Sparkling for 25 Years
What makes a wine sparkling? Where do the bubbles come from? How come it’s not called Champagne if it’s from California?
These are all great questions, which is why we are excited to bring you this basic bubbles lesson. Read on to learn more!
While sparkling wine has been in our arsenal of wine since we opened our doors 25 years ago, crafting sparklers in the historic Larkmead Winery precedes Frank Family Vineyards. When our property was owned by Hanns Kornell, Marilyn Monroe was rumored to have visited several times to satisfy her Champagne cravings. Who can blame her? Kornell, a German-born Frenchman who loved the sparkling wines from his native Germany and France, created sparkling wines here well before French governing bodies started to crack down on US producers labeling their effervescent elixirs as “Champagne.” Now, for Champagne to exist on a label, the wine must originate in the Champagne region of France.
Though we are widely known for the still wines we produce, our winemaker Todd Graff upholds the fizzy tradition by producing quality bubbles through the traditional French méthode champenoise. You might notice these words on the labels of your favorite sparklers, and wonder…
What is méthode champenoise?
This is a labor-intensive process whereby wine undergoes a secondary fermentation within the bottle. One byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide, which creates the finessed, tiny bubbles you know and love.
How does it start?
The method begins with the addition of a liqueur de tirage—a solution of sugar, yeast, and wine—to a bottle of still wine, which we call our “base wine.” Our base wine, at this point, has a crown cap (like a beer bottle).
The addition of yeast triggers a second fermentation in the bottle, producing carbon dioxide and spent yeast cells or “lees.” The length of time the wine rests on the lees, or sur lie, is directly related to its final texture and complexity of flavor. The longer to aging, the more complex the wine. After the wine has rested on the lees for as long as the winemaker wishes, it is ready to be finished, and this requires riddling.
Riddling is a time-consuming process in which the lees are collected in the neck of the bottle. The bottles are placed in riddling rack (rectangular boards hinged at the top; each side with holes that hold the neck of a bottle) at a 45-degree angle. Each bottle has a distinctive mark on its bottom for the riddler’s reference. The markings will all point the same direction, and every day for the next several weeks, the riddler (our riddler is named Ana) rotates every single bottle a few degrees. Ana, our riddler, makes sure she raises each bottle’s bottom slightly—this lowers the neck gradually. After two or three weeks, the bottles are now slanted to a 60-degree angle and are completely neck-down in their holes.
More often than not, large producers of sparkling wines have adapted their riddling techniques with technology and chosen to use giant machines to shift lees downward. We take great pride in knowing we are one of the few producers in the Napa Valley to still hand-riddle each bottle, a painstakingly difficult and precise art in itself.
After riddling, the lees must be removed from the wine without wasting wine or compromising quality. This process is called disgorgement. The bottles, neck down, are placed in a freezing solution for several minutes; creating an ice plug made of the residual lees and sediment. The crown caps are removed, and due to the pressure within, the ice plug shoots out and takes all the leftover solids with it. The minimal volume of wine lost in this process gets replaced with a slightly sweet mixture of wine and sugar, or dosage, which balances the acidity that exists naturally in the new wine (and though our bubbles are all bone dry, this is the step in which one can make a wine demi-sec or sweet).
Corks and cages are inserted and clasped on, and the sparkling wine is officially finished.
The rest is up to you, the wine lover! Our artisanal bubbles are perfect complements to all kinds of cuisines, (see our favorite bubbly + food combos below!) but do just as well on their own. Whether you pop a bottle to celebrate a special occasion or just to make a Thursday special, we hope with each sip you feel a little more sparkly. Cheers!
Blanc de Blancs + mac and cheese
Brut Rose + fish tacos
Rouge + roast turkey, cranberry sauce
Lady Edythe + sautéed diver scallops, cauliflower purée