Friday, January 4, 2008

Last Night's Tipple

I finished off the bottle of Gruet Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine from New Mexico. It was just as good the second night as it was the first night. It's a méthode Champenoise sparkling wine, meaning that it was made using the same method of production as is required in France to be able to label a sparkling wine Champagne (Champagne producers have succeeded in outlawing the term méthode Champenoise on wines not produced in Champagne in the Eurpoean Union on the grounds that it is misleading to consumers and unfair to the producers; the phrase méthode traditionnelle is used instead in the EU, and it means the same thing). Briefly, the following steps comprise the méthode Champenoise:
  1. Grape juice is fermented, blended, aged, and bottled.
  2. A solution/suspension of sugar water and yeast is introduced into the bottle of still wine. This solution/suspension is called the liqueur de tirage. Once it has been introduced, the bottle is capped, usually with a crown-style metal cap as is found on beer bottles.
  3. The yeast ferments the sugar in the liqueur de tirage, producing more alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the cap on the bottle prevents the carbon dioxide from escaping, it has to go into suspension with the wine, making it fizzy.
  4. Eventually, the yeast will have fermented all of the remaining sugar in the wine. Having nothing more to consume, it will die. That's okay -- aging wine on the lees adds flavor and character to the wine.
  5. As the wine is aging on its lees, its bottle is turned and tapped several times. Eventually, the neck of the bottle is facing down, and all of the lees have accumulated there against the cap. This process is called riddling.
  6. When the wine has aged long enough, the neck of the bottle is frozen, and the cap is popped. The frozen wine/lees combination then is removed from the bottle.
  7. A dosage consisting of base wine and sugar (how much sugar depends on how sweet the final wine is supposed to be) is then added to the bottle to top it off, and the bottle is corked. It is now ready for sale.
Generally speaking, all other things being equal, allowing the wine to remain on its lees for more time produces a better finished wine. The legal minimum for a non-vintage Champagne is 18 months and for a vintage Champagne is three years. This Gruet, and all of the non-vintage Gruets, spends at least two years on its lees. I can't say that I would know how to spot a wine with more lees time, but I can say that this production detail is reassuring.

No comments: