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Where do bubbles in wine come from?

Posted on August 16, 2017 at 5:10 PM

What is sparkling wine, most commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as champagne? What causes the bubbles in wine?


There are several reasons and/or methods for having bubbles in wine. Bubbles may occur in wine by accident or on purpose. Bubbles in wine are a result of sugar in the bottle beginning to ferment and the resulting carbon dioxide being "trapped". A byproduct of fermentation is the emission of carbon dioxide gas (CO2). Typically during fermentation this gas is allowed to escape through an open container. The buildup of carbon dioxide in the bottle with no way to escape creates a buildup of gas pressure, generally 60+ pounds per square inch. This build up of pressure creates gas bubbles, or sparkle. There are variances in the amount of atmospheric pressure in a bottle of sparkling wine depending on region and style, prossecco vs. Champagne for example, but we'll stick with general statements and averages for this discussion.


The accidental sparkling of wine is usually a result of a wine that was not fermented to dryness being put in a bottle in which there are still active yeast. The yeast may be active because they were a)not filtered out using a sterile filter and b)not killed/made dormant by dramatically cooling the wine and keeping it cool or c)not killed/made dormant by use of (any or enough) sanitizing agents, most commonly sulfites. This is problematic because when bubbles occur without being planned for the wines are typically in traditional bottles with no protection to keep the cork in place. These bottles may explode or the corks may be expelled from the bottle. These results are dangerous and messy, particularly if they occur in the cellar or kitchen of an unknowing customer. A cork may be expelled from a bottle of sparkling wine at 40+ miles an hour. Would it kill you? Not likely. Could it damage an eye beyond repair, go through a window or cause damage to other bottles of wine? Certainly.


Accidental sparkling wine is a result of error and/or lack of a sterile environment in production. It is a flaw. It is not dangerous and it doesn't mean the wine is ruined. There are a few options. Dump the wine back into a fermentation safe container and let this accidental fermentation run its course. Rebottle a still wine once the process is complete. Or, the "errors" may be covered up - pretend it was intentional - and the wine rebottled into a safe container and marketed as a sparkling wine. Bubbles in wine are very popular and there would most likely be a market for this, particularly if the wine is white or pink.


A wine may be carbonated intentionally through multiple avenues. The "traditional method," often referred to as méthode champenoise, is the oldest and most authentic way to create a sparkling wine. It is also the most expensive and time consuming. A méthode champenoise sparkling wine refers to sparkling wine "made in the method of Champagne" for a wine may only be called champagne if it hails from the Champagne region of France. See "a history of sparkling wine" below for some other common names of sparkling wine.


To make a méthode champenoise sparkling wine one first makes a sound dry white table wine (or pink!) This first fermentation which turns grape juice into wine is called cuvée fermentation. The wine is then racked and filtered to remove any sediment and fragments which may be present in the wine. The wine is bottled with an added amount of sugar and yeast and sealed to allow for a second fermentation to take place in the bottle, the tirage fermentation. After the wine completes the tirage fermentation it may be aged on the lees for as long as a winemaker chooses. The lees refers to the dead yeast and other particles resulting from the fermentation process. Longer aging on the lees is generally considered better for this is where the sparkling wine derives a great deal of character and depth.


Following the triage fermentation and aging the bottles are "riddled." Riddling refers to a complex process of calculated sharp twists of the bottle at regular intervals to systematically gather the lees into the neck of the bottle without agitating the wine; at which point the bottle is disgorged. To disgorge the bottle the neck is typically frozen to trap the lees in a frozen state and remove it from the bottle cleanly and in entirety. The sediment with freeze before the wine. This may be done without freezing the neck and simply removing the cork quickly with the bottle angled down expelling the lees and then up righting the bottle. Some of the product is lost this way, but less equipment is involved. The sparkling wine is now ready for final bottling and will be added to a new bottle and topped up with other sparkling wine either from the same batch or another. Sugar may be added if more sweetness is desired of the finished product.


The results of méthode champenoise sparkling wine are small elegant bubbles that typically rise uniformly from the bottom of a glass to the surface of the wine. These bubbles generally yield a pleasant tickle across the palate and play to the elegance and festiveness which surrounds sparkling wine. This process may take anywhere from many months to years and is labor intensive. Thus, a reason for the elevated cost of small batch traditional method sparkling wines.


Here at Pomeroy Cellars we have been crafting our own méthode champenoise sparkling wine using rose wine we have made of Pinot Noir from White Dog Farm, La Center, Washington. Our test batches have been successful. At our recent Dinner in the Vineyard (August 5th, 2017) we poured our 2015 sparkling rose test batch to high praise. One of our guests went home with the very last bottle in existence! Our 2016 traditional method sparkling rose will be released in 2018. We also plan to use our estate pinot noir grapes in future sparkling wine endeavors.


Bubbles may also be added to wine by way of forced carbonation. Forced carbonation refers to adding CO2 to wine at high pressure to effectively mix the gas and the wine together. The wine may then be bottled and dubbed a sparkling wine. Carbonation drops may also be added to a still wine during the bottling process which will create a similar effect. The drops are a combination of glucose and sucrose and create a forced carbonation by way of reintroducing sugar to the wine bottle. These methods are not "traditional," but they are simple and cost effective. The result is a wine that may be fermented and sold in a matter of a few short months. These wines generally have large gas bubbles in the wine that rise speedily and irregularly in the glass due to the rapidity at which the pressure inside the bottle increases. These bubbles may somtimes be described as overpowering or unpleasant and may often mask the flavors of a wine. They're still fun and perfect to mix with orange or grapefruit juice.


A (we'll try to be) brief history of sparkling wine...


The creation of sparkling wine is often credited to the French monk Dom Pérignon (1638-1715), but more accurately he devised methods of blending and winemaking which improved quality and value of wine, particularly champagne. The first documented sparkling wine is 1531 by other Benedictine monks in the abbey of Saint-Hilaire. It was quite common that churches produce wine both for their sacramental use and to help support the church and population. In 1662 English scientist and physician Christopher Merret experimented with intentionally sparkling apple cider and creating a glass bottle to safely contain it.


Through the early 1800s sparkling wine was generally an accident discovered when bottles exploded and corks were expelled from bottles. It was dubbed "the devil's wine" by some. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet, or wire cage, to prevent the corks from blowing out. What truly helped turned the corner for wines of the Champaign region in competition with their Burgundian neighbors, whom had a long history of producing sought after wine, was an increase in British interest in and purchase of the bubbly wines.


Advances in the growing and blending grapes, the development of sturdy bottles and a safe method for keeping the cork in the bottled followed by developments by Veuve Clicquot in affordably mass producing champagne led to a rise in Champagne houses between 1830 and 1860. Even after beginning to intentionally sparkle their wines, champagne was usually made by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation was complete thus leaving sugar in the bottle (méthode rurale). It wouldn't be until the 19th century that méthode champenoise was the primary and preferred method of producing sparkling wine - nearly 200 years after Merret was documenting his methods and practices.


Champagne France has a average temperature of 50 degrees F. The cooler climate turns out to be ideal for growing grapes for sparkling wine- lower sugar levels and higher acid levels. The grapes grown in the Champagne region and thus used in champagne wine or other sparkling wines are: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and sometimes Arbanne and Petit Meslier. Outside of the Champagne region any number of grape varietals are used in sparkling wine: riesling, syrah, sauvignon blanc, and many more. The same general practice is used when planning a méthode champenoise wine- pick earlier (or from cooler climates) with lower sugar levels and maintain acidity.


Sparkling wine appears across the globe in any number of wine regions and goes by numerous names. To name a few:

Spumante - Italian sparkling wine. Prosecco is a white grape varietal grown in Vento Italy and often used in spumante. Prosecco is not made in the méthode champenoise, but rather undergoes a second fermentation in a large pressurized tank rather than in the bottle.

Cava - Spanish sparkling wine. Legally required to age on the lees for nine months, hailing from a climate converse to Champagne, warm and dry,  and is designed to be a "comfort wine" reachable by all. 

Crément - French sparkling wine (outside of Champagne). Most commonly Crément Loire, a sparkling wine from the Loire region which is France's second largest sparkling wine region. May be white or rose. One may find a sparkling Vouvray, also.

Sekt - German sparkling wine. Bargain sekt is made in the same fashion as Prosecco and consumed in vast quantities by the locals. Fine German sekt, or sekte, is only 5% of the total production and made in small lots of riesling, pinot blanc, or pinot gris from quality vineyards.


Sparkling wine is often thought to be just for special occassions, but like all quality wines- the day you open a special bottle becomes the special occassion. We believe wine is meant to be enjoyed, meant to be experienced. Just like life...don't put it off, experience it. 




Resources:

"The Wine Bible" by Karen MacNeil

"Home Winemaking, step by step" fourth edition by Jon Iverson

Categories: Wine Making, Q and A

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