A Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon is credited with discovering the artful blends of wine and the process that creates the famous bubbles of Champagne. Before it was fine-tuned by the monk, champagne was originally found the same way many great breakthroughs are… by accident.
In homage, our champagne-making process had some disasters that led to greatness.
It had been 17 years since the last time St. James Winery winemakers put their hand to making our exceptional Brut Champagne American. For last several years, Executive Winemaker Andrew Meggitt and Winemaker Aaron Spohr carefully considered undertaking this laborious (but rewarding) endeavor. The two spent time at several Californian champagne houses, studying various methods. In 2015, the time for procrastination reached an end and they agreed it was time to start the meticulous process again.
During the harvest, juice from two different grape varieties, Valvin Muscat and Aromella, was selected and set aside. Each was fermented separately into a completely dry wine. No sulfites were added to ensure a second fermentation cycle, a critical step in making sparkling wine. The two wines were blended to create a mélange, which became the base for the champagne.
In mid-December it was time for tirage bottling, the all-important start of the second fermentation that produces the smooth bubbles for which Champagne is known. This step happens in the same bottle purchased by the consumer.
The steps immediately prior to tirage bottling have significant impact on the final result. First, a culture is built up by adding wine, sugar, and yeast suited for champagne together in carefully monitored amounts for a few days until the yeast multiplies from a bucket-sized to barrel-sized volume.
Next, sugar is added to the base wine to give the yeast plenty of food for the second fermentation. At this stage, fate stepped in and threw our winemakers a curve ball: because of an error in a set of complex calculations, too much sugar was added to the wine, “overfeeding” the yeast and jeopardizing the fermentation process. Typically at that point, the base wine would have been unacceptable for champagne.
For many winemakers, an error of this magnitude means scrapping the project and chalking it up as an expensive failure.
St. James Winery winemakers, however, are experts—Andrew, Aaron, and their team have the spirit and wisdom to overcome the bleakest of challenges thrown their way.
Using 60 gallons of unsweetened base wine, the winemakers made lemonade from lemons. Hedging their bets, the winemakers created three separate batches, or bins, of champagne, used three slightly different blending methods.
Each bins’ bottles were filled with their appropriate blend along with yeast, and capped with crowns that resist pressure in the bottle as second fermentation proceeds. As with many sparkling wine batches, not every bottle survived the second fermentation, bursting from the pressure.
Next, the remaining wine was aged on the yeast lees and moved to riddling racks that help move the remaining sediment from the yeast into the neck of the bottle. To clear the champagne, an ice plug is frozen in the neck of the bottle. When the plug is removed, the sediment goes with it. This process is called disgorging.
After the ice plug is removed, the bottle is topped off with dosage, a champagne liqueur that fills the remaining space in the bottle. It is then corked and a metal cage is placed on top, holding the cork in place despite the pressure inside the bottle. The bottle is scrubbed clean and a foil cap added over the metal cage. Finally, the bottles are labelled and ready to be enjoyed.
After the earlier miscalculation, the winemakers created the three different bins, hoping that one, if not all, would produce the desired wine. The team was pleasantly surprised to find that all three bins were of excellent quality, each with its own delicate nuances.
From potential disaster to greatness, these three unique Brut Champagne American sparkling wines from St. James Winery surprise your senses. Only available in our tasting room in St. James, Missouri, we encourage buying all three as they are released throughout the year to see if you can detect the subtle character of each. Each bin can be identified by a small sticker on the back of the bottle in the lower right corner.