Season 2, Episode 5: The Traditional Method (RJR Brut Cuvée, Westport Rivers, MA)

We’ve had a couple of sparkling wines in this program before, but we’ve never really had a traditional method sparkling wine on the show before.  Let’s change that, with a look at the 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée, from Westport Rivers Winery, in Massachusetts.

In case you were not aware, “traditional method” is code for the same method which is used to make Champagne in France; it’s just that nobody outside of Champagne can use this word to describe a wine method, due to very strict provisions laid down by the EU and France. You will occasionally see wines made in this method labeled as ‘Classic Method,’ also.  What these words mean is that the sparkling wine in question was bottle-fermented; that secondary fermentation which produced the bubbles occurred in the bottle in which the wine was sold.  This can be a time-consuming process if done by hand, but other places (such as Gruet in New Mexico, as an example) have figured out how to do mass-production of such bottles.

As you may have guessed from the implication above, sparkling wines made in the traditional method undergo two separate fermentations.  The first, which is usually carried out in tanks, creates what is known as the base wine, which is still–no bubbles. If the wine in question is a non-vintage blend, the base still wines will be blended according to whatever style and quality requirements exist for the given produced to produce a unified flavor for the brand; or still wines from a given year will be blended together (which is likely what happened with this wine in question).  This process, known as assemblage, ends with the blended wine put into bottles, along with a mixture of yeast and sugar to kick off a secondary fermentation.  The bottles are then closed with the same sort of cap you see on a beer bottle. (In case you wanted to expand your French wine terms, this mix is known as the liqueur de tirage).

Next up, the bottles are then placed on their sides in cellar environments, while that secondary fermentation begins.  It is this secondary fermentation that creates the CO2 which gets trapped to become bubbles. After the second fermentation is complete the wines are left ‘sur lie‘ (resting on its lees – wine terminology for the dead yeast cells in each bottle) for any period of time the winemaker wishes. This could range from a mere 6 months to upwards of several years, like in the case of this vintage. The longer the wine rests on these lees, the more amino acids and other compounds that are in the dead yeast cells will break down and be released into the wine.  Known as autolysis, this process is what adds toast, bread, and the yeasty character and aromas that are often associated with higher-end vintages made in this style.

The final steps of this process are known as remuage and disgorgement, where the lees are removed from the bottle.  The bottles are carefully rotated and shaken and slowly moved upside down so that the sediment in the bottle is slowly moved towards the neck of the bottle. This process is known as riddling–it can either be done by hand, or by automatic machinery.  After the sediment has been gathered to this part of the bottle, the material must be disgorged–something done by freezing the neck of the bottle in a freezing brine bath. After being frozen, the cap is removed, and the bottle of frozen lees sediment will shoot out.  The final step of this disgorging process is quickly topping off the bottle with a mixture known either as the dosage or ‘liqueur d’expédition. This is a mixture of wine and sugar, the amount of which is determined based on the eventual style of the wine.  As an example, the dosage for the  RJR Brut Cuvée probably contained somewhere between 6g and 15g/l of sugar; pretty standard for wines labeled as ‘Brut’.

After this, the bottle is closed with the traditional Champagne-style cork, with the wire cage (known as a muselet) and foil. The wine can now wait and age as long as the winemaker demands before being released to the adoring public. These styles of wine can age very well; as evidenced by our reaction to this bottle in the podcast.

RJR Cuvee Westport Rivers Winery
The 2007 RJR Brut Cuvée is our tasty introduction to the world of the Traditional Method sparkling wine – the same method used to make classics such as Champagne, Cava, Franciacorta, and others the world over.

Episode 48: Iowa

Iowa may be a state that is associated in pop culture with endless waves of corn and soybeans, but the Hawkeye State has a vibrant wine culture too! Our first wine from this state that we will be looking at is the Iowa Candleglow White, from Tassel Ridge Winery, located in Leighton. The Candleglow White is a non-vintage dry white blend of La Crescent, Brianna, and Edelweiss grapes grown in Mahaska County, Iowa.

We have met La Crescent before during our exploration of the Tectonic from Iapetus Winery, but Edelweiss and Brianna are new varietals to the Make America Grape Again podcast. Like La Crescent, both Edelweiss and Brianna are complex, cold-hardy, French-American hybrid varietals. Both of these varietals came into being as a result of Elmer Swenson, and the University of Minnesota’s cold-hearty grape breeding program. Indeed, the genetic history of these grapes is pretty tangled, as seen in the diagram below.

brianna pedigree
The Pedigree of Brianna, like that of many complex mixed-heritage varietals, is mindbogglingly complex.

Growing wine in Iowa is filled with challenges.  Warm summer days can create conditions conducive to promote fungal vine diseases, while the extreme cold nights of winter can kill many other grape vines; this is why there are relatively few plantings of Vitis vinifera in Iowa, versus complex hybrids and native American varietals.

There was some viticulture in Iowa prior to prohibition, but records are spotty at best.  Prior to 2000, there were only thirteen wineries in the state, and eleven of them were in the Amana colonies, which was a religious communal society which had originated in Germany and settled in Iowa in the 1850s.  These wineries benefited by a native wine law which passed after Repeal, which allowed them to sell wines to anyone.  It was in the year 2000 when the Iowa Grape Growers Association was formed, and this group wasted no time in creating an action plan for the growth of the wine industry in the state.

The group decided that the three main things which were needed were favorable legislation and basic education relating to viticulture.  Within a year, the team had gained the involvement of the Iowa Department of Education involved, along with some basic assistance from Iowa State University.  A year later, funding for viticultural research and promotion became a reality with a five percent tax on wine.  In 2003, the team created a ten-year plan, with the aid of interested parties, and within a mere four years, 62 wineries had emerged in Iowa.

 Today, despite the challenges of growing in the harsh conditions of the high plains, the state of Iowa contains 100 commercial wineries, with more than 300 vineyards that cover approximately 1,200 acres. There are no American Viticultural Areas that are solely in Iowa, but Northeastern Iowa is included within the area covered by the Upper Mississippi Valley AVA.

This bottle was kindly provided to the podcast by Greg Gonnerman of Laramita Cellars, who also guest-starred in this episode.  He acquired it from the Tasting Room directly.

iowa wine
The Candleglow White from Tassel Ridge Winery in Iowa is a dry white blend of La Crescent, Edelweiss, and Brianna, sourced from Iowa vineyards.

Episode 28: Indiana

Welcome to episode 28, where we focus on Indiana!  Our featured wine for this episode is the Creekbend III, from the Creekbend label of Oliver Winery, located near Bloomington, Indiana.  This wine is a blend of barrel-fermented Vignoles and Chardonel, along with some stainless-steel fermented Vidal Blanc.  Oliver Winery, as it turns out, is one of the oldest post-prohibition wineries in the state of Indiana, opening its doors in 1972.  Oliver winery was founded by Professor William Oliver, who was instrumental in passing the Indiana Small Winery Act in 1971, kickstarting the Indiana wine industry. Today, Oliver Winery is entirely employee-owned, which is pretty impressive considering that it is among the largest wineries east of the Mississippi River in terms of production.

Prior to Prohibition, the wine industry in Indiana was surprisingly fruitful, being the  10th largest state in the country in terms of wine production.  In many cases, the wines being produced were hybrid varietals, with Catawba (a grape we have not met yet) being a popular option.  It took the Indiana Small Winery Act of 1971 to change the winery landscape, and now the state is a success story; as of 2015 there were 76 wineries in the Hoosier state. Today, Indiana produces about 1.4 million gallons of wine a year and grows approximately 650 acres of grapes, from a variety of French-American Hybrids (such as the three varietals used in vinifying the Creekbend III) to vinifera varietals such as Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer.  There are also two AVAs in Indiana: the Ohio River Valley AVA (which actually happens to be the second largest wine appellation of origin in the United States, covering 16,640,000 acres of portions of the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia, along with Indiana), and the Indiana Uplands AVA, which has 17 wineries totaling around 200 acres under vine.  (Oliver Winery is located within this AVA)

In this episode, I am again joined by Megan and James, and we talk a bit about the two major varietals in this wine (Vignoles and Chardonnel), as well as some techniques for white wine vinification: Malolactic fermentation, barrel-fermentation, and sur lees aging.  My occasionally crippling dyslexia also shows up as well, as does James’ penchant for bad jokes.  Enjoy!  (And thank you, Oliver Winery, for including the tech sheets! You have no idea how much that is appreciated!)

This bottle was acquired by yours truly, online through the Oliver Vineyards website.

indiana episode 1
The Creekbend III from Oliver Winery is our introduction to Indiana wines and several wine-making techniques used for white wines.