A Chelan winery makes sparkling wine the same way it’s made in Champagne.
Julie Pittsinger at Karma Vineyards riddles bottles of sparkling wine to move the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle. The bottles are given a quarter turn by hand every day for about three weeks.
Julie Pittsinger, coowner and viticulturist at Karma Vineyards in Chelan, Washington, learned how to make méthode-champenoise wines from French consultant Claude Thibaut, who graduated from the University of Reims in the heart of France’s Champagne region.
The méthode champenoise is the most costly and labor-intensive way of producing sparkling wines.
Sparkling wines are fermented like still wines, but then are fermented a second time. They sparkle because of carbon dioxide from the second fermentation that is trapped inside the bottle. The second fermentation can be done in bulk in large tanks before bottling, or the wine can be fermented in the bottle, as is done in the Champagne region of France.
The grape varieties typically used to make champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. While Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are widely grown in Washington, Pinot Meunier is lesser known. It is a black grape that produces lighter-colored wines with slightly higher acid levels than Pinot Noir and contributes body and fruity flavors to champagne-style wines. It is favored by growers in northern France, particularly on north-facing slopes, because it flowers relatively late but ripens earlier than Pinot Noir. It is rarely used alone to make wine.
For sparkling wines, grapes should be picked earlier than for other types of wines when they have relatively low sugars. This is done so that the base wine made through the initial fermentation process has a lower alcohol level than for still wines, as the secondary fermentation in the bottle will produce additional alcohol.
At Karma Vineyards, the grapes are pressed slowly and gently so the juice doesn’t take on the quality of the skins. Only the first-press fraction is used.
Not wanting to waste the other 40 percent of the juice in the grapes, Pittsinger and her husband, Bret, have been sending the hard-press fraction to Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon each year to be made into brandy. They now have brandy that’s been aged in barrels for seven years that is ready to sell. This year, they opened their own distillery at their wine-making facility in Entiat.
The first-press juice is fermented with yeast in tanks for a few months, and then the wines of the different grape varieties are blended before the second fermentation in the bottle. The blend changes a little from year to year based on the characteristics of the grapes in a particular season.
Julie said she and their winemaker Craig Mitrakul look for a balance between Chardonnay, which is the soft, “female” component and the Pinots, which are rougher and more masculine. Only a small percentage of Pinot Meunier is used. “We’re going for something French, and I think we’re getting closer and closer,” she said.
Before bottling, a combination of yeast and sugar, known as the tirage, is added to the wine. Julie said each winery has its proprietary recipe for the tirage, and theirs is based on a traditional European one. The wine is bottled with a bidule, a small plastic cup that fits into the bottle neck, where the dead yeast cells will settle, and the bottles are sealed with crown caps (similar to beer caps).
The sealed bottles are aged en tirage for at least three years in the winery’s cellar so that the wine takes on a yeasty flavor. The bottles are then are put on riddling racks where they are tilted downwards. Each bottle is given a quarter turn each day so that the sediment slips closer to the cap. Although automatic riddling machines are available, at Karma Vineyards this is done by hand. At the end of 19 to 22 days, the wine will be clear with all the sediment in the neck of the bottle.
The wine is then returned to the wine-making facility where it goes through a disgorging line, which the Pittsingers purchased used from Schramsberg, a premium sparkling wine producer in California. The necks of the bottles are flash frozen and the caps removed. Pressure in the bottles blows out the plugs of frozen sediment. About an ounce and a half of the bottle’s contents are lost in this process. Winemakers have an opportunity to give the wine their signature touch when they add what is known as the “dosage” to top up the bottle and adjust the sweetness of the wine. The dosage is basically sugar and alcohol, and the alcohol can be in the form of brandy or fortified wine. Each winery keeps its dosage recipe a closely guarded secret, says Julie, who is the sole individual at Karma Vineyards who knows the recipe. She hints that it includes their own brandy.
The bottles are then corked and wired and can be sold a few months later. The Pittsingers release their sparkling vintages each year on Memorial Day with a special event at the winery.