Homemade Apple Champagne

Homemade Apple Champagne

Last fall I bought a gallon of Apple Cider from a local orchard. It was fresh and un pasteurized without any added chemicals, which seemed ideal for experimenting with homemade apple wine. The orchard, Poverty Lane Orchards, makes their own brand of Farnum Hill Hard Ciders (apple wine) in a variety of styles which is pretty good and costs around nine bucks a bottle.

I can't find the exact recipe I used (a problem, I know, wine makers should keep good records if they ever expect to repeat a successful batch) but it involved adding a bit of acid blend, a pound or so of sugar, and yeast. Really quite simple since I was only making a gallon of the stuff. A week or so of fermenting, a racking (transfer to another container and leaving behind the sediment) or two, and, after a month or so, bottling it.  Six months later we took a bottle to a friend's house and found it was pretty good. Ditto on the gallon of Blackberry wine made at the same time.

I've been reading up on vineyards and wine making along with visiting reference and hobbyist sites online.  One of the things that really fascinates me is the making of champagne.  Not the method they use for the $3-$7 bottles you find in the grocery store aisles during the holidays but the method champagne, fermented in the bottle process.  So I reserved a bottle of Apple and a bottle of Blackberry wine for doing my own homemade champagne trial.  If you've been following my weblogd for a while you might remember the entry on riddling the two bottles. The next step is disgorgement, or freezing the neck of the bottle in order to extract the sediment.

Let me step back a bit and talk about home wine making.  I started experimenting with making wine at home last year: sometimes with local supplies (dandelion, apple, concord grapes) and sometimes with a commercial wine making kit (merlot, reisling, burgundy).  I find it fascinating.  Unlike most things I've done, either professionally or as hobby, wine making seems as much about patience and luck as it does science and skill.  Even more infuriating is that it can takes months, or even years before you discover the success or failure of your efforts.

You get spoiled writing software because you can do something, try it, tweak it, and reiterate over the process quite rapidly.  Very controlled.  There's always some element of the unknown, either bugs that users find later or that surface from situations you would normally be unable to reproduce.  But in almost all cases the turn around time is short and you can understand and solve most situations.

With wine making (and cheese making, but that's another story) a small scale hobbyist is really dipping into a whole new realm.  You can follow a recipe precisely, control all of the factors, and in the end still end up with something worse than the poorest boxed wine from the supermarket.  Conversely, maybe not as often, but certainly do-able, you sometimes come up with a wine with a fine and complex flavor, much more than the sum of the parts you put into it.

And that's why you keep records, because it may be a year or more before your wine really starts showing it's grace and a year is a long time to rely on memory in this internet driven frenzy of a world.

So, back to the champagne.  I had no idea if either the blackberry or apple wine would make a good wine, much less be a good champagne.  But I was very curious about making champagne and it seemed like a good time to try it out.  Also, I'd made some homemade Root Beer and Ginger Beer, which is sort of along the same principles, but on a much shorter timeline (two days) and without any of the alcohol (about as much alcohol as in orange juice).  With homemade root beer the fermentation is only about building up lots of CO2 in a short time, then putting it into the fridge to stop the fermentation and chill it down for imminent consumption.

To make champagne you take a finished white wine and add a dose of yeast and sugar, then seal it up tight and put it someplace where it can ferment and won't damage anything should it explode.  From the outside there's no indication if it's working at all.  You bide your time and wait until it's probably done fermenting (up to six months say some books) before you start the riddling process.  Riddling is a slow process of upending the bottle (neck down) and turning regularly to coerce the dead yeast cell sediment to collect in the neck/lid area.  Once it's done you disgorge it: freeze the neck of the bottle, ease the cap off, allow the plug of sediment/champagne to slide out, replenish the lost liquid with some white wine, and seal it up again.  Another six months of aging (or years if it's really exotic champagne) and then it's finally ready for consumption.

I've been planning on how to disgorge these two bottles since the sediment has all been collected and the champagne (at least I hope it's champagne) is crystal clear.  I'm worried though, since there's lots of freezing, pressure, and glass involved.  Some days I'm a total klutz and disgorging day would be a bad time for that to happen.

Finally I compromised (chickened out...) and decided to open one bottle without disgorging.  My logdic followed that I didn't even know if there would be any bubbles and I had used plastic corks instead of bottle caps which makes it really hard to open...even when not frozen solid.  I was right, opening the bottle was a major effort, almost resorting to channel-lock pliers.  I managed to get some of the sediment out just by opening at an angle, but some of it got mixed back into the champagne.  A little time spent upright in the fridge and it all settled to the bottom.  The picture at the top of the page is what a glass of it looks like about fifteen seconds after pouring.  LOTS of bubbles, much more than I expected and it bubbles for a long time: long, thin streams of delicate bubbles.

The best part is that it tastes great! My wife doesn't like champagne, too many bubbles says she, but she thought it was pretty good as champagnes go. I like the dry, nutty flavor, especially since it doesn't taste at all like apple cider. Very good with aged goat cheese and crackers.

On to Part II.


The Jer Zone

© Copyright 2002 Jerry Halstead.