Ahh, glorious Champagne: our companion at celebrations and important events, it christens our ships, welcomes our New Year, and gently helps the caviar and oysters along the path to culinary nirvana. Sparkling wine has no peer, and you can make it at home if you’ve got a little adventure in your soul and a DIY attitude. The ease of use and consistent results you get from a wine kit are the icing on the cake — so let’s get baking!
But first, a little housekeeping: the word Champagne is protected under French law. Oh, those wacky gendarmes de France and their courts and laws! Since we won’t be using grapes from the Champagne appellation, we’ll be referring to the fizzy stuff as sparkling wine.
And since we’re not constrained by the shackles of French jurisprudence, why not make something really cool? How about a fruit-and-wine combination of deliciousness and fizzy happymaking? Chardonnay est passé: Vive le Viognier! Ever wanted a bottle of red sparkler to go with that meatloaf-cake you’ve been itching to make? Now’s the time!
Also, one more piece of housekeeping: SAFETY WARNING! The techniques described in this article will carbonate your wine. This will put it under high pressure, inside a glass bottle. Fully pressurized, traditional-method sparkling wine has enough internal pressure to turn an ordinary 750-mL bottle into a glass hand grenade. Fermentation creates tremendous pressure, up to 90 pounds per square inch in traditional-method Champagne — up to five times the pressure found in beer or soft drinks.
Therefore, only proper sparkling wine bottles can be used. They are very heavy, made from thick glass, with a deep punt (indentation in the bottom of the bottle). They also have a lip on them to accommodate a crown cap (like a beer cap) which they are normally sealed with during secondary fermentation and lees aging, and before disgorgement (see below). Any other bottle can shatter, causing a very dangerous shower of glass. Remember, everything is funny until someone loses an eye (and then it’s on YouTube forever).
Getting bubbly: three ways
There’s more than one way to skin a glass of bubbly. The first, méthode traditionelle, is how they do it in Champagne: taking a base wine, adding a dose of sugar and yeast to it, letting it carbonate and age for an extended period, then freezing/shaking the lees out of it, dosing it with some sugar to cut the high acidity, and quickly re-capping or corking it.
This is not hard (people have been doing it without the benefits of safety goggles, modern refrigeration technology or precision hydrometers for a couple of centuries). But getting the lees (compacted yeast) out without losing most of the wine can be a bit complex and a bit messy in spots. On the other hand, it allows you to back-sweeten the wine: removing that layer of compacted yeast reduces the chances of causing another fermentation, which could (possibly dangerously) over-carbonate it.
The second way is to do méthode traditionelle, but skip the yeast disgorging. You then treat the wine like bottle-carbonated beer, keeping it upright and pouring the wine off the sediment, discarding the last little bit. This cuts out the most oogy part of the procedure, but you can’t sweeten this wine: the live yeast in the bottle will always eat all the sugar added to it, and if you do back-sweeten, before you know it the bottles are exploding in your cellar, turning your sheet rock into chalk dust and your floors into pools of fizz. So, you’ll always have completely dry wine, which is fine if that suits you.
The third way is to cheat with artificial carbonation. You simply take a still white wine, sweetened or not, and artificially inject carbon dioxide into it, much the same as is done with most commercial beer. This process involves much lower pressures, and thus smaller, thinner and lighter bottles can be used to contain this sparkling wine. There are a couple of drawbacks, however. First, lower pressures mean less fizz. The best you can do with civilian equipment is probably about one-third the level of fizz you get doing méthode traditionelle.
Second, it requires both carbonating gear (CO2 cylinder, gas regulator, lines and connectors, pressure tanks and bottling attachments) and a big freezer — the colder you get the wine, the more fizz it will hold. This gear, while not prohibitively expensive, is . . . well, it’s sort of expensive, especially if you just want a batch of fizzy wine now and then.
On the other hand, you could skip all the bottling and just keep your sparkling wine on draught and dispense it from the CO2 system’s tap . . . yeah, sounds like paradise to me too. Space doesn’t permit a thorough discussion of CO2 systems and carbonating protocols, but every homebrew shop that does beer will have equipment, details, and usually a geek on staff to guide you through the process.
Kits without disgorging: doing it dry
If you don’t plan to do yeast disgorging, you’ll have to choose a dry wine (one that doesn’t use any sort of post-fermentation addition of sugar, sweeteners or “F-packs”: there’s no way to add this sweetness without having the yeast eat all of the sugars. You’d wind up with dry wine anyway, and it will be (perhaps dangerously) over-carbonated. That doesn’t mean you have to choose something tart and dry, however: many kits finish with a fruity character and tend to be on the slightly soft side (high acid means longer aging, so kits tend to be just slightly lower in acid profile than many commercial wines).
Good candidates on the dry-dry side include unoaked Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, and anything your kit manufacturer’s literature describes as crisp or dry. Ask your retailer for more advice, keeping in mind that the wine shouldn’t be too high in alcohol to start (more on that below), and oak is a no-no, as it tastes awful when carbonated.
Good candidates on the fruitier side include any highly aromatic varieties with low acid, such as Viognier, Gewürztraminer, Symphony, Muscat, and anything the manufacturer’s brochures describe as soft, fruity or luscious.
Doin’ de disgorging: sweetened wines
The secret that sparkling wine mostly never speaks is this: almost all of it is sweeter than you think. The driest wines possible still have at least a gram or so of residual sugar per liter of volume, due to the unfermentability of some of them. Most of us will have been exposed to sparkling wines that have ten to fifteen grams (about 11⁄2 to 21⁄2 teaspoons) of sugar per liter. They still taste dry because the flavors are balanced partly by acidity and partly by carbonation, which can sharpen the flavor profile. The French use the following terms to describe sweetness in their fizzy:
• Brut Natural or Brut Zéro (less than
3 grams of sugar per liter)
• Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar
• Brut (less than 15 grams of sugar
• Extra Sec or Extra Dry (12 to 20 grams of sugar per liter)
• Sec (17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter)
• Demi-Sec (33 to 50 grams of sugar
• Doux (more than 50 grams of sugar
Note: If 50 grams of sugar per liter sounds sweet to you, keep in mind that cola is about the equivalent of 12% residual sugar, or 150+ grams per liter. Wow!
Wine kits that are intended to be sweetened after fermentation will come with a second bag or bottle of liquid. This is sugar syrup, grape concentrate, fresh juice, or some combination thereof. It may even have a bunch of fruit flavors and extracts for Mist or refreshment beverage fruit-wines. On average these kits wind up somewhere between extra sec or sec, with only the sweetest refreshment beverage wines clocking in at demi-sec.
So which kit should you make? Whichever appeals most to your taste will be just fine: off-dry sparkling wine is great with spicy food, and with (or even as) dessert and drinks very nicely by itself. Refreshment beverages are great party fare, refreshing as heck on a hot day, good with barbecue, and only the sourest of sourpusses will turn down a glass of sparkly good fruit wine. If you’re not quite sure what to do, start with a wine you’ve already tried before, or ask your retailer for some advice.
Fizzin’ it old school
The section applies to both degorged and non-degorged [disgorged and non-disgorged] wines. If you don’t mind dry wine, and paying attention to a little sediment, it’s all you need to know. If you’re going to sweeten your sparkler, or want to completely rid it of sediment, you’ll need to carefully read this section and then the next on disgorging.
Necessary equipment (over and above your regular winemaking gear):
You will need thirty sparkling wine bottles (see warning on page 64) and either thirty crown caps or thirty plastic sparkling wine stoppers, thirty wire hoods (for holding the stopper down), a wire-hood twister and a wine kit of your choice.
One word about crown caps: sparkling wine bottles from different countries have different cap diameters. Double-check with your retailer whether their stock of crown caps will fit your bottles and that they have a capper that will fit them on to your bottles. Often it’s easier just to use a plastic stopper.
You’ll also need 13⁄4 cups of table sugar, a sturdy, heat-proof measuring cup and a riddling agent (read on).
Preparing the base
1. Produce your 6-gallon (23-L) wine kit in the normal way, following all instructions for rehydration, yeast pitching, primary fermentation, etc, up to the stabilizing and clearing day. Do not add the sulfite or sorbate (stabilizers). This is crucial because these packages contain enough sulfite and potassium sorbate to prevent the wine from carbonating.
2. On the stabilizing and clearing day follow the kit instructions for fining (rack or don’t rack, add finings, stirring, etc) but do not add the stabilizers!
3. Wait ten days for the wine to clear.
4. Observe your wine. When clear (you may need to wait an extra few days or a week), it is ready to be made into sparkling wine. Don’t bother filtering it, as it will go cloudy again in the bottle. Some commercial sparkling wines that contain tannins are filtered at this stage, but it’s unnecessary for wine kits.
1. Rack the wine from the carboy into a sanitized primary fermenter or bucket. Avoid disturbing the sediment. Make up your priming sugar by dissolving 13⁄4 cups white table sugar in 2 cups (~500 mL) of warm water. Stir thoroughly and gently into the wine. This sugar is what the yeast will consume to begin fermenting again,
to introduce more CO2 into the wine to carbonate it.
2. Carefully rehydrate one package of Champagne yeast (Lalvin EC-1118 is an excellent choice, although there are others) following these instructions exactly: stir the yeast into 1⁄5 cup (~50 mL) of water at 100 °F (~40 °C). Leave it to stand for ten minutes, and stir thoroughly and gently into wine.
3. Add a riddling agent. These are technically fining agents that help to compact the yeast and will make it much easier to disgorge the wine later — the smallest amount of residual sediment can cause CO2 nucleation and foaming (think of what happens if you sprinkle salt in a glass of beer, or what happens when you pour root beer over ice cream for your float). For most wine kits I recommend either bentonite or a colloidal agent such as Chitosan, added at the lowest effective dosage rate listed on the packaging. If your package doesn’t have a dosage rate, add half the amount normally used for fining in the kit you’re making: i.e., if it contained a 150 mL pack of Chitosan, add 75 mL. This will help compact the lees without stripping flavor or aroma.
4. Siphon your wine into the sparkling wine bottles, leaving 2.5 inches (7 cm) of space at the top of each bottle. This might seem like a large ullage space, but it is necessary to give enough space for the lees to collect and to allow for foaming during disgorgement.
5. If your bottles accept crown caps, cap them now. Otherwise, insert plastic stoppers and wire them down using wire cages and a wire-twisting tool.
6. Store bottles on their sides at 65–75 °F (18–24 °C) for two months to carbonate. (While traditional Champagne secondary fermentations are conducted cooler than this, field results with kit wine show that this can produce inconsistent results.)
Stand a bottle upright in your refrigerator for one week. Carefully de-cap the wine and taste it to determine if it’s finished carbonating. It should be delightfully fizzy and, while still quite green, it should show the crispness and palate pleasing character of sparkling wine. Dry, un-disgorged wines can go straight to the drinking process. All others proceed to advanced stages of riddling and disgorging.
Skipping Méthode Traditionelle drinking (difficulty level = 0)
If you’re not going through the riddling and disgorging process, simply store the bottles upright in boxes to allow the sediment to collect on the bottom. Wait two months for the wine to develop in flavor, and chill before serving. Pour carefully, leaving the last half-inch of wine in the bottle, to prevent sediment from being transferred into your glass. Yum!
Méthode Traditionelle subverted: the middle path (difficulty level = 5)
In between decanting the wine off the sediment to enjoy it, and the process of riddling and disgorgement described later in this column, there is a third way that is far less gooey and complex. As with Méthode Traditionelle you need to prepare a sweetening dosage, but instead of all the steps of riddling, freezing, disgorging, dosing and re-capping you can do a home version of Metodo Charmat-Martinotti, the Charmat process.
Invented in Italy, this is a process where the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in bulk, in large tanks. When it’s fully carbonated it’s sweetened with a dosage and bottled from there. Rather than a single large pressure tank which requires special fittings and handling equipment, you can use each individual bottle as a tank.
Leave the bottles standing upright after bottling with the priming sugar. When the secondary fermentation is complete, chill the bottles to just above freezing. Don’t freeze the wine, as ice crystals will play hob with the next step. You will need to fill another empty sparkling wine bottle with the desired level of dosage and then chill it with the full bottles. Very gently and carefully uncap/uncork the full bottles and very slowly pour the wine into the chilled, dosed second bottle. Re-cork or cap and your work is finished (apart from product testing!)
Méthode Traditionelle: for the hard-core (difficulty level = eleventy-nine)
For this step you’re going to need a full-face safety mask, heavy gloves, a rain slicker, hat and a bit of patience.
After two months, invert the bottles (place them cap down) in wine boxes to allow the yeast sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle. To assist this sediment formation, raise each bottle about 2 inches (5 cm), twist sharply 1⁄4 turn, then drop back into the box. This is called riddling and should be repeated once a day for two to three weeks. (When riddling, please wear gloves, long sleeves and a face shield or eye protection, just in case.) The inverted wine should then be aged for approximately one month, until it is completely clear.
Disgorging results in the loss of a small amount of wine, so it’s necessary to top up bottles to avoid low fill levels and oxidation. This is also where you get to sweeten the wine, or add your F-pack/sweetener pack/Süssereserve and a little bit of sulfite to protect against oxidation.
For a completely dry sparkler choose a wine similar to your sparkling wine base. You’ll need around 20 mL per bottle (if you’re steady with the disgorging technique), which works out to just under
500 mL of wine. Ensure that the wine is thoroughly chilled before use. Adding warm wine to chilled sparkling wine will result in foaming and loss of wine.
For kits with a sweetening pack you’ll need to pre-mark a sanitary container at the 500 mL level, pour the contents of your pack in, and top it up to the one liter mark with a wine similar to your sparkling base. This will ensure that you have enough volume to top up all of your disgorging losses. If your sweetening pack is more than 500 mL, you’re going to potentially have some left over — don’t let that faze you, stick with the dosage plan.
If you wish to sweeten a kit that does not have an included sweetening pack, you’ll need to figure out just how sweet you want your wine. Check the descriptions on page 66 for styles: If a brut is your goal, you’ll need to dissolve 15 grams of sugar per liter of wine, which works out to 345 grams per 6-gallon (23-L) batch. Use a scale for accurate measurement, dissolve the sugar in your 500 mL of wine and you’ll be good to go.
To either of these solutions, you’ll need to add 1⁄4 teaspoon of metabisulfite powder dissolved in a teaspoon of waterto help prevent oxidation from any air exposure the wine could pick up in disgorging and dosing. Stir it in thoroughly.
It is a bit tricky to get exactly the right amount of sugar into each bottle when you aren’t exactly sure how much dosage you will need, so you will have to accept a bit of variability in your finished product. Not to worry — your sparkling wine will still be luscious!
This step freezes the plug of lees in the neck of the bottle, making it much easier to get it out without losing half of your efforts to cloudy wine or accidental gushing. You’ll need an insulated picnic cooler, crushed ice, and a pile of rock salt.
Remove the sparkling wine from the box (still inverted) and place in your refrigerator, inverted. If you’ve got room for a wine box in your fridge, this is easily accomplished. If not, carefully prop the bottles up, making sure to keep them inverted. If they get shaken up or turned over, you’ll need to re-riddle them before you can proceed.
Place a layer of crushed ice about three inches deep in the picnic cooler and for every four parts ice, add one part rock salt. This will make super-cooled brine that will very quickly freeze the sediment. Be careful not to over freeze, however, as this could cause the sediment to remain stuck in the bottle and not disgorge. Immerse the bottles upside-down in the brine, being careful not to disturb the sediment. The object is to freeze the lees and about another 1⁄2 inch (1.25 cm) of wine above it solid.
This is best done outdoors or in a room where the walls, floor and ceiling can easily be washed due to possible gushing of the carbonated wine. Wear gloves, long sleeves and a face shield or eye protection and a rain slicker or poncho. My colleague Daniel Pambianchi claims to be able to do this indoors with no spills or excitement, but I have it on authority that he sold his soul in exchange for mad disgorging skills — not that bad a price when you really like sparkling wine.
1. Place a bucket or primary fermenter horizontally on its side directly in front
of you to catch the expelled caps and sediment plugs.
2. Remove the bottle from the brine and double-check that the sediment is frozen into the neck of the bottle.
3. Raise the bottle to nearly horizontal and aim it at the bucket and remove the cap or undo the wire and very carefully pop the cork. The pressure will free the cork and push the sediment out of the bottle in one step. As it gushes free, quickly cover the neck of the bottle with your thumb and turn it right side up. (You need a quick thumb and a dab hand to avoid losing much wine.) Do this too slowly and you’ll see why I recommend doing it outdoors.
4. After ten or fifteen seconds release your thumb and add the dosage/topping wine. Gently pour it down the side of the bottle to prevent foaming and gushing.
5. Immediately re-cap or re-cork the bottle and wire down securely. Work fast.
6. Return your wine to your cellaring area and age for at least a month (to allow all the flavors to blend) before trying it.
During this aging period, monitor the bottles every few days to make sure they’re not over-carbonating or leaking. Middle-of-the-night explosions are an unfortunate signal that something is amiss. In that case you’ll need to relieve the pressure on the bottles (hopefully by chilling and drinking them) but always use safety first: face shield, heavy gloves and a heavy long-sleeved jacket will help prevent any boo-boos.
Dry sparkling wine will improve tremendously with age. While it may be tempting to drink it all as soon as it is disgorged, try keeping back a few bottles for a year or more. You’ll be delighted with the results. Sweetened sparkling wine, or that made with refreshment beverage kits will drink just fine after the first month.
Whether you’re a sparkling wine novice, or a Lily Bollinger-grade bubbly fan, making your own is not only fun, it’s a great way to tuck away a very different style of wine in your cellar, for those special occasions — like when you’re thirsty.
Tim Vandergrift is WineMaker’s kit columnist and a devotee of Champagne, although he rarely drinks it more than seven times a week.