A champagne cork pops, launching our spirits into space. If we can’t see the bottle, we may imagine the bubbly’s bright path into our glasses and be drawn to the pour.
Champagne has been popped to launch ships, celebrate World Series victories, and seal troths.
Dozens of movies have featured champagne, from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1928 “Champagne” with star Betty Balfour riding a giant bottle, showing a lot of leg, to Emem Isongs “Champagne” in 2014 with star Rosemary Zumi, as “Champagne,” showing a lot of chutzpah and leg while stepping into a red Caddy ragtop while holding a bottle of champagne.
In “The Seven-Year Itch,” Tom Ewell and Marilyn Monroe sit on the floor eating potato chips and raising glasses of champagne to each other’s lips. The fluted glasses they used were to become a staple in movies, replacing the original coupé glass for champagne.
But now, flutes are passé. The proper glass for champagne is now shaped somewhat like a brandy glass.
Méthode Champenoise can be difficult to understand, but it’s fun because it involves some French words. The most interesting explanation I’ve found is from Dante Stark, winemaker and owner of Page Mill Vineyards. His is the only winery in the valley using the entire méthode champenoise process for the winery’s sparkling wines. I’ve messed with his words somewhat, but here is how Stark explains it.
Initial Fermentation: The grapes are gently pressed in a steel tank for settling. This creates a juice that is highly acidic and not very sweet; just right for sparkling wine. The juice is cold settled and put into a second tank for primary fermentation, which removes all the sugar and leaves a base wine with about 10.2% alcohol.
Secondary Yeast Fermentation: This base wine is then bottled and a cliquer de tirage is added, including 25.2 grams of sugar. Yeast is added, along with a special agent to help in the removal of the spent yeast after the fermentation. The bottles are sealed with beer bottle caps. The wine then goes through a secondary yeast fermentation that captures the carbon dioxide, “adding the stars” to the wine as well as raising the percent alcohol. This is the Méthode Champenoise.
Aging “Sur Tirage”: The bottles are aged on their side for three years before disgorgement, allowing the autolysis of the yeast to create a baked bread, burnt almond creaminess, which adds aroma and a complex mouthfeel.
Riddling: Riddling takes place at the end of the aging when the correct complexity has been achieved. The bottles are placed neck down and each one is lifted, turned and dropped to move the yeast lees and settling agent into the mouth of the bottle. It is jostled in this way, by hand, two to three times per day for six weeks.
Disgorging: The first inch of the bottle’s neck is frozen solid on a bed of dry ice and the crown cap removed. The frozen plug of wine and yeast lees is forcefully ejected and a final dosing of sweetening is instilled. For the sauvage style of brut no sugar is added. The base wine is added to bring the level to 750 ml.
Here are the few valley wineries offering méthode champenoise sparkling wines:
2014 Page Mill California Sparkling Wine Blanc de Blanc Livermore Valley ($75). This sauvage sparkling wine is one step drier than brut.
2016 Wente California Sparkling Wine Arroyo Seco ($40) According to the winery, this is a classic brut, with aromas and flavors of Bosc pear and dried Turksh apricot and hints of crème brulee and Fuji apple.
3 Steves California Sparkling Wine ($24). This brut sparkling wine was using the méthode champenoise from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. According to the winery, it offers an elegant white fruit taste, round mouth feel, and a silky finish with hints of candy and sweet spice.
Retzlaff Vineyards website lists a California sparkling wine from Alexander Valley for $30.