Make your own Champaign

16 Jul
Explosive RED sparkling wine

Explosive RED sparkling wine

My sister and her family live in the Dao wine region in the interior of Portugal. I’m normally not a red wine person, but still I got the hang of a good glass of Dao with a (fatty) Portuguese meal. So I thought it would be nice’n’cultural to go and visit some Dao vineyards and cellars

Hm, Portugal is not France, the only place to find wine in Portugal seems to be in the supermarket. But I didn’t want to give up on the idea and did the impossible (despite the fact that the municipal internet service had categorized all websites about wine as ‘Drugs’, and thus blocked access to them): we found a family winery that was willing to welcome us. It wasn’t Dao, but lovely sparkling RED wine (never had that before) and they even explained us how to make it: (see also Wikipedia)

Here it goes:

We thought we’d arrive at some old mansion with vineyards around as far as the eye could reach, but alas, Portugal is (still) not France and we arrived in a factory style warehouse in Anadia village. The family business was called Arcos do Rei, but their wines have all kinds of different names – their main trophy wine being Vasco da Gama sparkling wine, judging from the walls covered in prize certificates they won with it in France, China, Brussels, etc.

How to make Champaign

The wine lab for testing the wine

The wine lab for testing the wine

I hope no French are reading this, because only sparkling wine from the Champaign region is allowed to be called Champaign, but the wine produced at Arcos do Rei is a sparkling wine produced according to the ‘methode champenoise’ (or metodo clasico) with the 2nd fermentation in the bottle. The difference with Champaign is mainly the price (and the grapes).

Champaign is basically wine that’s fermented a second time in the bottle (aha, that explains the headaches…). Arcos do Rei produces some of their own ‘base-wine’  but simply buys the rest from farmers and wineries all around. They add yeast and sugar to it and cork the bottle shut, which creates the dangerously delicious bubbles. That’s the reason why the champaign bottles are so thick to withstand the pressure, and even so every once so often some of the bottles explode (So you be warned – even though the biggest risk is in the 2 first months).

The wine tilting (riddling) racks

The wine tilting (riddling) racks

The added yeast and sugar also leaves sediment, which of course consumers would not be happy about (and surely the EU has rules against laxative sediment in champaign – but not in the Belgian beers funnily enough ignore these rules as some have sediment). To remove the sediment, the bottles are stored up side down for about a year in special tilted wine racks (riddling racks). For the first two months, Senhora Turnaround gives each of the 800000 bottles a quarter twist every day to avoid the sediment sticking to the side of the bottle (what a job – and she’s doing it for 30 years now! But soon replaced by a machine…).

So how to get the sediment out of the bottle neck after one year?

Wearing white dustcoats according to strict hygiene rules

Wearing white dustcoats according to strict hygiene rules

“Simple” – you freeze the top of the bottle, just where the sediment is. Then you uncork the bottle and let the ice cube (with sediment) fall out – but turning the bottle back to an upward position to avoid the wine to flow out. (Luckily they have machines to do this). To finish the process, you need to top up the bottle till the regulatory 75cl and put the final cork in, held in place by the ‘muselet’ (wire retainer). If you top up the bottle with the base wine, the wine will become a ‘Brut’ wine (dry – max 15g sugar per liter). But you can also add sweet(er) grape most (natural sweet grape extract) so that you’ll get a ‘Demi-Sec’ (half dry, more sweet – max 30g sugar per liter).

  • No clue why half dry wine is called ‘demi-sec’ (half-dry) and dry wine ‘brut’ instead of ‘sec’ (dry)… I told you the French were funny people ;-)
  • There’s also ‘sweet’ and ‘demi-sweet’ wine but those allegedly only exist in countries where they don’t know how to appreciate (dry, oaky, bitter, horrible) “real wine”, for example in Poland (she said)…
  • Did you know that the champaign corks are actually cylindrical, but 3 times the size of the hole they have to fill (ouch). It’s only after time that they get the mushroom shape. That’s how you can see how old the bottle is, whether the cork still expands a lot or not back to its cylindrical shape.
The humongous decoration (labeling) machine chamber

The humongous decoration (labeling) machine chamber

So when the time is ripe (after one year and lots of twisting and handling), it’s time to harvest the benefits from last year’s grape harvest and get it on the market. This involves dusting the bottles and decorating them: a Vasco da Gama label in the language of the destination country, the metallic foil robe over the capsule, a sticker with any medals the wine won, tax seals depending on the legislation of the country of consumption, etc. And you thought a christmas tree was complicated…

  • Our guide (the lovely daughter of the family) said that “sparkling wine is best drunk as fast as possible” (bottoms upI say) – I suppose she meant “as soon as possible” as sparkling wine does not gain anything by getting older (as regular wine does).
  • The process for red sparkling wine is exactly the same as for white bubbles, it just makes more stains when the red variety explodes ;-)

Same same but different

And of course we had to taste - Mmmmm

And of course we had to taste - Mmmmm

> There’s different ways to get bubbles in your wine. You can go through the process outlined above, with a second fermentation in the bottle, and you’ll get a ‘champaign’ which is not allowed to be called Champaign. This is the Classic Method (good for employment and to fill your pockets – sold more expensively).

> If that’s all too complicated, you can also do the second fermentation in bulk (hundreds of liters at the time) in special pressurized tanks and fill your bottles once the bubbles are ready. This is called the Charmat Method. Less work but also lower price bracket. Do I sense some snobbism about sparkling wine? Is the one more real than the other?

> And some just think this whole bottle turning and fermenting is too cumbersome and time consuming (or too explosive?) so they just take any wine and artificially add gas, like those soda-maker machines do. They are cheap (give even more headache) and are not allowed to be called sparkling wine – they get the label ‘vinho frizante’ – fizzy wine (what it is really).

Did you know that:

  • There are over 250 wine grape varieties in Portugal, a lot more than in France (which each could have different names according to the region). But obviously the Portuguese are not so good at marketing them (getting them known).
  • Each wine-region (D.O.C. – Denomination Origin Certified) decides thier own the rules for making the wine. Some wine can only be made in the region, whereas for others you can bottle elsewhere (as long as the grapes were grown in that region).
  • Most of the Vasco da Gama wine is exported to Japan. But to survive the effect of the travel (hot and cold temperature variations) they basically imitate these conditions in the factory (freezing and heating the wine before bottling) so that the wine is used to these variations and won’t suffer the effects of the final traveling.

So all of this work for a delicious bottle of red sparkling wine of 4,50€… I’ll get it from the supermarket instead of making it myself – call me lazy…

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