What is "traditional method?" It's the most hands-on, labor-intensive, old-fashioned, all-natural, back-breaking way to make sparkling wine. It's the way they've done it in France for centuries and it happens to be the only way to make the BEST sparkling wine. Period. So that's how we do it at Illinois Sparkling Co.
There are many different ways to put bubbles in wine. Some are easy, some are incredibly involved. There's carbonation, which is simple. There's Charmat, which is right in the middle. And then there's Traditional Method, which is, well, insanely hard.
So why make traditional method sparkling wine? Why do people still use letterpress? Or dovetail joints? We make traditional method sparkling wine because we know that all the effort, skill, and craftsmanship that goes into the process results in something truly extraordinary and unique in every bottle. And we think it's worth it.
The Traditional Method
Traditional method, also known as Méthode Traditionnelle or Méthode Champenoise, is the method that winemakers in France's Champagne region have been using for hundreds of years to make sparkling wine. It's how Champagne was discovered. If you've ever heard somebody mention "bottle fermentation," they were probably referring to this method of sparkling wine production.
Juice test in the vineyard.
At Illinois Sparkling Co., here's how we do it. First we make high quality still wine. We harvest the fruit at the right moment, gently press the grapes, and ferment the juice (or "must") in tanks. Because acidity is very important to sparkling wine, we don't age the wine in barrels - all the aging will be done in the bottle.
Winemaker Mark Wenzel riddling inverted bottles on the racks.
Once the wine is clarified, the art of blending wines from different grapes, vineyards and vintages is performed, which is also called assemblage. This blend is orchestrated so vintage after vintage expresses the specified vision and style of ISC. A sugar solution and yeast is then added to this wine and immediately bottled - the very same bottles that will eventually be in stores, restaurants, and hopefully your kitchen.
These bottles are then sealed with a cap, and laid on their side so the still wine can transform into sparkling wine, which is also known as tirage bottling. As the yeast eats the sugar in the wine, it creates alcohol and CO2 - which is trapped in the sealed bottle. This is where the bubbles come from. The bottles are aged in cool dark caves anywhere from 9 months to over 5 years to gain the unique flavors and structure that we want in that bottle.
Mark demonstrating the "neck freezer" and getting ready for disgorgement.
Near the end of their long resting period, the bottles are moved to a riddling rack. Riddling is a crucial and painstaking phase in the process as this is where each bottle is turned daily to persuade the sediment of yeast to slide downwards into the neck of the bottle, near the cap. After weeks of turning these bottles the yeast will sink to the neck of the upside-down bottle. In order to remove it, the neck of the bottle (with all the yeast) must be frozen. Then in a flamboyant process known as disgorgement, the cap is removed from the bottle and the pellet of frozen yeast literally shoots out! (No matter how many times we see this, it never gets old.).
Finally, the bottle is bubbly, free of yeast, and ready to finish. However, along with the frozen yeast, some of the sparkling wine has shot out of the bottle. This is actually rather fortunate, as it allows the winemaker to put his final stamp on the wines. He will carefully create a liquor made of still wines and sugar to add in order to complete the flavor profile by "topping off" each bottle. This is known as dosage. The amount of sugar used for the dosage varies and will dictate the sweetness of the wine.
Terms used to describe sweetness in sparkling wines.
Now we're ready to put a cork and cage on the bottles along with their labels. Every single bottle that has a label on it has been through it's own unique development in this very individual process. Our winemaker Mark likes to describe each bottle of Illinois Sparkling Co. wines like a snowflake - no two are exactly alike. That's why we take the time to hand label the batch and disgorgement date on every single bottle - it's our way of commemorating the journey.
This bottle has been through a LOT.
We're very proud of all of the work, time, and attention that goes into every single bottle of ISC sparkling wine. And frankly, we can't wait to share them with you.