If you’re a cider fan or want to learn a bit more about artisanal cider, you should check out Christopher Lehault’s cider column on Serious Eats. Chris is not only a great writer, he is also a master of cider knowledge.
One of his previous articles, The Cider Press: Finnriver Farm & Cidery, Washington, describes the Méthode Champenoise process Finnriver uses for their sparkling cider. This inspired me to reach out to a few other cideries to get the inside scoop on their sparkling cider making process.
What is Methode Champenoise? In the simplest description, it is a wine or cider that has undergone a second fermentation in the bottle, then allowed to sit on its lees (yeast sediment). Once ready, it is placed neck side down on a rack, typically at a 45 degree angle. It is then periodically turned manually or mechanically until the sediment settles in the neck of the bottle. This is called riddling. The cap is removed and the sediment plug is released. This process is called disgorgement. New cider or champagne is added to top off what has been lost and it is finally corked and wired.
The History of Riddling
Young Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot, wife of François Clicquot, took over the champagne business after her husband died. In those days, champagne was less refined and quite cloudy. Through experimentation she carved out holes in a table and placed the bottles upside down until the sediment fell into the neck. Pleased with the result, she employed her cellar master to design a proper rack and technique that became known as riddling.
“One size fits all” does not apply in the cider making business, so you can expect cider masters to design their own technique for riddling. I contacted a few American cider makers to explain their technique of the riddling process.
The British certainly know ciders and perries. After all they have been making cider longer than we have, so it is no surprise small American cideries turn to British cider masters for inspiration and advice. Sebastian Lousada from Flag Hill Farm was convinced to disgorge his ciders after visiting Burrow Hill Cider in Somerset UK. The results obviously have been succesful since Flag Hill was designated as one of the top ciders in the world according to ratebeer.com.
Young american cideries typically lack the resources to acquire professionally made riddling racks. The few that have started Methode Champenoise have built their own racks to conform to their specific needs. I asked Tim Larson from Snowdrift Cider how he came up with his riddling rack. Tim said part of his research came from visiting Temperly’s cellar at Burrow Hill Cider in Somerset UK, and Tom Olliver of Olliver’s Cider in Herefordshire. Impressed with the results, he came up with a design and built his own sturdy riddling rack. His rack holds 11 cases and positions the bottles at a 45 degree angle. As a matter of fact, he was building a new one when I contacted him.
Nancy Bishop from Alpenfire Orchard stresses the overall importance of the rack design is getting the lees into the neck of the bottle.
For the riddling process, the bottles are turned by hand or mechanically. I witnessed this first hand in France and understood why the process is so labor intensive. At Finnriver Farm and Cidery, bottles are hand turned every day for 4-6 weeks until the sediment forms a plug in the neck. At Snowdrift, the sparkling perry and Cidermakers Reserve gets a hand turn once a day for about 2 weeks prior to disgorgement.
In France, some champagne facilities use cool cave like rooms for their maturation and riddling process. Tim Larson explained that 45 degrees keeps his sparkling ciders healthy and helps pack the lees into the neck.
What’s All The Fuss About?
Building a rack, turning the bottles by hand every day. Why go through this long expensive process? It’s quite simple. Quality.
Nancy Bishop from Alpenfire Orchard stated “I think you will find that the autolysis of the yeast improves the flavor and the time in the bottle lowers the acidity. Bottle conditioning also adds to the keeping quality of the cider”
For Snowdrift’s Perry, the process follows a long rooted history in Perry making. I asked Tim Larson how the riddling and overall methode champenoise process influences his sparkling cider and perry. Tim stated, “Both blends were meticulously crafted with the intent that the esters and flavor compounds formed during the methode champenoise would augment and not compete with the tannins and subtle complexity of each.”
According to Flag Hill’s sparkling cider description, “Our authentic methode champenoise yields a drink with finer bubbles than those which are simply carbonated. In addition, the flavors tend to be more intense, as a result of the wine resting on the ‘lees’, that add complexity to the flavor.”
For small American cider makers, quality is most important, therefore the methode champenoise is worth the hard work and time that goes into making their fine sparkling ciders and perries.