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English Sparkling Wine

on April 7, 2011

We’ve been enjoying some gorgeous weather here in East Sussex, which is a great excuse to crack open a bottle of something fizzy (isn’t everything?)

Friends of ours who especially love our traditional method Sparkling Rosé commented that the current batch had much more of a strawberry flavour than the last time they tried some, and asked why this was, and whether it was deliberate.

There are some wines that our winemaker – Alex – tries to keep consistent in terms of flavour (eg 1066), whereas there are others (such as the Alexis and the sparkling wines) where consistently high quality is the overriding objective.

There are a multitude of factors that can influence the flavour – the sweetness in each of the grape varieties, the minerals in the soil, the ripeness a particular variety achieves by that year’s harvest. There are also wine-making techniques that can affect the flavours – eg whole bunch pressing, how long the grapes are left to ferment on the skins (which is what gives reds and rosés their colour), and in the case of sparkling wines, how long they have been left on the lees.

bottles in bin
bottles in bin
bottles in bin

There are so many individual processes in making wine, and more so, sparkling wine. The grapes, once picked, are pressed that evening, or can occasionally be soaked over night in the case of rosés, depending on which variety they are. The wine is then fermented in tank until the natural sugars are converted to alcohol. Still wines are then blended and bottled anything up to 6 months after they were harvested, and available for consumption only once they have aso been labelled.

The sparkling wines are bottled and have a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Up to 6 bars of pressure can build up inside the bottle during this process, which is why sparkling wines have to be bottled in the thicker champagne style glass – it’s not just because they look pretty! It’s actually an Englishman, Christopher Merret, who is credited with first producing glass strong enough to withstand this secondary fermentation, but we’ll leave the debate about whether the English or the French were the first to create Champagne to another day!

There then begins the slow process of what the French call “remuage” (literally ‘moving about’) and we call “riddling” which just doesn’t sound quite as poetic! Remuage is the periodic turning or shaking of bottled wine, especially sparkling wine, to move sediment towards the cork. Twice a day over a period of several weeks, the bottles are rotated gradually clockwise and moved increasingly upsidedown. It’s amazing to watch when it’s done manually when bottles are kept in riddling desks, though most commercial producers use machines (gyropallets) to speed up this immensely labour intensive process, which can be done by the pallet load rather than each individual bottle.

The filling machine
The filling machine
The filling machine

The next stage is dégorgement which is the expulsion of yeast sediment from the wine. The bottles will have become vertically upside, and the yeast sediment left from the all-important secondary fermentation will have collected in the neck of the bottle. The bottles at this point are capped with a metal stopper similar to the ones you find on beer bottles. This cap is forced off, shooting out the sediment. The bottle is then stopped up as quickly as possible to avoid losing too much of the wine itself. Dosage can then be added to bring the wine up to its desired level of sweetness (without this, the wine will be bone dry, as all the sugar has again been turned into alcohol during the second fermantation).

Finally, the champagne cork is forced into the bottle and secured with a wire muzzle. Although they always come out mushroom shaped, the corks actually start off as perfect cylinders. It is only the pressure of the bottle neck and the force with which they are jammed in that caused them to acquire their distinctive shape. Even if they didn’t do the all-important job of being a safety back-up to ensure the cork doesn’t randomly shoot out, we’d probably still use them as undoing the wire muzzle has become so much a part of the bottle-opening ritual, with the pleasure and anticipation that go with it.

All these factors – the variety, the yield, the blend, fermentation, dosage, resting on the lees – can all influence the final flavour. This is what makes wines such an exciting adventure. Even wines made in exactly the same way each year, will have taste differences.

So to answer the second question our friends asked – was it deliberate to change the flavours between vintages – the answer has to be yes and no! Yes, making wines the best quality they can be will usually result in different aromas and flavours coming through. But no, Alex didn’t deliberately put them there, or decide to make strawberry versus cherry flavours. He discovered that the wines had these characteristics during the many stages of production, and has done all he can to ensure our champagne method Sparkling Wines are, as always, the best quality they can be.

adminCTEnglish Sparkling Wine