I love the French accent aiguë. I love using it whenever I describe how to make traditional Champagne method sparkling wine – the Méthode Champagnoise. I also love the chemistry and added complexity of the process and, of course, the finished product. Wine-making mythology has it that monks in northern France stumbled on the process of carbonating a wine while trying to make respectable wine out of unripe grapes. The growing season in the district of Champagne is just too short to faithfully ripen Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and Pinor Meunier so it was necessary to add sugar to the base wine to get a decent amount of alcohol into it. In the process of bottling this sweetened wine before it had completely fermented, a second fermentation occurred inside the closed bottle. The carbon dioxide was trapped in the bottle and voilà – sparkling wine. As technologic refinements came along to produce hefty bottles that could withstand enormous pressure, yeasts that can survive in the nasty environment inside one of these bottles, cheap labor to turn and wiggle the bottles during riddling, and freezing techniques to facilitate the process of disgorgement, the mythical monk named Dom Pérignon turned a lousy, acidic, thin wine into a magical product reserved for royalty.
I had made several tasty small batches of traditional Méthode Champagnoise sparkling wine prior to my first attempt in 2006 to make our Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery sparkling Chardonnay. That year I had some not quite ripe grapes from what was then Dos Cabezas Vineyard – intentionally picked early at Brix 18/19. It made a brilliant, acidic, crisp base wine. I had a heck of a time locating champagne bottles for less then $5 each, so I ended up purchasing some cider/champagne bottles from a hobby beer and wine shop. Over a two week period of time I “built up” the specialty yeast using the recipe given to me by my cousin Michael Manz, then wine maker at Mountain Dome in Spokane, Washington. To the base wine I added an exactingly calculated amount of sugar and the built up yeast, stirred vigorously and then bottled it, closing each one with a crown cap (AKA beer cap). This was to be my very first commercial sparkling wine. Was I excited? You bet.
As the days passed I imagined the little yeasties inside those beefy bottles munching the sugar, converting it into alcohol and CO2. The carbon dioxide gas was dissolving in the wine, making those teeny tiny bubbles for which the finest Champagne is known. About a week later, as we entered the winery, Joan said, “Tim, I smell wine, do you?” I did, but said, “no.” Why? Denial is a powerful tool. It protects many tiny minds from profound truths. Another week passed and Joan again challenged my reality. The evidence was unmistakable. The winery smelled like wine. Well, smelled like more wine then it should have smelled. The cause? A bad, lousy, miscalculated, incorrect matching of the crown cap and the top of the bottle. Closer inspection of the pile of sparkling wine bottles revealed a very vigorous and happy foaming puddle of very strong yeast and sweet Chardonnay at the bottom of the holding bin. Each bottle had opened itself thanks to the pressure of the second fermentation and the misguided choice of closures. 46 cases lost. Every winemaker worth their tannin has wasted wine stories. This is mine.
Fast forward a year or two. I have worked out the engineering, perfected the technique, resigned myself to paying beaucoup for the right bottles, learned that there are several sizes of crown caps, invented a small volume technique for riddling and learned to wear diver’s gloves when disgorging. So far Canelo Hills Vineyard and Winery Sparkling wines are the only Méthode Champagnoise sparkling wines made in Arizona. They are very tasty. If you also love the accent aiguë, you can come purchase bottles of Sparkling Chardonnay with “é” prominently featured on the label.
Editor’s Note: Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery has since been sold and is now Flying Leap Vineyards.
Article by Tim Mueller, Canelo Hills Vineyard & Winery
Originally Published in Arizona Vines and Wines Spring 2011 Issue