Sparkling wines, like Champagne and Featherstone’s Cuvée Joy, get their bubbles by allowing the wine to ferment a second time in the bottle. This second, in-bottle fermentation produces carbon dioxide which is trapped in the wine and makes the wine carbonated or ‘bubbly’.

The term ‘Champagne’ is used to refer to wine produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France. An agreement between Canada and France does not allow Canadian producers of sparkling wine to use the term ‘Champagne’.

The primary grapes used in the production of Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. At Featherstone, we use exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes.

The ‘methode traditionnelle‘ technique

The devil is in the details when making sparkling wine as it requires perfect control at all stages of production. This a highly technical wine to make and requires adherence to an exacting process. What follows is a step-by-step review of that process. Hopefully you will find it interesting but at the very least we hope that you won’t fall asleep. By the end, perhaps you’ll have a better appreciation for the work involved in our Cuvée Joy- a true ‘methode traditionnelle‘ sparkling wine.

Grapes and Base Wine

chard-grapesWe start with only the most excruciatingly clean chardonnay grapes. These grapes are hand picked when they are slightly under-ripe, between 17.5-18 brix., and will be fermented into a ‘base wine’ of approximately 10.5 % alcohol (and ideally a pH between 3.0 and 3.3 and a total acidity between 7 and 10g/L). This initial fermentation is done in a large stainless steel tank.

A slow, steady fermentation without any oxidized or reductive result is imperative. What we look for at this step is not the aromatic character but an organoleptic balance. A full or partial malolactic fermentation might be started at this stage, depending on the initial balance and the desired aromatic range. Here again, making a strict control of oxidations and, above all, reductions is essential.

To prevent oxidation of the fermented base wine, a light sulphiting is done –being careful not to hinder the potential for future bottle fermentation (40 to 60mg/L by total SO2 and a maximum of 10mg/L of free SO2).

Keep it Clean

All of this concern about oxidation stems from the fact that the effervescence in sparkling wine will lift and carry any unpleasant aromas that are present. Sparkling wine more than any other wine needs to be squeaky clean in this respect.

Fined and Filtered

The base wine is next clarified by fining and by filtration. Perfect stability is required to avoid any protein ‘ghosts’ or tartaric precipitation (‘wine diamonds’) within the bottle.

Are you asleep yet? I did mention that this is a very technical wine to produce and an interest in chemistry will serve you well.

Tirage

A ‘tirage’ is then prepared and added to the base wine as the wine is being bottled. The tirage mix, which contains both sugar and yeast, is very important because it leads to the second fermentation within the bottle, and this determines the exact pressure and percentage alcohol in the finished sparkling wine.

Featherstone Cuvée Joy sparkling wine

bottling-bubblesWe require a complete fermentation of sugars within the bottle. As the tirage yeast consume the tirage sugar, carbon dioxide is produced. This carbon dioxide produces our lovely bubbles and the pressure which makes a nice ‘pop’ when the bottle is opened. The right pressure is imperative and is between 60 and 90psi (or 4-6 bars of pressure) at 50 F /or 10 C.

The tirage also includes the addition of specific fining/clarifying agents which make the dead yeast cells slippery so that they can be easily dispelled later on.

Crowning the bottles

In order to minimize quantity and quality losses, the bottles are sealed with crown-caps with bidules (which look like beer caps) of a high standard. The bottle fermentation usually lasts between 4-6 weeks, at 59 F /15 C.

Age – more is better

Then comes the aging. At Featherstone, we allow the white sparkling wine to rest in the bottle on the lees for 30 months, which gives it time to develop all of the desired features of the methode traditionnelle like volume, smoothness and aromatic complexity. Our Cuvée Joy Rosé, made from Pinot Noir, rests on the lees for only 12 months and has a fresh, fruitier character.

Riddling

bubbles in a rackAt last, we come to ‘riddling’ when, over a period of weeks, the bottles are gradually turned and angled so that the dead yeast cells slide into the neck of the bottle and form a wad. In this position the yeast cells are more accessible and will be more easily removed during disgorgement. Riddling provides for clarity, finesse and the persistence of the bubbles acquired during the bottle fermentation.

Disgorgement

The disgorgement process involves dipping the neck of the bottle in liquid glycol to freeze the wad, or plug, of dead yeast cells. In an instantaneous process, the plug is frozen, the crown cap is removed from the bottle, the plug is blasted out by the bottle’s own pressure, dosage is added and the wine is re-sealed permanently.

Dosage

Dosage is the winemaker’s final touch. This is the stage where you can erase petty imperfections and also give personality to the wine. The exact blend that constitutes a winery’s dosage is always a secret that is carefully guarded, sometimes even from the other winemaking staff and the winery’s owners. At Featherstone our dosage is no less a secret, although I will divulge, as a reward to you for having read this far, that brandy from the birth year of the owners, Dave and Louise, is involved.

Packaging & Presentation & Making it go Pop

At Featherstone we believe that cork is not an ideal closure for wine bottles and we have embraced the use of screwcaps on all of our still wines. Feeling the need to be consistent in our philosophy when it comes to sealing our sparkling wine, we have not used a cork and cage, as do most French Champagnes. Instead, we use a specially designed crown cap and bidule liner. From the outside, it looks just like a beer cap but it isn’t the same design at all. This crown cap seals the wine superbly, ensures there will be lots of ‘pop’ when you open the bottle and reduces the risk of cork taint spoiling your wine -and your evening.

However, in the naming of our sparkling wine we have followed tradition in that our wine is named after a woman at the heart of the family – Cuvée Joy is named after the winemaker’s mother, Joyce.

You’ve made it this far, may we suggest you order some Cuvée Joy or Cuvée Joy Rosé now to share the joy with friends and family?

 “To get the full value of joy, you must have someone to divide it with” Mark Twain

2 Comments
  1. Very interesting! Thank you for the lesson and might as well say here that all of your posts are meaningful.

    I love the buttery chardonnays that come with the double fermentation, but such a wine seems hard to get. Do you make it in ‘regular’ i.e. not bubbly form?

    Thank you; keep up the great work!

    • HI Catherine,
      Thanks for your note. Our Canadian Oak chardonnay has been fermented in oak barrels that grew along the Grand River, just outside Brantford. It is a buttery and rich Chardonnay, in the style that you mentioned. There is a very limited amount of it in the LCBO at the moment, in the Vintages section. (product # 149302, price $21.95). If you can find some, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. The Vintages website will help you (www.vintages.com)
      Cheers! Louise

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