“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars,” was supposedly the French monk Dom Pérignon’s response upon his first taste of sparkling wine. Pérignon’s admiration for this bubbly wine seems to be a relatively universal one. Stone Hill Winery produces three sparkling wines: Blanc de Blancs, Brut Rosé, and Demi-Sec. All are made in the traditional “Methode Champenoise,” which originated in France. The largest difference between Stone Hill Winery’s sparkling wines and the champagnes of France is the grape varieties grown and used. While Stone Hill Winery’s sparkling wines are made using the same winemaking technique, they cannot be labeled as Champagnes as this title is reserved only for sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France.
Stone Hill Winery’s sparkling wines start out as all white wines do. For Blanc de Blancs and Brut Rosé, Vidal Blanc grapes are used for the base wine. For the Demi-Sec sparkler, Traminette and Valvin Muscat grapes are used. The grapes destined for sparklers are picked a few weeks earlier than usual, late August or early September. Grapes harvested early have the benefit of a higher natural acidity for crispness, as well as more delicate aromas and flavors for that special champagne taste.
In the Methode Champenoise, wines undergo two fermentation processes, rather than just one as in “still” wines. After the Vidal Blanc undergoes its primary fermentation, the result is a base wine with about 10% alcohol content. And no bubbles yet! The next step is blending, in which other grape varietals are added until the base wine arrives at the desired flavor and texture. The second fermentation occurs in the bottle and is what leads to the bubbles that make sparkling wine so unique. The yeast responsible for this second fermentation are particular to the specific stressful environment of bottle fermentation. They must withstand the higher alcohol and pressurized environment. The bottles are left to ferment for two months, during which the yeast settles to the bottom of the horizontal bottle.
After fermentation, the yeast slowly begins to disintegrate, resulting in what are called lees cells. The wine goes through aging called sur lie, French for “on lees,” which continues for multiple years. After sur lie aging, riddling begins in Stone Hill Winery’s gyropalette. Bottles are placed horizontally in cages and are rotated in small increments each day, until the bottles are fully vertical. The yeast ends up in the neck of the bottle, so it can be removed easily. If done by hand, this riddling process can take up to 2 months. The gyropalette, which Stone Hill Winery transitioned to in 2016 is able to complete the cycle in just 9 days.
The final two steps—to remove the lees and top the bottles off—are known as disgorgement and dosage. During disgorging, the neck of the bottle is placed in an ice bath to freeze the lees that has collected there during riddling. The crown cap on the bottle is carefully removed and the frozen lees is forced out by the natural pressure created during fermentation. The result is a crisp, clear wine. Finally, it is time to finish the wine by adding the dosage. A small amount of wine is inevitably lost during disgorgement, and this is then replaced with dosage, which is normally made up of another wine and a sugar solution. Each winery has their own secret “recipe” for the dosages of different sparkling wines and Stone Hill Winery is no exception.
Once the dosage is added, the sparkling wine is ready to be corked, labelled, and enjoyed. Stone Hill Winery’s head winemaker, Shaun Turnbull, summarizes the key to Methode Champenoise: “Sparkling wine is all about balance.” Our Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine is Shaun’s favorite to enjoy, that’s saying a lot!