I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I find a lot of the language around secondary fermentation in the bottle somewhat confusing. There are so many terms, some of which mean the same thing, and even when you think you’ve got it, you find that some makers’ interpretations are different to others. So it’s quite a minefield, and yet despite all the variations, I find myself wondering which is best and for what situation? Especially as a new maker that has quite a number of bottles lying on their sides full of secondary fermentation lees, I find myself speculating in particular if I should disgorge or not?
I get the Champagne Method or Méthode Champenoise, for a start it can only be sparkling wine made in that region of France, but it also needs to have secondary fermentation in the bottle resulting from an addition of sugar and yeast at bottling. Ageing in the bottle is required for at least 15 months, 12 of which must be on the lees. After riddling and disgorgement a dosage of sugar syrup is used to sweeten. Brut after all doesn’t mean dry, the limits being: 0-3g/l (Brut Nature), 0-6g/l (Extra Brut), 0-12g/l (Brut), 12-17g/l (Extra Sec), 17-32g/l (Sec), 32-50g/l (Demi-Sec) and +50g/l (Doux) – if you ever buy French cider, those limits are very enlightening. The removal of all the yeast through disgorgement and high pressure in the bottle prevents a further fermentation when you apply the cork and cage.
Méthode Traditionelle on the other hand is basically the same as the above for instances when you can’t use the title “Champagne” which is the case for all ciders. However, because it is not using that title you can do pretty much whatever you like within the parameters, so the ageing could be shorter for example. Plus it’s not a protected term like “Champagne” so those who break with convention can do so with some level of impunity. For example I have seen some bottles labelled as Méthode Traditionelle, but have not been disgorged. Personally that feels like a bit of a scam, as it’s the disgorgement that is definitely the hardest part here, so I don’t think the title should be claimed. But what would you call it instead? Bottle conditioned? [Ed: Scammer Method?] More on that in a moment.
So what about Petilant Naturel which translates to Naturally Sparkling? Well firstly it’s sometimes called Méthode Ancestral, just to throw another title around. So it depends on whether you want to use French or English and essentially they mean the same thing; that the carbonation in the bottle has been created via a natural process. That can be done by bottling before the primary fermentation ends (usually called Petilant Naturel or Pet Nat especially as an agreed term in the wine world) or via secondary fermentation in the bottle which can be called many things as outlined above. The result though is that yeast creates the sparkle. From a maker’s perspective, Pet Nat is in some ways easier because you are not having to add sugar or yeast when bottling, you’re using what was already present in the juice. But your timing has to be bang on and there’s not much room for error; too early and you could over-carbonate which is dangerous, too late and you’ll have a flat cider. Extreme attention to the fermentation progress and specific gravity (which tells you the remaining sugar in the cider) are essential to get this one right, but due to unknown variables this can create inconsistent results. Andrew Lea (Craft Cider Making p80) describes this method as awkward due to the active fermentation and also the resultant lees being “coarsely flavoured”. Whereas bottling dry and adding priming sugar can be more successful. Having done some trials with this method I agree that it is unpredictable, it seems to have more active sediment and prone to volatility when opening.
Sticking with Andrew Lea, he doesn’t distinguish when it comes to ‘bottle conditioning’, describing both racking into the bottle and finishing the primary fermentation there, as well as bottling a dry cider and adding some priming sugar. Which makes sense, essentially all the methods I’ve discussed above come under the title of bottle conditioning. So whether I decide to disgorge or not, I can definitely say it’s been bottle conditioned, and also that it’s naturally sparkling. Ultimately for me it comes down to a couple of things: firstly ability, I’m not sure I’d be any good at disgorging by hand ‘a la volee’ even though Artistraw Cider, Find & Foster and Little Pomona make it look so easy on video. I don’t have the kit to freeze the necks either so it wouldn’t be as clean or efficient a process or the kit to apply a cork and cage so I’d be putting another crown cap back on. But on the other hand the bottles are a little frisky at the moment unless chilled and need to sit for 20-30 seconds after opening to allow the lees to settle again, which isn’t the most beautiful thing to witness before you drink it. Plus I need to get it labelled and sold as it’s been in the bottle for a while already due to the last two years pushing things back somewhat, so time now feels of the essence.
I could flip flop around indecisively for a good few hundred words yet, but I won’t. Instead I will say that you can read a lot more into this subject and I’d highly recommend Felix Nash’s book “Fine Cider” or Claude Jolicoeur “The New Cider Maker’s Handbook” or for a user friendly step by step guide if you’re thinking of making your own, then have a read of “The Big Book of Cidermaking” by Christopher and Kirsten Shockey.
Now on to a couple of tastings, where I have two eating and culinary variety ciders, both bottle conditioned, both naturally sparkling, both fermented to dry and then bottled with an addition of sugar and yeast to create the secondary fermentation. One has been disgorged, the other has not…
Tinston – Gateway 2019 (7.5%)
Described on the bottle as “a traditional method Sussex cider made from a blend of Bramley, Russet, Cox and Worcester apples. These apples create a marriage of bright-zingy flavour and ripe apple richness. Elegance and excitement in harmony. Aged on the lees (for a minimum of 18 months) in bottle for extra biscuity, aged goodness.” “Zingy, Dry and Vegan”. I like the metaphor of the title of this one as it is a perfect gateway to introduce sparkling wine lovers in particular to the world of cider.
Cork fired out of the bottle and fair bit of froth overflowed. Liam informed me that it’s only recently been disgorged so it should settle down a bit over time. But in case you’re tasting soon, chill well and open near the sink, just in case.
How I served it: chilled
Colour: Prosecco yellow
On the nose: fresh green apples, lemon rind and pollen. Quite perfumed and floral; elderflower and honeysuckle come to mind.
In the mouth: surprisingly delicate given the perfumed nose. All about the green apples with this and at first I thought it was the Bramley that shone through the most, but then there’s a bit of the nutty Russet and also the crisp bite of Cox. There is an ever so slight hint of soapiness in the mid palate like a perfumed lemon, but it’s not overpowering and a common note with eating apple blends that have undergone secondary fermentation in my experience. The acidity has mellowed massively and I detect some malolactic creaminess as well as a bit of biscuity “goodness” (see the label) from the lees. The lively mousse gives it a mouth filling texture but the finish is very finite, a last flourish of citrus zest acidity and it’s gone.
In a nutshell: a sparkling wine literally full of green apple taste; a perfect aperitif, palate cleanser or celebratory toast
Made over roughly 18 months from over fifty varieties of apple. At least six months in tank followed by bottling with a small amount of sugar to condition in the bottle. Less info on the bottle with this one, but the website lists some of the fifty plus varieties that are collected from gardens, wild hedgerows and orchards in Yorkshire, including: Dog Snout, James Grieve and Yorkshire Beauty. No detail on percentages which I can imagine would be pretty impossible, given the number of varieties.
How I served it: chilled
Colour: pale gold
On the nose: lemons, grapefruit pith and a herbaceous note; like mint, rosemary and mild oregano. Really citrussy actually with some spirit-like volatility too, I’m thinking lemon flavoured vodka.
In the mouth: sharp, crisp, zingy, all the words that describe how your tongue feels rather than how it tastes. It’s very refreshing and tastes like green apples and lemons blended together, definitely with the balance swinging towards lemons. Above everything it’s very bold and acidic which rasps the cheeks with a very distinct palate cleansing finish. There is an ever so slight oxidised acetic note on the finish, that becomes more prominent as it warms in the glass and starts to taste a little sweeter. The acidity definitely being more bold when it’s chilled. Feels like it could do with a little time and some softening of that acidity.
In a nutshell: a bold punch of zing in a glass, an oyster’s new best friend
I’ll start with the ciders and for me out of the two I preferred the Tinston. The lees ageing, and this blend, partner really well to my taste. It is very delicate and as a celebratory drink, which is what it’s designed for, I think it’s fantastic. The added refinement of being disgorged as per Méthode Traditionelle adds to the whole experience of the drink.
The Thornborough on the other hand feels a little rough around the edges. The very edgy and sharp acidity is almost too punchy at points and perhaps further time to soften would elevate this one. There wasn’t a great quantity of lees in the bottle, or a huge amount of sparkle, certainly not in comparison to the Tinston, so that could have been responsible. Full disclosure, I opened both of the two bottles that I had of the Thornborough as the first had not conditioned at all, so was completely still and had mouse. Given the opposite in the other, I must have just had an unlucky bottle.
On my initial question from the beginning of whether I disgorge my ciders or not… the jury is still out. I can see the benefit of disgorging to the beauty of the drink and the capturing of the flavour at a specific point as it will develop less once taken off the lees, but part of me likes that evolution and the fact that my ciders will taste different in another year’s time. So ultimately it comes down to aesthetics and whether I can live with a few seconds of flying sediment when the bottle is opened.