The Origin of Bubbles

Schramsberg Cave

So that’s what 3.3 million bottles looks like…

At the risk of stating the obvious, here is an indisputable fact: Napa Valley is amazing. My wife and I spent a few days there last week and immediately decided that we would need return as often as possible. It’s absolutely beautiful, and of course, there is a ton of great wine.

As part of my mission to learn more about wine, I decided that on our visit to Napa I would try to pick up a few solid bits of learning. It would be pretty easy to roam from vineyard to vineyard, having a grand old time, and not learn anything specific. And of course, there’s nothing wrong with that– Napa is built for exactly this sort of fun and relaxation. But a little education here and there can be fun too. So, when we headed to Schramsberg, I knew that we couldn’t leave until at least one fact stuck in my head. And that fact? How sparkling wine gets its bubbles.

As Christian, our awesome tour and tasting guide (who was giving his first solo tour ever and did an incredible job,) explained, high quality sparkling wine gets its bubbles during a second fermentation, which occurs directly inside the bottle. After the base wine is produced it is bottled along with the “liqueur de tirage,” which is a mix of sugar, reserve wine, and yeast culture. The bottles are then set to age and rest. And wow did Schramsberg have a lot of bottles in their massive wine cave– some 3.3 million of them. As the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide is released, creating bubbles. At this stage, metal caps are used on the bottles rather than corks, and in case you’re wondering, yes, they occasionally shoot out as a result of the massive pressure build-up inside the bottles (Christian showed us a few chips in the cave wall from exploding caps.)

Don't let the musty appearance fool you... that's how deliciousness is made.

Don’t let the dusty appearance fool you… that’s how deliciousness is made.

Once the second fermentation is complete, the wine stays in the cellar for years to continue aging. The yeast sediment, called “lees,” remains in the bottle, and as the wine matures alongside the sediment its flavor is enhanced. Prior to corking, the wine-maker clarifies the wine by the process of remuage, whereby the sediment is coaxed down into the neck of the bottle and later disgorged. But, that’s a story for another day.

Not all sparkling wine is given its bubbles through this careful second-fermentation process though. Some wines take their second fermentation in large tanks prior to bottling. Still others (though of much inferior quality,) are carbonated through the standard industrial carbonation process (like sodas or sparkling water.) It’s not hard to guess which of these methods produces the best product. Wine of the sort that Schramsberg makes has millions of tiny bubbles that gently tickle the tongue when sipped. Less refined sparkling wines explode on the tongue in a more aggressive fashion. Oh, and we learned that when you’re shopping for sparkling wine, you should be sure to look for a note on the label that says the wine was made in the “Methode Champenoise,” or the “classic method,” which indicates that the sparkles were added through a second fermentation rather than direct carbonation.

As for touring Schramsberg, let’s not forget the tasting. Deep in the wine caves they had a table set up, lit by candles, and with thousands of bottles in the background. It was a gorgeous setting for a bit of bubbly. We tasted six different wines: the J. Schram; the J. Schram Reserve; the Blanc de Blancs; the Blanc de Noirs; the J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon (one of Schramsberg’s non-sparkling wines); and the Brut Rosé. All were fantastic, though we settled on the rosé and the blanc de blancs as our favorites and took a bottle of the rosé home with us.

One warning for you before you head to Napa though… there’s a decent chance that you won’t want to leave. I’ve already had more than a couple fantasies about quitting my job and moving to Napa. I’m still not convinced that it’s a bad idea…

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