Sparkling wine in the form of French Champagne came to California in the early 1850’s. Wine pioneers Isador Landsberger and Arpad Haraszthy made California’s first commercially successful sparkler called Eclipse in the late 1860s. In 1899 a bottle of Francis Korbel’s Viking champagne christened the battleship USS Wisconsin.
Today, California produces over eight million cases of sparkling wine using one of two methods - “Le Methode Champenoise” or “Charmat Bulk Process”. By the way, while the French have tried to restrict the use of the word “champagne”, we Californians are free to use “champagne” and “sparkling wine” interchangeably.
Methode Champenoise is the traditional French way of making sparkling wine. While there is no clear legal definition of this method, the term implies that you will be drinking wine from the same bottle in which the secondary fermentation occurred. Sparkling wine starts as small batches of gently-made white table wine. Grapes are harvested under cool conditions and “whole berry” pressed to minimize the extraction of tannins and color. These wines are then blended to produce a “base wine” or “cuvee” that is bottled for secondary fermentation and aging.
The sugar-yeast solution bottled with the base wine causes a second fermentation which produces carbon dioxide and lees (residue from the fermentation process). As the bottles continue to age in dark coolness, the wine undergoes chemical changes through the interaction of the less and wine. From nine months to several years after the secondary fermentation, the bottles are shaken and turned (riddled) to move the solid lees to the neck of the bottle where they are expelled as a frozen plug. The wine is finished by adding a bit of sweetening (dosage), then corked and labeled for sale.
The preferred grapes for traditional sparkling wines are the red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the white grape Chardonnay. In California, Pinot Blanc is sometimes used in place of the Meunier. These varieties grow best in regions with very cool climates where the grapes mature with low sugars and high acidity. The Anderson Valley in Mendocino, the Green Valley and Russian River Valley in Sonoma County and the Carneros region along San Pablo Bay are ideal areas for growing champagne grapes. The second method of making California sparkling wine was pioneered almost a century ago by Frenchman Eugene Charmat. The process named for its developer is also called the “bulk process” because the secondary fermentation takes place in large, pressurized, temperature controlled tanks. The base wine is seeded with sugar and yeast and fermented. Carbon dioxide from the fermentation is trapped in the wine due to temperature and pressure. The dry sparkling wine is filtered to remove the lees, then sweetened to adjust flavor and style.
Large California producers including Gallo, Constellation Brands and Weibel employ the bulk process for economic reasons. Bulk sparkling wines use inexpensive, high yielding grape varieties including French Colombard, Chenin Blanc and Sylvaner, which are widely grown in the Central Valley. Bulk production accounts for over 75% of California sparkling wines.
A quick look at the label will tell you the method used to make your sparkling wine. Whether it’s a methode champenoise from Mendocino or a Charmat from Weibel, celebrate with a flute of “wine with stars”.