Working by Hand
- Most common styles
- House/proprietary Cuveé, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, Rosé, Cuvée Prestige/Tête de Cuvée... (all can be vintage-dated or non-vintage/multi vintage)
- Winemaker choices and option
- Winemakers make use of available options (pressing intensity, malolactic, fermentation vessel, time on lees (tirage), dosage liqueur, etc.
- Depends on production technique and grape choice (Pinot Noir/Chardonnay versus Muscat, Riesling, etc. and tank versus bottle), how long in bottle pre-dosage
- Aging potential (yes/no). If “yes,” give range
- Personal decision: All are “ready to drink” upon release. Some people prefer traditional method styles when young, while others like to cellar. If aging, the best (prestige cuvée) bottlings have the potential to develop post-release for 10-15 years, altho
- Presented solo or frequently blended with
- California bubblies are almost always blends rather than mono-varietal (single-grape) bottlings, although some single varieties do exist, for example: classic Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay), classic Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir), sparkling Muscat, e
Leaving grapes hanging on the vines longer will result in riper fruit, higher sugars, and lower acidity levels.
What it does
Ensures optimum ripeness and flavor profile for the still-wine base wine used before any added bump in alcohol from a secondary fermentation. It further mitigates the need to acidify the base wines which would change the acid profile to the palate.
Sparkling wine fruit is picked earlier and therefore slightly less ripe than grapes intended for still wines, for two reasons: First, sparkling wines are in part defined by sharper acidity levels, which make them tart, but also carry and help sustain their delicate flavors and lingering aftertaste, or finish, as well as define their character. Second, because the secondary fermentation increases the alcohol level by a percentage point or so, starting out with grapes that are less ripe, and therefore lower in sugar, helps control the alcohol content.
What it does
Proponents of wild yeast embrace the unique flavors attributed to “place,” including savory and matchstick-like aromas that many love and associate with the white Burgundy. Cultivated yeasts are more predictable and can be selected/customized to contribute specific flavors and aromas.
Although there are a committed number of California producers who carry this practice into sparkling winemaking in the emergence of a “New California” style, most prefer the control and predictability of cultured yeast for both primary and secondary fermentations. Indeed, most opt for a very neutral yeast, such as the “original” Prise de Mousse yeast, Lalvin EC 1118®, conducive to producing base wines for sparkling wines, as well as in-bottle secondary fermentations.
What it is
While one can make use of wines from a single year’s harvest, it is commonly accepted that by incorporating older (reserve) wines, along with the current year’s cuvées, you can achieve a more consistent and uniform offering.
In years where the fruit quality is such that it is worth isolating, producers may well make a vintage-dated wine, highlighting the quality of the specific harvest and bottling a snapshot in time, if you will. Vintage-dating is not a sign of a wine being better, though supply/demand may kick the price upwards. If a wine carries a vintage-dated label, per stated laws, 95% of the fruit must come from the stated year.
What it does
Access to or selection of fruit can dictate style. For example, if you have exceptional Chardonnay, you may make Blanc de Blancs wines, while if you are red grape-focused on Pinot Noir, then a Blanc de Noirs or Rosé may become your emphasis.
Access to or focus on other grapes may take you in an entirely different direction, the use of Muscat to make sweet sparkling wines being an example.
The wood employed for most wine barrels, used for aging wine or actual fermentation of wine in the barrel. Barrel decisions include the type of wood, the amount of toast (when the staves of the barrels are bent over an open flame), size (smaller = higher ratio of wood to wine = stronger oak influence) and the age of the barrels.
What it does
- Heavily toasted barrels impart more intense roasted, torrified flavors (caramel, molasses, coffee, and burnt sugar).
- Oak bestows a waxy, velvety texture and can add a sweet toffee flavor to the wine.
- New oak contributes much more flavor than older, previously used oak which, depending on the wine and grapes, may be a better choice.
- Small (barrique-sized) barrel fermentation at warmer temperatures than those in stainless steel and over shorter increments of time also imparts a richer, smoother texture to the wine than one that is not fermented in barrel
Use of wood for sparkling wine is quite rare; most are fermented, aged, and blended in stainless steel, specifically to eliminate the influence that wood, even older or larger, can have. That said, some producers will use small oak barrels or large older oak vats to add nuances and texture to their base wines. Winemakers emphasizing judicious use of wood do so for the reason of adding roundness and richness
What it does
There can be dozens of base still wines combined into a singular cuvée of sparkling wine. With a classic sparkling wine made in the traditional method, Pinot Noir adds spice, red fruit flavors (strawberry, raspberry, cherry), and complexity, while Chardonnay contributes backbone (acidity) and sharp fruit nuances (green apple and citrus). Pinot Meunier adds texture and ripe fruit and fills any flavor gaps. In the case of a sparkling rosé, the color generally derives from adding still red wine to control and manage the consistency of color although a small number will achieve the rosé color by pulling the fermenting red wine off of its skins and completing the fermentation– the resulting wine will, of course, be rosé in color rather than red.
Each winery has its own flavor-profile goal for a sparkling wine and their signature is established with their base cuvée.
What it does
In the méthode traditionelle, once the wines are produced, but before they are corked and sold, they spend time resting on their spent yeast deposits (a by-product of the secondary fermentation in the bottle). During this time, the wine is said to be en tirage (on its yeast). The amount of tirage time will add personality to the wine, as the dead yeast cells break down and their amino acids are absorbed into the wine, a process called autolysis.
In general, the longer the tirage time, the more complex and creamy the wine is, and the smaller and more refined the bubbles are. Some wines are known for their extended tirage times, and the label may make reference to this with terms such as RD (“'récemment dégorgé”), or Late Disgorged.
What it does
In the méthode traditionnelle, the style of a sparkling wine is ultimately determined by the amount of sweetening (sugar) added after disgorging and just before the wine is cork-finished (see table above). This step determines how dry or sweet the wine actually is. In wine lingo this addition is referred to as the dosage.
This choice is important in determining personal tastes, as well as wine and food pairing. While we may think of sweetness in extremes, adding just the smallest amount may make the driest of dry bottles (brut sauvage/zéro) more enjoyable, transforming it into a Brut.