Learn About Sparkling Wine Production Part II

Date February 24, 2009

Learn About Sparkling Wine Production

If you missed the first part of this post, you can Learn About Sparkling Wine Production from the beginning by clicking the link.

The last thing we talked about was the Champagne press and the different stages of pressing. Now let’s get into primary fermentation.

Primary Fermentation and Assemblage

Once pressed any matter that is left in the juice is allowed to settle and is chaptalized if needed.

For the most part the juice for sparkling wine production is fermented in stainless steel tanks. However, some Champagne houses along with some New World producers of sparkling wine use oak. Fermentation takes about ten days to reach its end.

After that time the sparkling wine may see secondary fermentation, or malo-lactic fermentation. Once the fermentation process is complete the wine is racked (removal of the lees or dead yeasts cells).

As most sparkling wines are blends the finished product can come from several, even hundreds of different lots of sparkling wine just to create the cuvée. Remember cuvée is both free run juice and the term for blend. This is especially applicable to non vintage sparkling wines where the juice can come from several different harvests from over many years. When a vintage sparkling wine is produced the juice can come from different lots of the same harvest period. The vintage will be printed on the label of the sparkling wine.

How winemakers choose what lots to use is through a cépage, or blending formula, which prescribes a combination of berries from particular vineyards. A non-vintage sparkling wine will use berries of different lots like I said but typically from the most current vintages and along with older reserve vintages. Then the winemaker tweaks the formula to produce the house style of non-vintage cuvée. This whole process is called the assemblage.

Once the wine goes through assemblage it goes through the same processes of white wine: fining, cold stabilization and clarification, which is a second racking.

Now for the bubbles.

Secondary Fermentation, or Prise de Mousse

Prise de Mousse means “setting the foam”. This is the second fermentation stage in sparkling wine production where the wine gets its bubbles. This also happens to be the final stage of sparkling wine production. It consists of 4 alternative methods to achieving bubbles:

  1. Méthode Champenoise
  2. Transversage
  3. The Charmat Process/Cuve Close
  4. Carbonation

Méthode Champenoise

By far the longest process in sparkling wine production is Méthode Champenoise, or the Traditional Method. This is where second fermentation takes place in the bottle. The same bottle that will carry the label and will sit on the shelf until you purchase it. After Fining and Cold Stabilization the wine is classified as a vin clair. All this means is that the cuvée is a finished blended base and needs to be bottled with the liqueur de tirage, which is yeast and sugar (usually cane or beet) to start the riddling process. Sugar is added because the wine is fermented dry.

If the winemaker decided not to add the liqueur de tirage during sparkling wine production, adding yeasts would be useless and the wine would have no alcohol content. A wine fermented dry has no sugar for yeasts to convert to alcohol. Therefore liqueur de tirage is not a sweetener but a facilitator for Prise de Mousse.

Sometimes a winemaker will place a bidule (a small plastic cup) in the neck of the bottle to collect the settling lees as it forms. The winemaker then seals it with a temporary metal bottle cap. And for the next month it goes through the secondary fermentation in a cool area. Over this time carbon dioxide builds inside the bottle to about 15 pounds per square inch. The technical measurement for this is about 4.9 to 6.0 atm (atmospheric pressure at sea level).

After 30 days the wine ages sur lie (on the lees). Amino acids are released into the wine as the yeasts break down which creates toasty, nutty flavors and the carbon dioxide infuses with the wine to make a finer bead. The sparkling wine bottles are literally piled on top of each other and separated into layers by strips of wood called lattes. The term used to describe this process is sur lattes, meaning “on top of the lattes”.

One thing about letting the bottles age sur lattes. Sediment can build up to a heavy film and stick to the glass on the inside of the bottle. To prevent this a winemaker will give each bottle a quick and sturdy shake to loosen any sticking sediment. This is done every so often during the sur lattes aging and is called the poignetage.

Riddling, Disgorging, Dosage, and Bottle Aging

When sur lie aging is complete the bottles have to go through the riddling process, or remuage. It’s a slow process of about three months of turning the bottles upside down in a pupitre so that the lees fill the neck. A pupitre is an A-shaped rack with holes the width of sparkling wine bottles. While in the pupitre the bottles are turned 1/8 of a turn up to 1/4 of a turn once a day until the bottle is nearly upsidedown and all of the sediment slides down into the neck. When it reaches this point the bottle is referred to as sur pointe, or on the point. You can translate that as neck down.

Then comes the dégorgement, or the disgorging process which removes the sediment. The wine is chilled to about forty-five degrees to reduce pressure inside the bottle and the neck is frozen in a solution of brine. This turns the sediment (now called the plug) to slush. The temporary stopper is then removed and the slushy plug and plastic cup that captured it shoots out of the neck.

Leftover cuvée is used to replace the lost wine along with a tiny amount of cane sugar called the dosage or liqueur d’expédition. The dosage determines the level of sweetness in the sparkling wine. The dosage is left to fuse with the sparkling wine in a cellar or some such similar place for up to nine months before it is released for market. Not much more cellaring will benefit a sparkling wine, it might gain some complexity but it is best consumed within a few years of hitting the market. You don’t want to leave these sitting on wine racks, so I would say drink them within five years at most.

The different styles of sparkling wine. Here they are:

  • Extra Brut, Brut Nature, Brut Sauvage, Brut Zero: extremely dry
  • Brut: dry
  • Extra Dry/Extra Sec: off dry, semi dry
  • Sec: slightly sweet
  • Demi Sec: means “semi-dry” but is very sweet
  • Doux: very sweet

The Transversage Method

The transversage, or transfer method of sparkling wine production combines single bottle Prise de Mousse with bulk clarification. It follows the same steps as Méthode Champenoise but eliminates the riddling process and uses a pressurized tank for disgorging in order to blend and filter the sparkling wine. While this happens the bottles are washed then refilled with the proper dosage for finishing.

The Charmat Method

This method uses bulk fermentation and clarification, also called the Cuve or Close Method. A sparkling wine like Asti Spumante goes through this process. Traditional methods would mask the grapes natural flavors and make it dull. The Charmat Method brings out the floral and fruity aromas of the sparkling wine, but it will lack any complexity or bouquet.


This is the cheapest method for sparkling wine production. Just like soda, carbon dioxide is injected into the wine. The result is something short-lived once opened. I’m sure there is an example I could throw at you but this turned out longer than I expected and my head hurts.

So that does it for learning about sparkling wine production.


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Related posts:

  1. Learn About Sparkling Wine Production
  2. Sparkling Wine Draws A Fine Bead On Life
  3. Learn About White Wine Production: Part III
  4. Learn About White Wine Production
  5. Learn About White Wine Production: Part II
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