Making wine from grapes is, at its heart, a simple natural process. (See That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE (Part 1 and Part 2) But certain wines have their own unique character that depends upon more direct intervention on the part of the winemaker. We look at some of those unique wines in this article.
Champagne and Sparkling Wine:
According to legend, a French monk named Dom Perignon at Haut-Villiers in France was the person who discovered the secret of capturing the bubbles in wine, making the wine that today we call champagne. Those bubbles are carbon dioxide produced in the natural fermentation that turns grapes into wine. (See That Great Gift of Nature We Call – WINE Part 1) By keeping the fermenting juice in a closed container – a wine bottle – the gas bubbles cannot escape into the air, and so are kept dissolved in the wine inside the bottle. As you might expect, this results in a tremendous increase in the pressure inside the bottle, so in the early days, exploding bottles eliminated most of the crop! Special heavy glass bottles were developed to address this issue, but even today 1 to 2% of Champagne production is lost when bottles explode.
The other thing kept in the bottle with the bubbles is the sediment formed during the fermentation. In early days, champagne was a cloudy wine, filled with bits of this sediment, all stirred up by the bubbles. If you look at antique wine glasses from the 19th century, you will see they are made of frosted glass to hide this murkiness. It was the Widow Cliquot (Veuve Cliquot), one of the first woman entrepreneurs to head a champagne house, who discovered a process for removing the sediment without losing the bubbles. This process involves riddling (remuage) by turning the bottle upside down and shaking it gently over a long period of time to gather all the sediment on the end of the bottle’s closure. (which is usually a simple cap at this point; the classic wire-wrapped mushroom shaped corks are not added until the end of this process.) Just the neck of the bottle is then frozen solid, and the cap removed. The high pressure inside pushes the frozen plug out, (dégorgement or disgorging) a dose of sugar syrup with brandy (the ‘dosage’) is put into the bottle to replace the frozen plug, and the fancy wire-wrapped cork is inserted. Now the champagne is clear and ready for sale, and when you open it, the cork will pop, pushed by the pressure from inside. Learn to control this by holding the cork firmly in one hand and slowly but firmly twisting the bottle with the other hand holding the bottom of the bottle. Be sure the bottle is not pointing at anyone; an uncontrolled pop of the cork can be extremely dangerous.
Other countries around the world and other regions of France make sparkling wine, but it is not ‘champagne’ unless it is grown and made in the Champagne region of France. (In the bad old days, many countries used to call their sparkling wine champagne, as in Canadian Champagne or California Champagne. Most jurisdictions have ceased this fraudulent practice; unfortunately it persists in Canada.) Many of these sparkling wines are of very fine quality, sometimes quite competitive with champagne. But only champagne is champagne!
On the label of many of these other sparkling wines you may see the words “Traditional Method” (Méthode Traditionelle, Metodo Classico). A wine with this term on the label has been made by the same method of in-the-bottle fermentation, just like champagne, complete with riddling, disgorging, dosage, and fancy corking.
Champagne and other sparkling wines may be labelled as vintage or non-vintage; the non-vintage wines usually say ‘brut reserve’ or ‘special reserve’ on the label but will lack a vintage date. All the major producers keep stocks of reserve wine on hand from previous years, blending them to try to achieve a consistent house style. But in great years, when the wine is perfect as it comes from the vineyard and winery, the best wine of that year will be bottled separately, with that vintage stated on the label. The producer will usually keep some of the wine of that vintage to add to their reserves for blending in future years.
The fermentation process turns the sugars in grapes into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As all the sugar in the wine is used up in fermentation, the finished wine is dry. Winemakers have discovered a number of ways to keep some of the sugar from fermenting, so that the finished wine will be naturally sweet.
Remember that the alcohol formed during fermentation is toxic to the yeast; once the alcohol concentration reaches 14% or so, fermentation will naturally stop. In Portugal, winemakers developed the technique of dumping a measured quantity of brandy into the fermenting wine, instantly raising the alcohol content to about 20%. This high level of alcohol kills the yeast and stops the fermentation, so there remains a significant quantity of unfermented sugar in the wine, making it sweet. This is how they make port. Port is a very strong, high alcohol product, and will keep for a very long time, in part due to the preserving qualities of the alcohol.
The very best port, from fine years, is bottled two years after the vintage, and the vintage date is stencilled onto the bottles (and indicated on the labels, which are added later). This is called vintage port, and must be cellared for ten to twenty or more years to slowly evolve into a magnificent, penetrating fiery sweet wine.
Other ports are kept in barrel at the wineries (called the port lodges) and aged to produce other types of port:
Late-bottled Vintage Port (LBV) is port from a single vintage that is aged from four to six years before being bottled. The label will always clearly state the vintage year and the fact that it is Late Bottled.
Tawny port of stated age. These are very fine ports; some connoisseurs prefer them to vintage ports. These tawny ports are a blend of aged ports, the age stated on the label is a weighted average of all the ports that went into the blend. They are ready for drinking when bottled. Beware of ports called tawny that do not have a stated age on the label; these are inferior products, made by blending young wines usually thought unsuitable for any other purpose. Many have extravagantly flamboyant labels proclaiming their worth – do not be misled!
Colheita ports are aged in wood, like tawnies, but from a single vintage year. They should have both a vintage date and a bottling date on the label. Sometimes they are decades old when bottled.
Ruby port is simply port that is bottled young, blended or unblended, without a stated age. These are entry-level products, made from the wines not chosen for vintage, LBV, or tawny of stated age. Some are drinkable, but they never evolve to greatness.
There are other styles of port: white port, pink port – I do not find these pleasing to my taste. Many port producers are now also producing dry red wines from the same grapes and vineyards where they grow their port grapes. These wines are called Douro, and may be very good, but so far they have not agreed on a consistent style, so it is hard to tell, when you buy a Douro wine, if it is one that should be aged or drunk young.
Port is the superb companion to fine cheeses – particularly good English Stilton – and also to fruit cake, nuts, fruit desserts, and most of all by itself as a contemplative sipping wine. I have had fine vintage ports more than half a century old still in full flight, full of fire and fruit, one of the world’s great wines.
Nature seems to have an endless variety of tricks with grapes, and discovering how to work with these little tricks has enabled winemakers to develop some fabulous natural wines. One of my favourites is a wine made from grapes that have been afflicted with a naturally occurring mould. This is a somewhat strange phenomenon, as it seems to occur quite naturally in a few areas of the world, the best known being the Sauternes district of Bordeaux, France.
This mould is known as botrytis, and it grows as a bloom on the grapes’ skin. Different wine-making regions have their own term for this: ‘pouriture noble’ in France, ‘edelfaul’ in Germany, Aszu in Hungary. The mycelium (like the roots) of the mould are able to penetrate through the skin of the grape without rupturing it; as the mould grows, it draws moisture from the grapes, causing them to shrivel up like raisins. In the process, the concentration of sugar in the juice left behind is raised significantly, because the water fraction has been decreased by the action of the mould. So when these grapes are picked, the resulting juice is just incredibly sweet, like a concentrate of the original juice.
This juice is so sweet the yeast has to struggle to make it ferment, and it ferments very slowly over a long period of time. By the time the alcohol content reaches 14 or 15% – enough to kill the yeast and stop the fermentation – there is still a large amount of unfermented sugar left in the wine, so the wine is very sweet, with a fine honeyed quality. The botrytis in the wine adds its own distinctive pungency to the aroma of these wines; a really fine sauternes will have the most penetrating, insistent, persistent bouquet of any wine you have ever had, often infused with hints of citrus and tropical fruits. The length of the finish and the lingering aftertaste may go on for hours, sometimes even coming back the next day as a haunting memory. Good sauternes will improve with age for many years, sometimes decades.
Sauternes is the perfect sweet wine to accompany desserts made with fresh fruit. I am particularly fond of sauternes with fruit flans. Sauternes also goes very well with all fine cheeses, particularly the strong blue cheeses of France: Roquefort, Bleu de Bresse, and the like. But a fine aged sauternes can also by itself be the dessert, just a glass of sweet nectar sipped slowly at the end of the meal – ambrosia!
Ice wine gapesNature has found another way to concentrate the essence of grape juice to make sweet concentrated wine. About -7 degrees Celsius, the water fraction of the grape juice will freeze, the ice crystals separating out from the rest of the grape juice. If you pick the wines and press them right at that moment, you can skim the ice crystals from the vat and leave the concentrated juice to ferment. Like Sauternes, the wine ferments very slowly, and stops while there is still a lot of unfermented sugar left in the juice. Unlike Sauternes, there is no botrytis involved, so ice wine, while it has intense sweetness, doesn’t acquire the pungent penetrating bouquet of Sauternes.
But it is a very good, intensely flavoured, very sweet wine, an excellent dessert wine or wine to sip as dessert. I think ice wine was first discovered in Germany (Eiswein) by happy accident, (in fact there is a legend about that) but Canada has emerged as the world’s leading producer, as we have much more reliable cold in the winter than most of the classic wine producing regions of the world. The very best ice wines are made in the Niagara Peninsula from Riesling grapes, and it is the most expensive. Most Canadian ice wine is made from Vidal grapes; Vidal ice wine has great sweetness and intensity, but in my experience usually lacks the classic breed and style of a good Riesling.