Monday, July 29, 2013

Bubbles that Remind You of Stars

Our last morning in the Napa Valley was spent at the Domaine Chandon winery. They make sparkling wines (the technical name for champagne not made in the Champagne region of France) but still wines as well.

We arrive and see the beautiful grapevines that are at the heart of every vineyard.

We got there bright and early for a wine tasting and were almost the first people there. The gardens on the way into the facility were beautiful.

We ended up on a tour with just the two of us. How much better does it get than a private tour?

We make our way up from the wine tasting area to the winery where the real action takes place. Look at the huge vats for the mixing of juice, sugar and yeast. Each one holds 14,000 gallons!!! Now that's a lot of grape juice!

Our guide tells us about the unique process of creating a sparkling wine as opposed to a still wine. It is a process that was discovered by accident in the Champagne region of France by a monk. 

You might recognize his name - Dom Pierre Perignon (1639-1715). He was among the first to deliberately cause the second fermentation that creates the bubbles in a sparkling wine. When the first fermentation is over, more yeast is added back to the bottle along with a liquor, and the result is the fine bubbles distinctive of sparkling wines.

Knowing that a second fermentation would cause a residue from the yeast in the bottom of the bottle, I asked what process was used to get rid of that.

The riddler was key to the process. He was the highest paid person in the winery next to the master brewer. During the second fermentation process, the bottles were placed in a rack that held them at a 45 degree angle with the neck facing down. Once a day, the riddler came at a predetermined time and turned each bottle a 1/4 turn. The bottles back then were not as strong as today and sometimes the bottle would explode under the pressure of the bubbles that had formed. One broken bottle could lead to many others. It was a dangerous job to be the riddler.  

Today, the position of riddler is obsolete. The process is carried out with large machines that turn and tap many bottles at once. This process of remuage or riddling has been used in the making sparkling wines from their first discovery. It ensures that all the yeast added to the bottle for the second fermentation makes its way to the top of the neck to be easily removed during the process of disgorgement. 

This turning plus gravity pull the yeast into a neat and tidy package right at the lip of the bottle, ready to be removed. So, once the residue is in the neck of the bottle, how do you get it out? You freeze the neck of the bottle, pop out the liquid with the residue with the little plug made just for that purpose.

Now it is time for dosage - adding a little extra wine to make up for the volume lost from the disgorgement. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines the ultimate sweetness of the sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is corked with a cage to keep the cork in place because of the pressure inside the bottle. The sparkling wine at Domaine Chandon is called Etoile, the tiny bubbles being reminiscent of stars. Their best bubbly is $100 a bottle!

Barrels of wine are aged below ground. Now this looks like a winery!

Wine tasting, anyone? Finally! LOL Our guide showed us the easiest way to safely open a bottle of sparkling wine. We tasted each one in order of price. The best was reserved for last and served with a raw oyster with hollandaise sauce. Yum! Never thought I'd ever say that oysters were delicious, but they are. It will be nice to have the expensive Etoile for our wedding anniversary coming up soon. Maybe we will have oysters too.

We left with at least 4 bottles of sparkling wine that day and more to come to our house on a regular basis. Then we headed toward our overnight stay at Lake Tahoe.

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