Producing Champagne, in essence, involves making wine twice.
Within this two-tiered process, there is an incredible array of choices available to each Champagne master. The numerous decisions, such as what grapes to use, the length of aging and the degree of sweetness, account for vast differences in the wine's style, taste and color.
Certainly the most complex procedure for making wines that sparkle is through bottle fermentation, known as the classic French methode champenoise . A little more than half of the state's 30 wineries producing Champagne follow this intricate approach, which was pioneered two centuries ago by the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon.
Most methode champenoise wines are made primarily from Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes. Here in California there are also several other varietals used in the blends, including Pinot Blanc, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
The first stage of this two-tier process involves the production of still wine, which begins with juice from grapes selected, harvested and crushed especially for sparkling wine. Yeast is then added in order to convert the sugar in the grape juice to alcohol, a technique known as fermentation.
When the still wine has obtained the desired characteristics sought in a Champagne, then a blend of several companion wines is made. The blending, known as the cuvee, can combine wine from different grapes, regions or even years. This is the crucial step in Champagne and the point at which a winery creates a particular style.
Once the proper blend is achieved then the wine is bottled. Before being sealed, a small mixture of sugar and yeast is placed in the container. This combination starts the fermentation over again.
However, during this second fermentation the carbon dioxide gas produced by the yeast converting the sugar to alcohol is subsequently trapped in the bottle. This gas is the ingredient that creates the natural effervescence or sparkle.
After about 30 days, the yeast becomes dormant and begins to break down, thus releasing some of its flavor components into the wine. In the methode champenoise process, the bottles are stored with the yeast remaining sealed inside from between 18 months to 48 months, depending on the wine.
Blind Taste Test
The aging completed, the bottles are placed on diagonal, or A-frame racks, neck down, in order to settle the yeast particles at the bottle's tip. The containers are turned frequently for as many as 12 days to ensure the yeast is concentrated and easily removed.
Once the yeast is settled, the necks of the bottles are frozen. The bottles are then unsealed and the frozen yeast particles are instantly disgorged by all the accumulated pressure.
Before the bottle is resealed, the Champagne maker replaces the liquid loss during disgorging with what's known as a dosage. The dosage determines whether the wine is to be extremely dry (natural), moderately dry (brut, blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs), or more on the sweet side (extra dry, demi-sec, sec).
After the dosage, the bottles are corked, topped with a wire crown, labeled and wrapped in foil.
Only those California Champagnes produced under just such a methode champenoise procedure were selected for a blind tasting recently conducted by The Times' Food staff. Twenty-eight different sparkling wines from 16 different wineries were chosen and all were purchased at either wine stores or food markets.. The range of quality, style and variety found within this group was impressive.
The tasting was broken into five categories: natural, non-vintage brut, vintage brut, blanc de blancs and blanc de noirs.
The Champagnes were evaluated for color, bouquet, sparkle and degree of dryness. Panelists were then asked to rate the wines based on overall taste.
A simple scoring system was used, and a number between 1 and 10 could be assigned to each Champagne with, for instance, 10 points awarded for excellence and 1 point for unacceptibility.
A listing of those wines included in the tasting, along with a brief description, approximate price and the composite rating, follows.
Champagnes labeled as natural are the driest of all. During the dosage, no additional sugar is added. The sparkling wines selected in this category represent three different regions: Sonoma, Monterey and San Diego County.
Gloria Ferrer, NV, (Freixenet Sonoma, Calif., Caves), Brut Natural, Cuvee Emerald, $8.99. Pale with a strong bite, sharp aftertaste and a slight effervescence. Score: 4.16.
Mirassou, 1981 Monterey Champagne Au Natural, $10.30. An attractive white-gold color was negated by acidity, tartness and insufficient sparkle. Score: 4.91.
Culbertson, 1983 California Natural, $16.50. Tiny beads, a rich, deep gold color and smooth finish made this a well-rounded wine. Refined. Score: 5.83.