Making wine sparkle like Champagne, Part 2 at Camp Schramsberg

This is Part 2 of a 2 part pictorial series on how to make Champagne or sparkling wine in the “Methode Champenoise” or Champagne Method, based on my experience at Camp Schramsberg in Napa Valley. Read part 1 of the series.

Row 1 is the next morning in the sparkling wine caves, built into the side of a hill where the temperature stays consistent all year round. Pic #1: To say the least, the place is cavernous and massive, with hundreds of thousands of wines stored there during the aging process. After the still wine is finished, they send it into the bottle where it will live for the rest of its days in this dusty place. The winemaker adds a little sugar and some yeast to start a second fermentation, then seals the bottle with a top resembling a Coke bottle cap. Pic #2: The staff tucks away all of these bottles into rows. I’m standing where the rows started and they have about 35 more behind them (do the math). Notice the hard plastic face protectors the cave employees have to wear in case one of the bottles shatters. They are loading the bottles into a machine rack called a “gyropalette” which will “riddle” the bottles in half the time (and for at least half the money) it takes to hand-riddle the bottles. Pic #3: Once fermentation is complete, all the dead yeast cells fall to the bottom of the bottle and are called “sediment.” This bottle is in a riddling rack, where the bottles are turned an 1/8 to a 1/4 of a turn each day in order to direct this snot-colored sludge to the neck of the bottle, where it’s easier to remove later. Below is a video of the professional riddler turning the Blanc de Noirs bottles (note: my video skills with the iPhone are, at best, amateurish.) Check out the fancy gloves. This guy does it slow in the beginning since he’s teaching me how to do it but he can fly. Pic #4: These are reserve bottles that have been aging “on their lees” or with their sediment since 1993. Looks like it’s out of a haunted house or something, eh?

Row 2 teaches what happens after the bottles are removed from the caves and riddled (by hand or machine). Pic #1 is removal of the cap and the yeast sediment aka “disgorgement”. They freeze the neck of the bottle to isolate only the gunk then remove the cap with a bottle opener (obviously, Schramsberg doesn’t swing it old school on this step and has a machine do it for them). Out spurts the yeast gunk — it’s as easy as opening up a shaken beer. Video of this process below. Pic #2 reflects the dosage process, when the sweetness of the wine is determined. The dosage is an addition of a sugary liquid and each sparkling wine house has a secret recipe. Didn’t ask since I didn’t think they’d tell me. Although it looks like I’m snorting something, I’m sucking the sugar mixture up the measuring tube to reach my desired dose and thus, the desired level of sweetness to add to the bottle. It’s like measuring liquid for a cake, only instead of a measuring cup, it’s a tube. I chose a sweetness level below their current brut Blanc de Blancs, just for comparison. Pic #3: My baby going through the machine to be recorked until I pop it later. Pic #4: Hugh Davies — and all the other winemakers — signed the bottle (I chose to be a rebel and not put a label on it) and hand-wrote the vintage. Super nice guy.

As far as camp goes, this experience tops my list. Camp Schramsberg combines arts and crafts, swimming in wine and food, bus trips, exercise in the vineyards and loads of education. Is there anything else an adult could want?


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