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Saint Emilion Chronicles #7, Part I: A Visit to Chateau Figeac

FRANCE, Saint Emilion
 – Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

For those of you who remember our Saint Emilion series, this is its next installment: after our post on Chateau de Ferrand, today we will talk about another Chateau that we visited – Chateau Figeac.

On a previous post, I have provided a general overview of the Saint Emilion wine region and its wine classification system: if necessary, take a look at it for a refresher.

History

Chateau Figeac’s origins date back to the II century AD, when it comprised a Gallo-Roman villa and a large estate which were owned by the Figeacus family after whom it has been named.

By the XV century, Figeac became one of five noble houses in Saint Emilion and there is evidence that in the XVI century (when Chateau Figeac was rebuilt in a Renaissance architectural style) grapevines were grown and wine was made at the estate. Documents dating back to the XVIII century confirm that Figeac wines were already being shipped overseas.

However, it was not until the late XIX century/early XX century that Chateau Figeac primarily became a wine estate and marketed its wine under the “Chateau Figeac” label. The turning point was the acquisition of the estate in 1892 by the Manoncourt family, who hired a preeminent agricultural engineer by the name of Albert Macquin, who brought a scientific approach to the vineyard and winemaking process and equipped the cellars with oak vats.

In 1955, Chateau Figeac was ranked as a “Premier Grand Cru Classé B” in the 1955 Saint Emilion classification (for more information about the 1955 classification, see our previous post about Saint Emilion and its wine appellations). It was also around that time that, in Merlot-dominated Saint Emilion, Chateau Figeac settled for a wine with quite a unique Bordeaux blend of grapes (approximately, 30% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon) which became known as “Figeac style”.

For more information about the grape varieties making up Figeac’s blend, please check out our Grape Variety Archive

FRANCE, Saint Emilion
 – The stunning tasting room at Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

The Estate and Its Terroir

With almost 100 acres (40 hectares) where over 240,000 vines are grown, Chateau Figeac is the largest property in Saint-Emilion. It is located to the west of Saint-Emilion, bordering Pomerol.

Its soils are mostly composed of sand and gravel, with some relatively deep clay layer. Gravel in particular is the typical feature of Figeac’s topsoil, which favors the retention of heat creating a favorable environment for the ripening of the grapes.

As previously mentioned, three main grape varieties are grown in nearly equal proportions at Chateau Figeac’s estate which form the blend for its wine: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, which is something fairly unique in the Bordeaux area.

Lately, massal selection has been implemented at Chateau Figeac, resulting in the selection of the best of the estate’s oldest vines (some of which are almost 100 years old) for grafting newly planted vines so as to preserve the distinctive features of the Figeac vineyards.

FRANCE, Saint Emilion 
- The vineyards at Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

Winemaking Process

The winemaking process at Chateau Figeac combines traditional methods with modern techniques: during the visit of the winery, I have had the pleasure to speak with an extremely competent employee of the Chateau with whom I had an opportunity to discuss many aspects of their production process.

This is a summary of the main steps in Chateau Figeac’s winemaking process:

FRANCE, Saint Emilion 
- The barrique cellar at Chateau Figeac

1. Harvesting. Given the three varieties that are grown at the estate and make up Chateau Figeac’s blend, unsurprisingly the harvesting of the grapes is staggered based on the desired ripening point of each variety.

2. Destemming and Sorting. The harvested grapes of each variety are separately destemmed and sorted using an optical scanner capable of sorting 5 tons of grapes per hour! For more information about destemmers and optical grape sorting machines, go back to our post about Chateau de Ferrand which has an image and a video about such prodigious piece of equipment.

3. Crushing and Treatments. The sorted grapes are then crushed and pumped into small-sized fermentation vats along with their juice, skins and seeds, and sulfur dioxide (AKA SO2) is applied to the must. This enological treatment is essentially an antiseptic, an antioxidant and it facilitates the dissolution of the pigments (AKA anthocyanins) from the skins of the berries. For more information about sulphur dioxide, refer to our previous post on sulfites and wine.

4. Cold Maceration. The must then undergoes a cold maceration phase (i.e., a short, low-temperature, pre-fermentation maceration) of about three days in order to maximize the extraction of the primary aromas that reside in the skins of the grapes and therefore enhance the wine’s bouquet.

FRANCE, Saint Emilion 
- Oak Fermenters at Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

5. Fermentation and Maceration. Chateau Figeac utilizes both ten open-topped oak vats and twelve stainless steel vats to ferment its wine. Here the must ferments for about one week at controlled temperature using the grapes’ natural yeast (i.e., without adding selected yeasts) and macerates for about three weeks with regular pump-overs and rackings.

6. Malolactic Fermentation. The wine then undergoes full malolactic fermentation that is started by means of the addition of lactic acid bacteria to the wine.

7. Pressing. After the malolactic fermentation, the free run wine (the one that flows freely out of the fermentation vat) is transferred to the aging barrels, while the cap gets pressed and the resulting press wine is reblended with the free run wine.

FRANCE, Saint Emilion
 – Automated basket grape press at Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

8. Aging. The Grand Vin then ages for 15 to 18 months in 100% new French oak, medium-charred barrique casks, while the Second Vin is aged 80% in second-fill French oak barriques and 20% in new French oak barriques.

9. Fining and Bottling. After appropriate aging, the wine is fined for clarity, stability and reduced astringency by using egg whites and finally bottled, capsuled and labeled.

FRANCE, Saint Emilion -
 Capsuling and labeling machine at Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Cru Classé B)

Chateau Figeac has an average annual production of about 100,000 bottles of the Grand Vin (“Chateau Figeac“) and 40,000 bottles of the Second Vin (“Petit Figeac“).

This is it for today: I hope you enjoyed this virtual visit to Chateau Figeac. The next post will focus on a wine tasting of a bottle of Chateau Figeac’s Grand Vin, vintage… 1988! Stay tuned! 🙂

Downoladable FsT Wine Tasting Chart!

StefanoExactly two years ago, I had published a post on this blog providing a general overview of the Italian Sommelier Association wine tasting protocol and the steps it entails.

Over time I have kept giving some thought about wine tasting and how the use of a common procedure and a common vocabulary may help making different people’s tasting experiences more comparable and convey information about a wine that readers can more precisely appreciate.

As a result, I have developed a one-sheet wine tasting chart that is based on a simplified and adapted version of the Italian Sommelier Association wine tasting protocol that I have been using in the wine reviews that have been published on this blog over the last two years.

After much work, consideration and fine tuning, I am quite happy with it and I am pleased to make it available as a free download through the link below to those wine enthusiasts out there who are prepared to take a more structured and disciplined approach in their tasting experiences, want to categorize their tasting notes in a standardized format or maybe just want to have fun with a few buddy wine aficionados in a blind tasting and then compare notes.

One caveat: the attached wine tasting sheet is loosely inspired by the wine tasting protocol of one of the several organizations out there which promote their own takes of wine tasting and its principles and criteria. As such, it is not intended to be the Holy Grail, the “ultimate oenophile bible” or “the one and only way to conduct a wine tasting”. Far from it. What it aims to be is a reasoned, structured way for non-professional wine tasters to keep track of their tasting experiences and organize and share their tasting notes in a standardized format.

A few words about the FsT Wine Tasting Chart:

  1. The tasting process is divided into four macro-phases: Sight, ScentTaste and Overall
  2. Each of such macro-phases is divided into a number of steps to guide you in your tasting and assessment of the wine
  3. Those steps are organized in a progressive numerical order which should be followed during the tasting process
  4. Most of the steps only require that you check the box of the most appropriate assessment/option for the wine that you are tasting
  5. Most of the assessments are structured in this way: you will find an adjective that describes a quality of the wine to its fullest extent (meaning, when such quality is distinctly perceivable – for instance, “intense” in the scent analysis), and then two more choices that describe such quality in a less discernible manner by using the qualifiers “moderately” and “scarcely” (following the same example, a wine whose aromas are not very intense would be “moderately intense” and one with weak aromas would be “scarcely intense”)
  6. Color, Viscosity, Alcohol, Quality and Life Cycle are the only steps with four choices instead of the usual three
  7. The only open-ended, descriptive parts of the chart are those referring to the descriptors of the aromatic and taste profiles of the wine, where the taster should describe the aromas and the flavors that he or she identifies in that wine
  8. For an explanation of the meaning of the various steps, please refer to my post on the ISA wine tasting protocol

So, if you like the goal of this project and you have not had professional wine tasting training, feel free to

 Download the FsT Wine Tasting Chart

and then give it a shot the next time you taste a wine and see how you like it!

After you do, please make sure to come back here and share your comments (good or bad!), suggestions or questions about the FsT Wine Tasting Chart through the comment box below.

The FsT Wine Tasting Chart is a free download for all, but please (i) refrain from using it for commercial purposes without asking for our prior consent and (ii) if you want to share it via social media or your own website or blog, feel free to do so but give proper credit to the author (Stefano Crosio, Flora’s Table, LLC) and the source by linking to this post.

Have fun and enjoy some good wine in the process! 🙂

A Food Photography Primer

Over time, a few readers of this blog who seem to have been enjoying my food images have been asking that I write a post with a few pointers about food photography: today is the day for that. Bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive course on food photography, but just a reflection on some basic rules of photography that play an important role in making a good food photograph.

There is no magic, food is just one of the subjects of studio photography and food photography is still photography, so the same basic principles apply. As such, there are three main guiding criteria that everyone with an interest in food photography should focus on:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Post-Processing

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

1. Composition

Composition is an element that can literally make or break a photograph. A successful image, including one of a food item, needs to have a strong, clean, balanced composition or it will look flat and boring at best. Here are a few pointers as to how to tackle this aspect:

  • Devise a plan before your shoot: pre-visualize how you would like your image to look like and figure out what you need to accomplish your vision (in terms of props, lighting, background and focal length of your lens)
  • Set up well ahead of time, when you have no time pressure: the shoot should be set up according to your plan and your vision, with everything in place except the food you are going to photograph. Take a few test shots in the same light that you would use for the real thing and see how your image looks like through the lens you chose. Use this opportunity to find out what does not work and to move things around or change camera/lighting settings until you achieve a pleasing composition that conveys your vision. Add the actual food item to be photographed only when you are all set and ready to go, so when you photograph it, it is going to be perfectly fresh, in top condition
  • Although composition is subjective and should convey your own vision, there are a few “rules” that will generally make your image a stronger one, including the following:
    • Less is more: keep your composition clean and simple;
    • Compose in such a way that the main subject of your image is immediately obvious to everyone;
    • Avoid blank space near the edges of your frame: make sure that your subject and other meaningful elements of your composition fill the frame in a balanced and pleasing way, making sure that you have a strong foreground, middle ground and background in your image;
    • Very rarely does a subject that is in the smack center of your image look good (unless you are going for an extreme close-up where your subject fills the entire frame): try to create some more dynamism by for instance resorting to the rule of thirds, that is placing your main subject off center, near one of the corners of your frame, or positioning important elements in the frame along an imaginary diagonal line;
    • Know your camera’s commands well and select a focal length and an aperture suitable for what you are trying to accomplish: do you want to achieve a compressed look with quite shallow a depth of field? Select a telephoto lens. Do you want to place a strong subject in the immediate foreground in the context of a wider scene with greater depth of field and a clearer sense of depth? Go for a wide angle lens. Do you want more depth of field? Select a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). Do you want only a narrow area in your image to be in sharp focus with the remainder being rendered as a soft blur? Pick a large aperture (smaller f/stop number). Every tool (i.e., your lenses) should be used for the purpose it is intended for and ultimately to realize your vision.

2. Lighting

Lighting is the essence of photography (the very word “photography” comes from Greek and means “writing with light“) and yet it is an often overlooked component in a photograph. Almost never will a photograph taken in bad light look good. Once again, here are a few things to bear in mind while you are planning for your shoot:

  • If you want to photograph using natural lightnever set up in direct sunlight (you would end up with harsh, unattractive contrast) – prefer the light of an overcast day or light coming from a northern facing window or skylight, but be prepared to supplement it with some extra light source so as to avoid that the image looks too flat – also, be ready to use a tripod (especially if youintend to use a smaller aperture) as your shutter speed will likely be fairly slow, unless you crank up the ISO which however may end up in a noisy (as in, grainy) image
  • Stay away at all costs from your camera’s pop-up flash and never place a flash head directly onto your camera’s hot shoe as this arrangement would give you flat, unattractive front light: remember, photography (like painting) is the art of creating the illusion of a 3D object in a 2D medium, and the key to achieve that is creating visible, pleasing shadows in your image
  • In order to create visible shadows you need to ensure that your main light source (AKA your key light) is off axis with your camera: side lighting and backlighting are both effective ways to create shadows
  • Generally, in food photography you want to achieve soft shadows and stay away from harsh, unpleasant shadows. The way to do this is to use a large light source or, if you don’t have one, to make your light source as big as you can: remember, the bigger the light source, the softer the shadows it will cast. This is why photographing food (or making people portraits) in natural light on an overcast day is something appropriate: thanks to the cloud cover, the sky turns into a gigantic source of diffused, soft light. In the studio, soft light can be achieved in several ways: by using a light modifier, such as a soft box (essentially, a big diffuser) or an umbrella (a reflector) or (assuming you have white walls and ceiling) by bouncing the light of your flash head off a wall or the ceiling
  • If you need to open up a bit the shadows that you have created, so as to reduce the contrast and provide more detail in the parts of your image that are in the shadow, you should use a fill light, which is another light source coming from a different direction and with a lesser intensity than your key light (you don’t want to obliterate your shadows altogether, you only want to make them lighter): a second flash head at a weaker setting or a reflector that bounces some of the light coming from your key light back into the scene are both good solutions to achieve this (tip: some aluminum kitchen foil crumbled and then flattened out works fairly well as an improvised silver reflector)

3. Post-Processing

Neither in the “good ol’ days” of film-based photography nor in nowadays digital photography world will a great image come straight out of the camera. While the old GIGO rule still applies (Garbage In, Garbage Out – meaning, if you start out with a bad image, it will be very difficult that you may turn it into a good one in post-processing alone), even a very solid image out of the camera will require some extent of post processing to become a great photograph. A few tips:

  • Shoot RAW, not Jpeg: by shooting RAW you will retain the maximum flexibility on your files and will not have to live with choices irreversibly made by the camera – the possibility of changing your white balance into whatever light temperature you desire is by itself totally worth the choice of shooting RAW instead of Jpeg
  • Learn how to use at least the basic features of Photoshop (or whatever other image editing software of your choice): at a minimum, learn how to crop your image (should you need to); how to work with levels and curves and with the dodge/burn tool to control contrast and exposure; how to use the saturation and color balance commands to control color; how to effectively sharpen an image; and finally how to work with layers so every change you make can be reversed at a later time if need be
  • Generally, be subtle with your changes and only aim them at optimizing your image so as to extract all of its potential from that digital file and turn a good image into a great one.

That’s it! I hope the above may be of help or inspiration to some of you to push the envelope a little bit and try to apply all or some of the above tips to your own food photography and see what comes out of it. And especially, have fun in the process and experiment!

If you are interested in seeing more of my food images, feel free to check out my photography Web site.

Psychobubbles: Unraveling the Intricacies of Italian Spumante – Part II

Cheers!On our previous post we started our journey into the world of Italian spumante by covering the basics, very briefly touching upon Champagne, introducing the two main processes to make a natural sparkling wine, the Champenoise or Classic Method and the Charmat-Martinotti or Italian Method, briefly explaining the history behind each such process and finally going through the main steps of the Classic Method production process. So, if you missed that post, you may want to go through it first and then dive into this second chapter of the “spumante saga” 😉

On today’s post we will point out the main differences between the production processes for the Italian Method and the Classic Method and then we will go through the main steps of the Charmat-Martinotti Method, including its variant used in the production of Asti Spumante.

So, let’s get a little more into the specifics of how the Italian Method differs from the Classic Method and what this means to you if you want to buy a bottle of wine made according to one versus the other of such production processes.

First of all, let’s start by saying that two of the most renown Italian Method spumante wines are:

  • Prosecco (although there are a few producers who also make very good Classic Method Prosecco’s, such as Valdo‘s Prosecco Brut Metodo Classico Numero 10 DOCG). Prosecco is made prevalently or exclusively from partly-aromatic Glera (also known as Prosecco) grapes in either one of the following two DOCG appellations of the Veneto region: Prosecco di Conegliano Valdobbiadene DOCG or Prosecco dei Colli Asolani DOCG as well as in the more loosely regulated DOC appellation Prosecco Spumante DOC, which stretches between Veneto and Friuli; and
  • Asti Spumante, which is made exclusively from aromatic Moscato Bianco grapes in Piemonte’s DOCG appellation Asti Spumante.

Generally speaking, Prosecco is made as a dry wine: according to applicable regulations, it may be produced in all variants between Brut (less than 15 gr/lt of residual sugar) and Demi-Sec (33 to 50 gr/lt of residual sugar, which would make it fairly sweet tasting), but your best bets are in the Brut, Extra Dry (12 to 20 gr/lt of residual sugar) or Dry (17 to 35 gr/lt of residual sugar) versions.

Asti Spumante, instead, is typically a sweet dessert sparkling wine, with over 50 gr/lt of residual sugar. So, do not serve Asti Spumante with appetizers – just keep it chilled until the end of your meal and pair it with a dessert.

On our previous post, we saw how two key features of the Classic Method are its in-bottle refermentation process of the base wines and then the generally long period of time spent by Classic Method wines aging on their lees before their being shipped off to wholesalers and retailers worldwide.

What makes Italian Method sparkling wines generally less expensive than Classic Method wines and different in terms of aromas and taste is mainly their different production process. For Italian Method wines, this is much shorter because refermentation of the base wine(s) takes place in a pressurized autoclave instead of in-bottle and so does their much shorter aging time on their lees. Essentially, after the production of the base wine(s), the entire refermentation, aging and bottling phases of an Italian Method spumante all take place in an isobaric, refrigerated environment inside an autoclave, which dramatically shortens production time.

In real life, what does this mean to you? Well, for starters it means that if you buy an Italian Method spumante (like Prosecco, for instance) it will feel different both in the nose and in the mouth compared to a Classic Method sparkling wine (such as a Franciacorta or a Trento). This is because, by aging often for years on their lees, Classic Method wines develop a number of intriguing secondary and tertiary aromas, such as the quite notorious bread crust or “just baked bread” aroma.

Because of the different production process and the much shorter aging time, most Italian Method wines have fewer (or less distinct) secondary or tertiary aromas, but make up for it by being generally made from aromatic grapes (as is the case for Asti Spumante, which is made from aromatic Moscato Bianco grapes) or partly-aromatic grapes (such as Glera, also known as Prosecco) and therefore emphasizing the primary or varietal aromas of the grape(s) their base wine(s) are made out of.

In other words, chances are that if you pop a bottle of Classic Method sparkling wine you will get a broader, more complex aromatic palette and mouth feels while if you pour a few glasses of a quality Italian Method spumante you will likely get a fresher, simpler wine with quite distinct flowery and fruity aromas.

Other differences between a Classic Method wine and an Italian Method one are that the former generally has a color that is warmer in hue, a finer perlage and more structure than the latter. Regarding structure, this is a bit of a generalization as it is essentially dependent on the grape varieties that are used for making the base wines, so the point holds true especially for Classic Method wines that have Pinot Noir in their cuvée (a grape variety that is known to confer structure to the wine) and, even more so, for Blanc de Noirs.

Let’s take a little detour here: on our previous post we said that the base wines of a Classic Method sparkling wine are made from all or some of the following grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (as far as Champagne is concerned), which last grape variety in Italy is generally replaced by different grapes, such as Pinot Blanc (as far as Italian Classic Method spumante is concerned). So, what we could call the “kosher” version of Champagne or Classic Method wines is made out of a cuvée produced from all three of such base grapes. However, there are two main variants from the “kosher” version, that are known as Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs.

The former is a wine made exclusively out of permitted white-berried grapes (in the case of Champagne, this means a Chardonnay-only wine), which is generally fresher, gentler and of lighter body, very suitable for instance as an appetizer or paired with delicate flavored seafood.

The latter is just the opposite, that is a wine made exclusively or prevalently out of permitted black-berried grapes (again, in the case of Champagne, this means Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier), which is generally a more structured, more complex wine that is more suitable to be served with an appropriate pasta dish or even main course.

Although we will provide a more in depth overview of what a proper wine tasting should entail in a future post, I think it is important to point out certain distinctive features that everyone with an interest in wine can have fun identifying and assessing in a sparkling wine:

  1. Color: this varies depending on the grapes used in the base wines, but it is one of the characteristics that should always be appreciated, be it a warmer straw or even golden yellow color of a well-aged Classic Method wine or a paler straw yellow, sometimes with greenish hints, of an Italian Method wine;
  2. Perlage: this is the key feature to be assessed in a sparkling wine, which oftentimes either makes or breaks the wine – what you are looking for here is the three distinct characteristics of a quality perlage: (i) fine-grained bubbles; (ii) abundant bubbles forming uninterrupted chains from the bottom of the glass to the surface; and (iii) long-lasting formation of new chains of bubbles;
  3. Bouquet: although fine-nosed wine tasters can go wild identifying the slightest hints of this or that, anyone can take pleasure in picking up the scents of a good sparkling wine and trying to identify some of the more distinct aromas, such as bread crust or yeast, apple, almond or wild berries that may be present in a Classic Method wine or the flowery, fruity notes of a Prosecco, often reminiscent of white flowers and pear or again the sweet aromas of sage and peach of an Asti Spumante.

Before we get to the description of the main steps of the Charmat-Martinotti Method, a few practical pieces of advice to maximize your sparkling wine tasting experience (by the way, these apply to any sparkling wine, regardless of its being a Classic Method or an Italian Method wine):

  • The proper glass to serve a sparkling wine (except only the sweet ones, on which see below) is a flute, not a cup: this is because the elongated and narrow shape of the flute both emphasizes perlage and concentrates the fine aromas in the nose;
  • While we are at it, much to Francesca’s dismay (she just loooves her tinted glasses), all glasses you serve wine in, regardless of it being sparkling or still, red, white or rosé, must be made of clear glass or crystal: no matter how “cute” the tint of those pretty glasses you have sitting in that special cupboard, tinted glass is a no no because it kills right away one of the most important features of a wine: its own color!
  • Ideally, your flutes should not be washed with soap, you should just use hot water instead and they should be dried using a natural fiber cloth (such as cotton or linen): this is because, in order for perlage to be at its best, those chains of bubbles need to hang on to something inside the glass, so minuscule lints of cotton or linen are just perfect to maximize your favorite spumante’s perlage, while an ultra-clean, super shiny inside of the flute is going to penalize it.
  • Finally, the proper glass to enjoy an Asti Spumante or any other sweet sparkling wine is instead a cup with a wide, shallow bowl, because its larger opening tames a little bit the generally exuberant varietal aromas, while its shallower depth is not so detrimental to the often coarser, less refined perlage of that kind of sparkling wines.

Main Steps in the Charmat-Martinotti Method Production Process:

  1. Soft pressing of the base wine grape(s)
  2. Treatments of the must (e.g., clarification and application of sulfur dioxide)
  3. Fermentation of the base wine(s) by the addition of selected yeast
  4. Where necessary, blending of the base wines
  5. Transfer of the base wine(s) into a pressurized, refrigerated autoclave with the addition of sugar and selected yeast
  6.  Refermentation in autoclave, which makes the wine bubbly because the carbon dioxide created by the yeast as a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation remains trapped inside the pressurized autoclave and dissolves into the wine
  7. Brief period of aging on the lees in autoclave (generally, just a few months)
  8. Isobaric stabilization and filtration, to remove the lees
  9. Isobaric bottling and closure

The production process of a sweet Asti Spumante is basically the same as that described above, except that Asti Spumante undergoes one single fermentation phase, directly in autoclave, where yeast activity is inhibited by dropping the autoclave temperature when the wine has reached the desired low alcohol by volume and high residual sugar levels.

That’s all for now. On the next post, we will chat about some of what we believe to be among the best Classic Method spumante wines made in Italy that are available on the market, especially for their price/quality ratios.

Cheers!

Psychobubbles: Unraveling the Intricacies of Italian Spumante – Part I

Cheers!With Thanksgiving well behind us now, it is not going to be long before the end of the year festivities are upon us and with those a tradition that is common to many to pop some kind of bubbly wine to celebrate, be it a Champagne, a Crémant, an American sparkling wine, a Cava or… an Italian spumante.

But leaving veteran connoisseurs of Italian wine aside, how many have it clear on their minds what the offering of Italian spumante really is? How many know what a Franciacorta is and how it differs from Prosecco? And how about Trento? Or Oltrepo Pavese Metodo Classico? And Alta Langa? Or even Asti Spumante? If by now your head is slightly spinning it is neither you nor the wine, but it is most likely due to the fact that, in my opinion, not much has been done to explain to consumers in the first place that there is such thing as quality Italian sparkling wine and in the second place that no, it is not Champagne nor is it just Prosecco. It is so much more.

So, as an early Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve or whatever it is that you celebrate 😉 present, I will do my best to shed some light on the quite mysterious topic of Italian spumante. Since there is much to say, I will try not to bore everyone to death and therefore will break this discussion into four separate posts: today’s will focus on the basics: what is spumante and what is spumante’s traditional production process: the so-called “Classic Method”; the second post will focus on the main alternative process to produce spumante, the so-called “Italian Method”; the third post will focus on a selection of the best (in my view, of course!) Classic Method spumante; and the fourth and last post (phew…) will focus on a selection of the best Italian Method spumante (again, in my opinion). So, if you are interested and want to know more, stay tuned.

Let’s start from the very basics:

1. “Spumante” (pronounced “spoomantay”) is an Italian word which translates into sparkling wine in general.

2. Commercially, a sparkling wine may be produced either (i) through the artificial addition of carbon dioxide to a still wine (so-called “artificial process”) – this is the cheapest and least prestigious (to use a euphemism) sparkling wine production process, which we will not consider for the purpose of this article or (ii) through a second, natural fermentation of the base wine (or the fermentation of a must, as is the case for Asti Spumante) – this is known as the “natural process” and is performed by following either one of two main production methods: the Méthode Champenoise (or Classic Method) or the Méthode Charmat or Martinotti (also known as the Italian Method).

3. One cannot meaningfully speak about sparkling wines without having at least some extremely basic information about Champagne, the king of wines and the wine of kings. In this case, I will take the liberty to quote myself (see, our Wine Glossary): it is the epitome of sparkling wine, it has been around since the XVII century, when it started being served at the crowning ceremonies of the Kings of France in Reims, therefore gaining worldwide popularity and repute. It is the wine for which the Méthode Champenoise refermentation process was invented. This magical name, which is the same as the homonymous AOC appellation created in 1927 (although an area had already been defined in 1908 as “Région de la Champagne délimitée viticole”), is reserved to sparkling wine that is made exclusively from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grown in the Champagne region of France.

Until well into the very end of the XIX century, the Classic Method was the only known process to produce a sparkling wine. In Italy, the first sparkling wine ever produced, which therefore coincides with the date of birth of spumante, was a Classic Method wine made in Asti (Piemonte) by famous Italian winemakers Gancia (pronounced “Gancha”) in 1865.

The development of the most commonly utilized alternative process to make a sparkling wine, the so-called Martinotti Method or Charmat Method or even Italian Method, took place at the end of the XIX century, precisely in 1895 when Federico Martinotti, who was in charge of the Royal Enological Station in Asti, invented a steel pressurized and refrigerated vessel known as “autoclave” that is used to make Italian Method spumante wines. This alternative process is also known as “Charmat Method” because a French engineer by the name of Eugéne Charmat adapted the design of Martinotti’s autoclave to suit industrial production of sparkling wine and rolled out the product in 1907. Considering the contributions made by both such gentlemen to devising such alternative production process, I think the proper way to identify it would be “Charmat-Martinotti Method.”

Very broadly and generally speaking, sparkling wines made according to the Classic Method are more expensive (due to the greater complexity and the longer duration of this production process – see below), convey more complex aromas and are more structured in the mouth compared to those sparkling wines that are made according to the Italian Method. In Italy, about 90% of the annual production of sparkling wine is made according to the Italian Method while only 10% is made according to the Classic Method.

To wrap up this post, we will now briefly go through the main steps to produce a Classic Method spumante (which are essentially the same that are used to make Champagne).  One interesting difference between Champagne and Italian Classic Method wines is the grapes: if we said that Champagne can only be made from all or some of the following grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the first being a white-berried grape variety, while the second a the third being black-berried grape varieties), the use of Pinot Meunier in the production of Italian Classic Method spumante is extremely rare and such grape variety is often replaced with Pinot Blanc (a white-berried grape). Certain Italian producers have also been experimenting making Classic Method spumante out of “unconventional” grape varieties, such as Cortese, Glera (aka Prosecco) and lately Carricante (a white-berried grape variety indigenous to Sicily), as you may recall if you read our recent post regarding Sicilian winemakers Planeta. We will talk about this more in our third post of this series.

Main Steps in the Classic Method Production Process:

  1. Soft pressing of the base wine grapes (separately for each grape variety)
  2. Treatments of the must (e.g., clarification and application of sulfur dioxide)
  3. Separate fermentation of each of the base wines by the addition of selected yeast (so-called “pied de cuve”)
  4. If appropriate, malolactic fermentation of the base wines (whereby lactic acid bacteria  convert the tart malic acid that is present in grape juice into sweeter lactic acid and carbon dioxide, thus making the wine “rounder”)
  5. Proprietary blending process of the varietal base wines to produce the so-called “cuvée” (pronounced “koovay“), that is the still wine resulting from the blend of the base wines
  6. Bottling of the cuvée, addition of the liqueur de tirage (a mix of wine, sugar and selected yeast that is used to start the in-bottle refermentation process typical of the Classic Method) and sealing of the bottle by using a crown cap known as “bouchon de tirage” to which a so-called “bidule” (see below) is attached
  7. In-bottle refermentation of the cuvée (so-called “prise de mousse”) that makes the wine bubbly because the carbon dioxide created by the yeast as a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation remains trapped inside the bottle and dissolves in the wine (roughly, every 4 gr of sugar present in the liqueur de tirage create 1 atm of additional pressure: generally, the liqueur de tirage contains 24 gr/lt of sugar, which at the end of the refermentation phase results in a 6 atm sparkling wine – however, in Crémant or Satén wines the liqueur de tirage contains less sugar thus producing a gentler pressure)
  8. Sur lie” (pronounced “soor lee”) aging phase: it is the period of time (which, depending on the applicable regulations of the producing country and relevant appellation, may range from 12 months to several years) that a Classic Method sparkling wine spends aging in the bottle on its lees (i.e., dead yeast cells) after the refermentation phase is completed
  9. Remuage: at the end of the aging phase on the lees, the bottles are placed in a pupitre (a wine rack that holds the bottles bottoms up at an angle) and are manually or mechanically rotated at regular time intervals along their axis so as to cause the lees to precipitate down the bottleneck and deposit into the bidule, that is a small receptacle attached to the inside of the crown cap of the bottle
  10. Dégorgement (or disgorgement): it is the removal process of the lees sediment after the remuage step is completed. Dégorgement was once performed manually by removing the crown cap so that the top portion of the wine (which, as a result of the remuage contains the lees sediment) would be ejected from the bottle. Nowadays it is generally a mechanical process that entails, after the remuage phase is completed, partially submerging the neck of the bottle (which is kept upside down) in an ice-cold solution (-25 C/-13 F) which freezes the portion of wine next to the crown cap and therefore also the lees sediment contained in the bidule so that the crown cap and the iced bidule containing the sediment can be easily removed
  11. Dosage: it is the phase following the dégorgement, when the liqueur d’expédition (a proprietary mix of wine and sugar) is generally added to finish off the sparkling wine restoring the desired amount of residual sugar – winemakers may decide, however, not to add any liqueur d’expédition (and therefore no additional sugar) to certain of their sparkling wines, which are known as “Dosage Zéro” or “Pas Dosé” and which as a result have extremely low residual sugar levels (around 0.5 gr/lt)
  12. Final sealing of the bottle with the typical “mushroom-shaped” cork and wire cage closure.

That’s all for now: we will continue our discussion in the next post, which will focus on the Charmat-Martinotti Method.