As with all great wines, the difference begins in the vineyard.
Méthode Traditionnelle sparkling wines are crafted from cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The climate is key: Carneros and Champagne, France are both considered "Region 1," the coolest of the five designated regions.
Grapes are harvested at night or early in the morning when their skins are tougher and less likely to be broken. The grapes are then placed in shallow one-third ton bins and gently transported to the winery.
The grapes are pressed while still cool from the night, and this results in less phenolic extraction, minimal tannins and bitterness.
Grapes are loaded into the press without crushing or de-stemming. This eliminates the damaging impact of a crusher/stemmer (aka "Grape Slayer") on grapes. Our presses use only low pressure and rotate very little, ensuring minimal bitterness.
The juice is divided into cuvée, taille and hard press, with hard press being the most bitter of the three. As with all of the finest méthode traditionnelle wines, the hard press at our winery is discarded.
In fermentation, yeast consumes the grape sugar in the juice and converts it to alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2). With most wines, the CO2 is allowed to blow off into the atmosphere.
Méthode Traditionnelle sparkling wines start off like most wines. In fact, our sparkling is made into still wine before becoming sparkling wine.
Since oak barrels can impart astringency, these still wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks.
The best known distinction in the traditionnelle technique is a second fermentation in individual bottles. This is where it gets really interesting…
Sugar and yeast are added to the wine and the bottles are sealed with crown caps (like beer bottles). Once again, yeast consumes the sugar and converts it to alcohol and CO2, but this time the CO2 is trapped, producing those lovely little bubbles.
Wines produced using the méthode traditionnelle are typically aged in the bottle one to five years. (Vintage dated sparkling wines by tradition are usually aged in the bottle at least three years.)
The years on the lees or spent yeast cells yield a wonderful richness and complexity of flavors.
Since each bottle is its own fermenter, minor bottle variations can occur, creating one of the more interesting and enjoyable aspects of fine sparkling wine. Like other hand-crafted products, the individuality is part of the character and beauty.
Méthode Traditionnelle sparkling wines undergo a fascinating process called riddling (or remuage). The bottles are slowly rotated and raised almost upside down to allow gravity and meticulous turning to gently coax the sediment into the neck of the bottle. (Like virtually all méthode traditionnelle wines throughout the world these days, our sparkling wines are riddled mechanically - our professional riddler oversees the process.)
Once the sediment has accumulated in the neck, a (literally!) very cool process called disgorging is employed to remove the sediment but not the CO2. In disgorging, the neck of the bottle is frozen, producing an icy plug of sediment about one inch deep.
When the bottle's crown cap is removed, the pressure in the bottle forces the frozen plug out, leaving clear sparkling wine behind.
Next comes the dosage. The dosage in our winery is a liqueur comprised of the same vintage of wine blended with pure cane sugar. A small dosage is added to each bottle to replace the volume lost during disgorging. (In general, champagne and sparkling wines have a final sugar level of 13 grams per liter or less, ours is usually about 9 grams.)
It takes just seconds to complete the disgorging and dosage fill. Then a cork is inserted and secured with a wire hood finished with exactly six half-turns. (The cork takes on the shape of a mushroom in about three months.) To "marry" the dosage with the wine, the bottle is gently tumbled and allowed to rest for several more months.
Finally, after a careful inspection to ensure there is no sediment, a foil capsule is placed on the neck and the three labels are applied. Then the wine rests for an additional three months before release.
If you've stayed with us through the méthode traditionnelle description, you can imagine how time- and labor-intensive the process is, and how many steps and equipment are unique to the method. In fact, you may be wondering: Why does Domaine Carneros go to all the trouble?
The answer is in the bottle!