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Time in a Bottle - Sur Lees Aging

We caught up with Tom Tiburzi on a beautiful fall day in Napa as he was heading to the Chandon wine cellar, where thousands of bottles of bubbly are aged in a temperature-controlled environment.

Tom Tiburzi - Domaine Chandon Winemaker

We caught up with Tom Tiburzi on a beautiful fall day in Napa as he was heading to the Chandon wine cellar, where thousands of bottles of bubbly are aged in a temperature-controlled environment.

Walking past stacks and stacks of aging bubbly, Tiburzi talked about the complex transformations that occur over time inside each bottle and explained why all Chandon sparkling wines are aged “on the lees” (from the French sur lees) for up to 7 years before they are released.

The art of aging gracefully

"We make all our sparkling wines using the méthode traditionelle, where the grape juice is fermented twice: once in the fermentation tank, and a second time inside the bottle where the aging takes place. During this second phase, each tier in our range of sparkling wines is aged for a different length of time, in order to produce its characteristic flavor and style."

"Bottle fermentation takes up to 3 months, then the sur lees aging process begins. At Chandon, we leave the bottles lying on their sides in special racks for just the right amount of time to enhance the style of each of our product tiers (up to 2 years for our Classic tier, at least 3 years for our Reserve tier, up to 5 years for etoile Brut and etoile Rosé, and 7 years for etoile Tête de Cuvée). The wine remains sur lees until the distinctive flavors of each Chandon bubbly develops."

Each tier in our range of sparkling wines is aged for a different length of time, in order to produce its characteristic flavor and style.

"Do you see the sediment at the bottom of this bottle?” Tiburzi said, as he held it up to the light again. “This is what we call ‘the yeast lees.’ Yeast thrives on sugar. Once the sugar in the wine has been consumed, the yeast die. Their cell walls break down into smaller and smaller fragments that seep into the resting wine to enhance aromas, flavors and mouth feel."

"The scientific term for this process is ‘autolysis,’ in which the polysaccharides, fatty acids and proteins that comprise the cell wall and membrane are broken down into smaller and smaller molecules that contribute to the aroma and flavor profile of the wine."

Years 1–2: Petite bubbles, big flavors

"By the end of the first year, the fruit flavors marry and dominate the wine as the compounds released by autolysis have a noticeable impact, creating creamy mouth feel, and hints of toasty aromas and flavors."

"During the second year, fruit expression, although still dominant, begins sharing the stage with development from the yeast breaking down. The wine becomes more viscous and mouth coating; this viscosity also works to make the bubbles smaller — a characteristic of a fine sparkling wine. At this time, there are hints of toasted bread and nuts from the progressing yeast autolysis. Chandon's Classic tier is designed to have vibrant fruit and soft finish and is released by the end of the second year in the bottle."

Chandon's Classic Tier is designed to have vibrant fruit and soft finish and is released by the end of the second year in the bottle.

Year 3: From fresh fruit to toastiness

"Autolysis is peaking during the third year and the subsequent rich and toasty characters begin to dominate as the overt fruit flavors and aromas evolve into subtle complexity. Viscosity increases making the wine more mouth coating and forcing tinier bubbles. To the point, Chandon’s Reserve and Vintage tier wines are released with a minimum of three years sur lees."

Years 4–5: Layers of complexity

"Autolysis continues through the fourth and fifth years, but at a much slower rate as the enzymes become less active and there is simply less intact yeast material remaining to break down. At the same time, oxygen has been slowly entering through the bottle closure, adding rich complexity and supporting descriptors such as caramel and baked apple, with restrained notes of vermouth and sherry. The palate builds intensity and texture as all of the wine’s components integrate and harmonize to build seamless layers of complexity. Viscosity is still increasing, but at a much slower rate. The wine is very creamy and the bubbles fine. Sparkling wines with higher levels of acidity soften on the palate, affirming that they are ready for release. For example, the etoile tier's elegant style depends upon aging sur lees for 5 years."

Year 7: Our ultimate cuvées

Only the greatest sparkling wines are left to age sur lees for more than 5 years. For these chosen cuvées, the extra years are well worth the wait. One example is etoile Tête de Cuvée, the noblest and most prestigious wine from the house of Chandon.

"etoile Tête de Cuvée is aged 7 years sur lees," said Tiburzi, delicately removing a bottle from one of the aging racks. "Like the very best still wine vintages, sparkling wines designed to be aged this long are typically tight and austere when young. Having spent the better part of a decade in the bottle, they begin to show their full potential of finesse and elegance, reaching a level of viscosity and creaminess that is rarely found in sparkling wines."

"It is awesome to think of the future moment when this bottle will be opened, years from today," said Tiburzi, holding it admiringly in his hands. "A wedding for a couple who have yet to fall in love, a college graduation for a kid who is still in junior high, an impromptu gathering of friends who have never even met. Silently the months and years will go by until this wine is ready. The day it is opened, a fabulous, complex sparkling wine will emerge. And it will be well worth the wait."