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Champagne

Party wines – Champagne and other types of sparkling wines


The ends of year festivities are the perfect time to open a nice bottle of bubbly.  Champagne, cremant, cava, prosecco, sparkling wine... countries and regions throughout the world produce a range of different types of bubbly.  The characteristic that they all have in common?  Bubbles!  But do you know how the bubbles form, what the different types of sparkling wines are, and how to understand the different labels?  To reign in the scope of this article a little, we’ll just concentrate on the different forms found in France.

 

Adopt-a-vine gift in the French vineyards

 

What is a sparkling wine?

A sparkling wine is the opposite from a still wine.  You can see little bubbles that rise to the surface.  These bubbles are caused by carbon dioxide which is released when the bottle is opened.

The styles of the different sparkling wines can vary, but since 2008 they have been regulated at a European level.  There are:
- “Vins perlants” are the least bubbly.  The wine is said to be “perlant” when it has more than 1 gramme of CO² per litre of wine.  The bubbles are sometimes almost invisible.  Examples are a Gaillac wine or some Savoie wines.
- “Vins pétillants” contain between 2 and 4 grammes of CO² per litre.  For example a Cerdon or Vouvray.
- “Vins Mousseux” have more than 4.5 grammes of CO² per litre.  Champagnes and Crémants fall into this category.

The amount of fizz is therefore what counts in this classification system.  For the mousseux sparkling wines, there is then a sub-classification level, defining the wines as “Brut nature”, “Brut”, “Extra Brut”, “Extra Sec”, “Sec”, “Demi-Sec” or “Doux”, which describes the amount of sugar added by the “liqueur d’expédition”.   The liqueur is a mix of wine and sugar which is added when using certain vinification methods to replace the wine lost during the “dégorgement” or disgorging, as we’ll explain a little later on.

 

Wine tasting course as a Christmas gift

 

But where do the bubbles come from?

When we open a bottle, we can see bubbles for two reasons.

Physics first.  Before opening the bottle, the CO² gas is dissolved in the wine, and we can’t see the bubbles.  When we open the bottle the pressure inside dramatically falls to equal the ambient atmospheric pressure.  That is why the cork can also fly out.  And when the pressure falls, the volume of the gas increases, the molecules reform into gas and rise to the surface of the wine.

And secondly, we can see the bubble of gas form and rise because of the tiny bumps present on the inside of the bottle and in our glasses.  If we opened the same bottle in laboratory conditions with zero impurities in the containers, the gas would escape into the air without forming any bubbles.

 

Sparkling Wine and oenology lessons in France

 

How do you make different types of sparkling wines?

There has to be some gas initially in the bottle to get some fizz.  And in order to attain this, there are different vinification methods used.

The most famous is the “méthode champenoise”, also known as the “méthode traditionnelle” or traditional method, when not used for making champagne.  Since 1994, the term “méthode champenoise” is regulated and can only be used for wines from the Champagne region.  The vinification process is the same as for a still wine, and the wine is then bottled as usual.  Part of the wine is kept to one side to be used later to make the liqueur d’expédition.  Some of this wine is then added along with some sugar and yeast into each bottle.  The wine then starts to ferment again, this time directly in the bottle, and the gas that is produced during fermentation is trapped inside.  Once all of the sugar has been used by the yeast, the fermentation stops.  Lees are also produced in the process, so the wine is laid down on racks for a while to let them settle.  Then the bottles are placed with the neck pointing downwards and each day they are turned 1/8 to a ¼ of a turn, a process known as riddling, to try and collect all of the lees in the neck of the bottle.  The lees are then removed during the disgorging whereby the neck of the bottle is frozen before opening and taking out the ice that has the lees trapped inside.  The bottle is then topped up again with the liqueur d’expédition, before being sealed again with the final cork.

In the “méthode par transfert” or the transfer method, the process is the same for the fermentation period, but there isn’t any disgorging.  Instead the wine is completely removed from the bottle, the lees filtered out in a vat, and the liqueur d’expédition added before being returned to the cleaned bottles.

The “méthode ancestrale” (or rurale or artisanale) is when the first fermentation takes place in the bottle.  The wine is put into the bottles very quickly after the harvest so that the alcoholic fermentation occurs inside.

The “méthode de la cuve close” or Charmat method works on the same principle, but in the vat instead of inside the bottle for the fermentaion.  When the wine is transferred to the bottles, a little gas is lost, but which can be replaced by adding some CO².

And then there is also the “gazéification” or soda method which doesn’t use the gas released during the fermentation period, but simply adds CO² from a carbonator to a still wine before bottling.

Whichever style of bubbly you choose, enjoy the fizz, and have fun during the end of year celebrations!

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How to go about pairing food and wine?

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Organic wine-making course in Alsace at Domaine Stentz-Buecher


Once the grapes are harvested, the work of the winemaker is far from over.  There is still much to do during the fermentation and ageing stages before the wine is finally ready to be bottled, and this is what we were gathered at Domaine Stentz-Buecher in Alsace to find out during the Vinification Experience Day.

The quality of the wine depends also on the work carried out in the vineyard, and so after the introductions, we headed to the Rosenberg vineyard, to see where our adopted vines are located and to get a better understanding of the local terroir. Céline pointed out the different plots of Grand Cru vines around us, and we also took a few minutes to take some pictures of our adopted vines.

Rent-a-vine-giftin Alsace, France

We were also accompanied by Jean-Jacques, Céline’s father, who founded the winery with his wife, Simone, in 1975.  With the hot weather of the past few days, the vines have sprung to life and Jean-Jacques briefly explained the work that will shortly be keeping them busy to de-bud the vines.

But the principal purpose of the day was to learn about the wine-making side of things, so we headed back to the winery.  To prepare us for the different wines that we would taste throughout the day, the first workshop was designed to develop our senses and help us describe our appreciation of the wines.  We talked about how the different senses can be used to help us identify the characteristics of the wines, and we put our noses to the test to try and name some of the aromas that can be found in white wine.  Not always as easy as you would think!

Oenology gift for wine lovers.

We then descended into the cellar with Stéphane, who manages the wine-making process at the winery.  He talked to us about how the grapes are received and pressed at harvest time and how the fermentation process then transforms the sugar into alcohol.

We had the chance to taste the 2015 vintage of our Pinot Gris Rosenberg wine directly from the cask, and to get a first impression of the potential for our wine.  The wine had finished its malo-lactic fermentation and was very concentrated both aromatically and on the palate.  Very promising t this stage!

Organic wine tasting gift experience in an organic Alsace winery

Stéphane then took us into the barrel room and talked to us about the difference in vinifying and ageing red wines.  We tasted a wine made from Pinot Noir grapes that those of us that had participated in the Harvest Experience Day had helped to pick.

Wine-making gift experience with the winemaker

Alsace is a wine-growing region where, for the most part, the wines are defined by their grape varietal and the terroir in which the vines are located.  To better understand these differences, there’s no better way than to taste the wines!

To start with, a blind tasting test of three different wines, where we had to identify three different grape varietals.  In the second series, we again tasted three different wines, but this time each were Riesling wines, the only difference being the terroir.  The first wine was a Riesling Tradition wine that had been blended from different plots, the second a Riesling Ortel that contains the grapes from one single vineyard, and the third a Riesling Steingrubler Grand Cru, from one of Alsace’s most sought after vineyards.

Wine tasting course in Alsace with the winemaker

We then tasted a Crémant d’Alsace with a savoury Kouglopf before sitting down to lunch where we tasted some more of the wines produced by the winery.

In the afternoon, we returned to the cellar, and saw the where the wines are bottled and labelled and talked more about the choices of the winemaker in using cork or alternatives.  Time for a few more questions, and the day drew to a close.

Winery tour and visit in Alsace, France

Many thanks to all the participants for a very interactive and lively day, and of course to the Stentz-Buecher family for welcoming us and sharing their passion for winemaking.

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Blending wine in Bordeaux


We spent last weekend in Bordeaux for a couple of Vinification Experience Days to learn all about the winemakers work in the cellar to age and blend wine. On Saturday we were accompanied by David, the Winery Manager, and Pauline who is in charge of wine tourism, and on Sunday the owner of the winery, Christine, led the way.
Vineyard experience, Bordeaux, France

After coffee and croissants, the two wine experience days started with a visit of the fermentation hall. Here, David and Christine, explained the vinification process since the harvest. How the grapes were sorted and put into the vats, how the fermentation period transformed the sugar into alcohol, pumping over the wine, the malo-lactic fermentation phase...

Wine gift packs, Bordeaux, France

We then headed into the barrel room to talk more about how the wine is aged and the role of the wooden barrels in maturing the wine. We also covered a whole host of topics as varied as sulphites and organic wine-making, and saw the barrels where our 2015 wine is slowly going through the ageing process. Christine’s family also run a cooperage, and it is there that we went for our first wine tasting workshop. Before sampling the wines, we tried to familiarise ourselves with the aromas found in wines by identifying different smells.

Wine tasting gift, Bordeaux, France

We then tasted two Merlot wines which had each been aged in barrels, but one was made of French oak, and the other American oak. The difference between the two wines was really quite surprising!

Wne lover gift, Bordeaux, France

A glass of rosé followed, and then à table! We continued tasting the finished red wines of the winery over lunch.

Personalised wine gift, Bordeaux, France

Then back to work in the afternoon for the blending workshop. First we tasted each of the wines from different grape varietals separately, and then we tried our hand at blending. Measuring the wine, blending, tasting, and then re-blending! True budding winemakers with results that were more or less promising. We learnt that blending wines is a true art form!

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A Champagne Worth its Weight in Gold


30,000 Euros... That's what a collector from Singapore paid for a bottle of Champagne whose history remains a mystery, but which has just become the most expensive bottle of Champagne in the world.

Champagne auction

In our blog post of 1st September, we dealt with the recent discovery of a shipwreck full of Champagne bottles, off the island of Föglö, in the Baltic Sea.

After their return to shore, they've quickly been identified as being mostly champagnes from Veuve Cliquot and Juglar, a brand that doesn't exist anymore.

Then began a long and meticulous phase of research and analysis, in order to determine both the origin and destination of the schooner, but also to see if the precious liquid is still drinkable!

According to minutes found in the Veuve Cliquot archive, the bottles date back to the late 1830's, but even if some samples are still being tested, it already seems that a precise dating of the bottles would be an exploit. As for the name of the ship, where it came from, and the destination of the cargo, the mystery remains unsolved.

However the content of the bottles is now known. Tasted by several specialists, critics are unanimous: if some of them didn't stay the test of time, others on the contrary have truly enhanced their potential and contain a real treasure for the palate.

So there is no surprise, given the rarity of such a discovery and the mystery that surrounds it, that two of these bottles have been bought for 30,000 Euros (Veuve Cliquot) and 24.000 Euros (Juglar) during an auction last Friday!

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Oldest Champagne in the World Surfaces


70 botttles of what is thought to be the oldest champagne in the world, dating from the early 1800s, have been raised today from the bed of the Baltic Sea.  Each bottle is estimated to have a starting price at auction of more than 50,000 euros.

Oldest Champagne in the World

In July, 30 other bottles were found in the same spot by a team of Swedish divers, some 50 metres below the sea off the Äland Isles, between Finland and Sweden. The bottles have remained hidden for over two centuries on a ship wreck that is rumoured to have been carrying the 100 bottles as a present from Louis XVI of France to the Imperial Russian Court. If that is confirmed to be true, then the combined value of the bottles could reach several million euros.

Amazingly, the champagne is exceptionally well preserved by the dark conditions, and cool, stable temperatures.  Maybe we should start filling our cellars with water ?

For more information and a video, visit the BBC website.
 

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