Jonathan Médard and I spent a couple of days this week in Champagne looking at disgorging equipment at various wineries.
When sparkling wine is made in the ‘traditional method’ or Champagne style, the secondary fermentation, to put the bubbles in the wine, takes place in the bottle. So the wine is ‘bottle fermented’ as opposed to Prosecco where the secondary fermentation takes place in a large tank and then bottles are filled with the fizzy wine from the tank (the Charmat method), like Coca-Cola.
To get the bubbles in the wine you need to add a little yeast and a bit of sugar to the wine which then ferments in the bottle creating CO2 (fizz) and a little more alcohol.
You may ask what are the benefits of making ‘bottle fermented’ sparkling wine? The main one is that the bubbles are finer and so they last longer in the glass. You also get wonderful flavours from the yeast when it’s in contact with the wine in the bottle. This process is called ‘autolysis’ and the longer you leave the wine in contact with the ‘yeast lees’ the better, up to a point. Prosecco, in large vats, doesn’t have the same yeast contact and therefore does not have the depth and complexity of flavour that bottle fermented wine has.
However, after the secondary fermentation you are left with ‘yeast lees’ in the bottle, which you need to remove. Historically this was done by an army of men, ‘Les Remueurs’, who laboured in dark cellars turning the bottles a small amount everyday until they got the yeast into the neck of the bottle.
Thankfully it is not done like that any longer. We now have machines that ‘riddle’ about five hundred bottles at time over a week.
But once the yeast is in the neck of the bottle you need to remove it. That is done by freezing the neck of the bottle and allowing that frozen yeast plug out of the bottle and this is called disgorging or in French, dégorgement.
As we move towards making out first bottles of Sussex Sparkling we need to start making decisions about how we store our wine and what sort of disgorging equipment we need. Hence the trip to Champagne.
Storage is going to be our biggest challenge as we are keen to store our wine in the bottle ‘on lees’ for a minimum of three years. So eventually we need storage capacity for approximately four million bottles! Do we use simple cages or riddling cages which can go straight into the riddling machine but cost more and take up more room? We are yet to decide but we found that most cellars are now using robotic arms to load and unload cages and whilst this automation is efficient and doesn’t tire or need a coffee break, it doesn’t come cheap! Don’t tell Sarah.
I have to say that the Champenoise were so welcoming and happy to impart knowledge of what worked or didn’t work for them when disgorging wine. It is truly amazing how open and friendly everyone in Champagne has been to us.
Now we need to work out the design for the storage, bottling, disgorgement and labeling operation that we will need in three years time.
Roll on summer….
PS Sadly Mark decided to share 300 photos of his ‘exciting’ trip to Champagne – just how many metal cages can one girl look at and sound interested (?) – but not the fact of the vast expense involved! Sarah