July 25, 2011

Dégourgement (Fr.)

    The process of removing (disgorging) sediment from traditional method sparkling wines. Results in a slight loss of volume that needs to be topped up with a dosage before final corking.
For such a simple product, wine sure can get complicated. Take, for example, the exquisite sparkling wines of Champagne and elsewhere. The two main by-products of fermentation are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Under normal circumstances, we want to keep the alcohol and get rid of the CO2, except in the case of sparkling wines. Then we want to preserve the CO2. It is, after all, the quality that makes sparkling wines both special and expensive.

The objective when making sparkling wine is to retain as much of the CO2 as possible while producing a delectable and distinctive wine. The problem is that, when sparkling wine goes through its second fermentation, everything is trapped in the bottle. As the yeast works to produce additional alcohol and carbon dioxide bubbles, it also produces sediment. Now, there’s nothing wrong with letting the sediment stay in the bottle, but it can be rather unappetizing. Better to get rid of it. But that’s not so simple a task.

Traditional or champagne method sparkling wines go through a number of interesting processes. First, a second fermentation is induced in the bottle by adding yeast and sugar to a base wine. That brew is allowed for work for up to several years. Lying peacefully on their sides, the bottles go through an almost magical transformation, with the spent yeast – the lees – giving the wine unique toasty, biscuity qualities. Finally, steps are taken to remove the lees from the bottles. The process is call riddling, and it can be performed by hand or by a machine called a gyro-palette.

The Widow Cliquot perfected the technique of preparing a champagne bottle for dégourgement by placing the bottles in an A-frame rack. Riddlers spend their day shaking and rotating the bottles in the rack, gradually working the sediment into the neck of the bottle over several months. Eventually the bottles are standing vertically in the rack, with the neck pointing downward, ready to have the sediment removed. The bottle neck is set in a bath of iced brine. This freezes a small amount of the wine along with a plug of sediment. It’s then a small job to lift the bottle from the brine solution, pop the cap, and expel the plug. All that remains is to top up the bottle to replace the lost liquid, and then cork it. (By the way, this is the process that begat the rather large foil that is found atop champagne and sparkling wine bottles. Its original purpose was  to disguised the fill line so the buyer is not aware that there could be a bit of variation here.)

July 11, 2011

Chaptalized/Chaptalization *

    The addition of sugar at the start of fermentation to correct for lack of ripeness/sugar in the fruit, to soften tannins and to increase alcohol. Sometimes perceived as a candy-like quality or sugary sweetness in the finish. Acceptable in some regions but not generally talked about.

When in the early 1800s French chemist Jean-Antoine-Claude Chaptal advised wineries to add sugar to the juice before making wine, he was not suggesting anything new or unique. Winemakers have been adding extra fermentable sugar to grape must for hundreds if not thousands of years. Nor was Chaptal advocating shortcuts to put one over on the public. He was in fact advocating quality, which was sometimes elusive in those years when grapes did not ripen fully. There is a certain sugar content that is required to make decent wine, and Chaptal merely wanted to recommend and standardize the well-established practice.

The main goal of chaptalization is to give the wine better balance by reaching a certain degree of alcohol. Most wine regulators will specify this minimum, any wine that doesn’t meet it would be demoted. So it’s easy to see why winemakers would occasionally want to goose the sugar content a bit. The problem arises when ‘a bit’ becomes ‘a lot’. It’s possible to turn not-very-promising juice into a sellable wine by adding what’s missing, in this case enough sugar to produce sufficient alcohol.

In regions that allow chaptalization, the amounts and circumstances are very specific. For example, European Union regulations allow chaptalization, but not more than is needed to increase the ‘potential alcohol’ by 2 or 3%. This is a good solution as it allows the winemaker to make a minor adjustment that will improve the wine without compromising its overall quality. In fact it could be argued that the quality is higher because of chaptalization.

In regions that do not allow chaptalization, the practice has mostly gone underground. A juice in need of some extra sugar will quite possibly get it, provided no one is watching. Again we can argue that this would improve the wine rather than adulterate it, although there are many advocates who condemn the practice. (There are even a few ‘super palates’ who claim to able to taste chaptalization in a wine.) But in a world where additives are the norm, it seems to me that adding a modest amount of sugar to produce a better product may not be such a bad thing.

July 4, 2011

Bottle Age/Bottle Ageing *

    Wine continues to develop after bottling. Some ageing, about 3 months, is needed to overcome bottle shock. After a certain point, most wines will begin to deteriorate. Varies by wine type, quality and storage conditions. Can range from 3 months to 20 years or more, although 1 to 4 years is more typical. Wines that benefit from prolonged ageing are rare.  
Quite possibly the most common question I hear is “How long should you age a wine?” The answer is simple: That depends. In truth, the majority of wines are ‘ready’ when you see them on the store shelf. The exceptions to this are few – and usually expensive. Still, there are a number of things to keep in mind as you contemplate whether to open any bottle.

Bottle ageing occurs in stages. At the winery, once the wine has been bulk aged sufficiently, it is bottled and either prepared for shipping or ‘binned’ in the cellar for further ageing. Some wines are shipped immediately: light whites, early drinking reds, rosés. Others require more time to integrate. Some of the bigger, classic red wines will spend years in the cellar before release. (Have a look at the vintage dates in the Spanish wine section next time you’re shopping.) Port and Champagne also spend a lot of time in the cellar – again, a matter of years.

Another factor to consider is ‘bottle shock’.Wine doesn’t take well to being forcibly slammed into a bottle and then shut off from the world. And with good reason. These days most wineries will ‘sparge’ the bottle with nitrogen before filling, which forces out all of the air. This establishes the chemistry inside the bottle and, once corked, the wine must come to terms with its new situation. Simply put, the wine must deal with disolved oxygen and sulphur. This is a complicated chemical process (and I never did have much of a head for chemistry), but suffice it to say, through a process called ‘redox’, the wine will integrate and  reintegrate these two chemicals until it reaches a point of stasis. How long does this take? Research suggests it should be accomplished in about three months. So if possible, check the bottling date and make sure that at least three months have passed. Since you likely won’t find a bottling date, or be able to decipher the code, it’s not a bad practice to lay in a wine for a couple of months before opening it. This, by the way, also gives the wine a chance to settle down after the trauma of transportation.

What about those wines that do age? Almost any red wine will show some benefit from additional cellar time. But how do you determine how much time? Just ask Clive Coates. According to this Master of Wine, a wine will remain at its optimal drinking point for the same period of time that it took to get there. Thus a wine that took three years to mature should drink nicely for the next three years. A wine that took ten years to reach drinkability will keep for another ten years. And a wine that was release one year after vintage probably should be opened by its second birthday.

The main thing to keep in mind that all wine has a limited life span, and a wine that is over the hill is a waste of money as well as a disappointment. Far better to say “I really shouldn’t be drinking this yet” while you enjoy that 8-year old barolo than to say “I really shouldn’t have opened this  –  it’s dead”. So always err on the side of youth.