

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Sparkling wine adds a festive air to any event, but the bubbles in Champagne have not always been a source of celebration.  In the early production of wine in the Champagne region of France, the bubbles were considered a flaw and were causing some major problems.

The Champagne region is France’s northernmost wine region and has the coolest climate.  The cool climate means that the grapes don’t always fully ripen, which results in tart flavors and high acid.  The cool climate also affects the fermentation.  Normally, fermentation will continue as long as there is sugar for the yeast to convert.  However, if the temperature drops below 50°, the yeast will go dormant.  The early vinters in Champagne would see that the yeast had stopped producing COand mistakenly think that the fermentation had completed.  The wine would be aged and bottled, but then, in the spring when the temperature rose, fermentation would begin again and create COin the bottles.  The bottles were not built to withstand the pressure and many would burst.

Eventually, the winemakers realized  that the cold temperature was the root of the problem, so they moved the wine-making underground into the caves, where the temperature was more stable.  Now the grapes could be fully fermented into a still, dry wine.   However, the bubbles had become desirable, so the winemakers started to add a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast (liqueur de triage), to instigate a secondary fermentation to generate a controlled amount of bubbles and pressure.

At the end of secondary fermentation and while aging, the bottles are slowly rotated in a manner that forces the dead yeast cells to accumulate in the neck of the bottle.  This process is known as remuage or riddling.   Next is the dégorgement step, where the neck of the bottle is dipped into a solution that freezes and expels the yeast sediment.  Finally, the bottle is topped up with  a blend of wine and sugar (liqueur d’expedition).  This final step is called dosage and determines the sweetness of the Champagne.  These are the official levels of sweetness for Champagne:

Brut nature: 0-3 g/L
Extra Brut: 0-6 g/L
Brut: 0-12 g/L
Extra Dry: 12-17 g/L
Sec: 17-32 g/L
Demi-Sec: 32-50 g/L
Doux: 50+ g/L

This technique of  secondary fermentation in the bottle has became know as méthode champenoise or méthode tradionnelle.  To protect regional identity, only wines from the Champagne region in France can use the name Champagne or the term méthode champenoise on their labels.  Sparkling wine from other regions in France is usually called Crémant and can list méthode tradionnelle when secondary fermentation is done in the bottle.

 

Grape Harvest at Viña Alpa

I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Viña Alpa during the grape harvest.  Viña Alpa is a small estate producer in the Coquimbo region of Chile.  This region is mostly known for Pisco production, but Viña Alpa focuses on red grapes such as Syrah, Carménère, and also has some small plots of Grenache and Mourvèdre.

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 Viña Alpa participates in the World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms program to  recruit volunteers.  For this year’s harvest, there were six of us volunteering.  It was hard work, but the scenery was gorgeous.  We worked up and down the rows to hand snip the grape bunches off of the vine.  As we collected the grapes, the full buckets were transported up to the barn, where they were destemmed and crushed.  The juice and skins were funneled directly into tanks to begin fermenting.  

Winemaker Arnaud Faupin shared his expertise with us and taught us how to monitor the fermentation by measuring the temperature and the density.  The vineyard is organic and the wine-making is done with minimal use of electricity and machinery.  The results of this artisanal process are unique and delicious small batch wines, only available in Chile.

Chilean Wine – A Brief History

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After WWII, Chilean wine production declined dramatically, and the Chilean exports were reduced to a few large producers.

However in the 1980s, there were changes in the government’s economic policies and a renewed interest from international wine makers, which started a resurgence of the wine industry in Chile.  One of the key international players was Spain’s Miguel Torres, who purchased a vineyard in Chile and introduced modern wine making technologies to the Chilean wine makers.  Torres was a key inspiration of Alfonso Chadwick Errázuriz of Vina Errázuriz, who spent a great deal of time in Europe to gain recognition for Chilean wine.  He organized the “Berlin Tasting” in 2004, which pitted prestigious French and Italian wines against 6 Chilean wines.  To the surprise of all, two of Errázuriz’s wine came in first and second place, beating out the famed Chateau Lafite.   Even with renewed international appreciation, the Chilean wine industry continued to be dominated by larger wineries such as Concha y Toro.  However,  recently there is a push to provide more opportunities for smaller, artisanal producers, with organizations such as MOVI and VIGNO.

In the coming weeks,  I will be traveling to Chile, and I hope to share with you much more insight and inspiration for drinking Chilean wines.  Salud!

Photo Credit: Food & Beverage Magazine