What is riddling? Schramsberg Vineyards does it by hand

Riddling bottles of bubbly make them clear instead of cloudy.|

As if choreographed, Jesus Calderon periodically rotates bottles of sparkling wine a quarter of a turn while simultaneously titling them until they’re upside down.

This dance is one Calderon has done for 15 years at Napa Valley’s Schramsberg Vineyards and the labor-intensive process is called riddling or “remuage” in French.

The movement — which happens over roughly an eight-week span — coaxes the yeast inside a bottle to accumulate and slide to the neck, where it will ultimately be expelled.

But how did the yeast get into the bottle in the first place?

Schramsberg, like other top sparkling wine houses, uses a process called “methode Champenoise,” following the lead of the French in how they craft their top-tier Champagne.

In the simplest terms, yeast is added to each bottle for a second fermentation to occur right in that vessel. The yeast then goes on an eating binge, devouring the sugar. One of the byproducts of that binge are yeast particles that impart rich toasty flavors during aging.

In order to give consumers a clear bottle of bubbly, however, these yeast particles will ultimately be riddled and expelled from the bottle.

Hand riddling

Schramsberg, founded in 1965, has been hand riddling since its first vintage of its 1965 Blanc de Blancs. Today, it hand riddles about 10,000 cases or 120,000 bottles for its top tier bottlings. This accounts for about 15% of its production with 85% relying on an automated riddling system.

Calderon is the master riddler and has three others in his team well versed in hand riddling. They typically let the yeast settle in the downturned bottles for about two weeks before they begin the six-week process of hand riddling.

The role of the master riddler is to lead the process as the expert. They come up with the protocol for each bottle, ensuring that no yeast remains in the bottle after it’s expelled.

“We need to have a consistently clarified finished bottle every time,” said Hugh Davies, vintner of Schramsberg Vineyards.

Once the yeast is contained in the neck of the bottle, it’s frozen and shooting that frozen yeast plug out of the bottle is called disgorging or, in French, disgorgement.

“The most interesting thing about (hand riddling) is that the wines are different every year, requiring me to determine the best way to get the yeast to move into the neck for each bottling,” Calderon said.

“The most compelling thing is that year after year, bottling after bottling, there are challenges that we’ll find that are still able to hold my attention. I can’t take anything for granted when I put the bottles on the riddling rack for the first time.”

A primer on bubbly for the holidays

How sparklers are crafted

Upscale bubbly is born right in the bottle. All the action takes place in this vessel during a secondary fermentation. In the simplest terms, the yeast goes on an eating binge, devouring the sugar. The byproducts of that binge are those delightful bubbles: carbon dioxide and the yeast particles that impart rich toasty flavors during aging. This is the traditional French method, known as “methode champenoise,” and it’s widely used by top sparkling wine houses across the globe.

How to select the best sparklers on the market

When shopping for bubbly, it’s important to look carefully at the wording on the label. Bottles that are made in the traditional Champagne method will have “traditional method,” “Methode champenoise” or “fermented in this bottle” on it. If you see a label that says “Charmat process,” that means the sparkler’s secondary fermentation was in a big container or tank. This process will create less-refined bubbles and a less complex sparkler.

Keep in mind the entry level price for Champagne is $40-plus. The price for bubbly outside of Champagne, while made in the traditional Champagne method, typically begins at $20. And most sparklers made in the Charmat process typically start at $10.

How to uncork a sparkler

Contrary to common belief, the best way to open a bottle of bubbly is not to pop the cork. It’s better to slowly allow the cork to release, achieving an ideal “sigh” as the cork exits the bottle. Simply loosen the cage of the sparkler, then hold it while twisting the bottle until the cork is slowly released.

When serving bubbly, choose the wide tulip or white wine glasses. The shape of these glasses best court complex aromas, such as brioche, biscuit and yeast. While a flute glass preserves the bubble the best, it doesn’t play up the aromas nearly as well. The coupe, popular in the 1950s, is best for inexpensive bottlings because the bubbles are quickly dispensed, making the bubbly taste softer and fruitier.

Serve bubbly at 45 to 50 degrees and take it out of the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

As a guideline, buy one bottle for every two people you’ll be serving or a 1-to-3 ratio if you have lightweight drinkers as guests.

Madame Clicquot

When you look into your glass of bubbly this holiday season and it’s clear instead of cloudy, you have French businesswoman Madame Clicquot to thank. When her husband, François Clicquot, died in 1805 she took over his wine businesses and, effectively, created the modern Champagne market, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Madame Clicquot was convinced removing the sediment in Champagne would make it more marketable.

Clicquot’s original setup was a riddling table, a flat surface that had holes drilled into it. The bottles began parallel to the floor and over time the riddling process left them perpendicular to it.

Two French vintners, Claude Cazals and Jacques Ducion, capitalized on her idea with automation. They invented the gyropalette, filing for its patent in 1968. In the mid-1970s it was first introduced in Spain with cava producer Codorniu.

With this piece of equipment, bottles are put into a cage and at certain intervals twisted and shaken slightly by means of motors and automatic controls. A gyropalette can riddle 24 hours a day and complete a cycle in roughly two weeks of settling and five days of riddling.

11 sparkling wine houses to visit

Domaine Carneros, 1240 Duhig Road, just off Highway 12 between Napa and Sonoma, 707-257-0101, domainecarneros.com

Mumm Napa, 8445 Silverado Trail, Napa, 707-967-7700, mummnapa.com

Roederer Estate, 4501 Highway 128, Philo, 707-895-2288, roedererestate.com

Chandon, 1 California Drive, Yountville, 888-242-6366, chandon.com

Gloria Ferrer Vineyards & Caves, 23555 Arnold Drive, Sonoma, 707-933-1917, gloriaferrer.com

Inman Family Wines, 3900 Piner Road, Santa Rosa, 707-293-9576, inmanfamilywines.com

Iron Horse Vineyards, 9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol, 707-887-1507, ironhorsevineyards.com

J. Vineyards, 11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 888-594-6326, jwine.com

Korbel Champagne Cellars, 13250 River Road, Guerneville, 707-824-7000, korbel.com

Scharffenberger Cellars, 8501 Highway 128, Philo, 707-895-2070, scharffenbergercellars.com

Schramsberg Vineyards, 1400 Schramsberg Road, Calistoga, 707-942-4558, schramsberg.com

“The effectiveness of the automated gyropalatte for riddling is ideal for almost all conditions, with a proven track record of being successful in collecting the yeast sediment,” Davies said. “Most sparkling wine houses have made the transition to using the gyropalette for 100% of their process.”

Madame Clicquot, the godmother of hand riddling, would no doubt be pleased there are master riddlers today still toiling in houses of bubbly.

“We consider hand riddling as a unique process within Northern California,” said Davies, the vintner of Schramsberg. “And we imagine that we hand riddle more than anyone else in California … As for quality, nothing can match the attention to detail that comes with the manual turning of each bottle that we riddle.”

You can reach wine writer Peg Melnik at 707-521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pegmelnik.

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