Tom invited his guests in the wine cellar, and I followed them. He opened the door. It was dark. He turned on the light. “Follow me and watch your step,” Tom said. I smelled a combination of toasted oak, cedar, vanilla and yeast aromas.
We went down and stood in front of the rack which held the bottles of sparkling wine. The bottles were upside-down. “We make our sparkling wine here,” the winemaker said. He started describing the process.
“In order to make sparkling wine, we make still wine first. Wine is fermented grape juice. Through fermentation, sugar turns into alcohol. Carbon dioxide is a bi-product of fermentation.”
“After the still wine is ready, we can make it bubbly.”
He explained that winemakers can use three ways to make sparkling wine.
First, the carbon dioxide may be a result of a carbon dioxide injection. This is the process of dissolving carbon dioxide in a liquid. The process involves carbon dioxide under high pressure. When the pressure is reduced, the carbon dioxide is released from the solution as bubbles and the solution becomes fizzy.
“I call this Pepsi Champagne,” Tom said.
Second, the carbon dioxide may result from a natural fermentation in a large tank. When the still wine is ready, the winemakers add sugar and yeast to cause the secondary fermentation. Carbon dioxide is produced and trapped in the wine while the wine is in the tank. The wine is then bottled.
Third, winemakers use the traditional method, also called method champenoise. This is the same method that is used for the production of French Champagne. After the still wine is ready, it gets bottled. Then, the winemaker adds sugar and a hint of fresh yeast to provoke the secondary fermentation. Carbon dioxide is produced and trapped in the wine while the wine is in the bottle.
“We use the traditional method,” Tom said. “We make our still wine and then bottle it, add sugar and yeast and put on crown caps. The addition of sugar and yeast causes the secondary fermentation. During the secondary fermentation, carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine and the bubbles are created. The bottles stay upright at first. Then we lay them on their sides. And later, we put them in the racks at 45 degrees. We turn the bottles clockwise three times a day. This process is called riddling. Riddling is necessary so the wine can become clear. We riddle our bottles manually. Manual riddling has been largely abandoned because of the high labor costs. Many wineries use mechanized riddling equipment instead. Not at Beans Creek.”
He took a bottle from the rack and said, “Our sparkling wine has tiny bubbles. The smaller the bubbles, the better the sparkling wine. This is some of the finest sparkling wine in the world.”
He showed us the bottle and pointed to its neck so we could see the lees. “When all the lees settle at the necks, we freeze the neck of the bottle. Then, we remove the crown cap and the lees pop out as a plug.”
We heard a pop and saw how the bubbly liquid pushed the lees out. Each of us held the crown cap, smelled it and touched the lees.
Tom took a rubber mallet and hit the plastic closure with it. “Hi-tech,” he said smiling.
“Then, we put the wire cage around the bottle top.” He took a wire and started turning it around. “It takes exactly six turns,” he said.” Five and a half won’t hold it, six and a half will break it.”
“Now, let’s taste it,” he said. He poured for all of us. He saw the enjoyment on the faces of his guests and said, “Not bad for an old Tennessee boy with overalls.”