I’ve never been a great fan of sparkling wines, not even champagne, but I’ve always wondered how they get their bubbles. When I had the opportunity to visit the Murganheira wine cellars to find out how Portuguese espumante (sparkling wine) is made I gladly took it. There are several ways of making wine fizzy but at Murganheira, they use the same process as is used for champagne.
The cellars lie between the wine-producing villages of Ucanha and Salzedas in the Douro valley and you’d never guess from the modern architecture what lies in the cool dark caves beneath the showroom.
Even before the tour starts, I’m impressed by the colourful 3D artwork on one wall. Champagne flutes bulge out of the board but it’s only on closer inspection that I realise the entire thing is made from Murganheira bottle caps.
The tour begins with an explanation of the grape crushing and separation process and a quick look at some of the massive machinery involved. Then we move from the slick modern world into the chill of dark rocky caves with puddles on the ground.
The walls are lined with endless stacks of dusty bottles, some furry with white mould that’s sprouted from the wooden shelves.
This underground storage area was deliberately blasted out of the granite hillside and is vital for producing top quality sparkling wine. Once bottled, the wine is stored for a minimum of three years. Each bottle is turned by hand once a year. Judging by the number of bottles we’ve passed so far, this is a massive undertaking.
After three years, the wine is tasted to determine whether or not it’s ready for the next stage, which is called riddling. We stop to look at the bottles resting at an angle in a wooden rack. They are turned around and upwards a fraction each day until the cloudy liquid becomes clear, which takes 17 days if done by hand.
These days, of course, there are machines that can do the job just as well in only 7 days. Despite what any wine marketer might claim, our guide assures us there is no difference in the resulting taste or quality of the wine.
Once the plug of sediment that has collected in the neck of the bottle has been removed, the wine is rebottled and fermented. Our guide tells us to stand back as she demonstrates how they check the fizziness of the wine at the end of the fermentation period.
She holds the bottle at an angle, pointing the neck into a metal shelter. I don’t see how she opens the bottle but I hear the pop and only just manage to shield my camera from the spray as she turns around to show us the froth bursting out of it. She grins as we take a step back to avoid getting wet. After a batch of wine passes the fizz test, it’s finally time for it to be blended, and the bottle cleaned, labelled and boxed for sale.
We end the tour back in the bright showroom where bottles of sparkling wine lay nestled on a bed of ice ready to be poured into tall glasses for us to taste. I have to admit, sparkling wine is starting to grow on me.
A bottle of one of Murganheira’s prestigious range of sparkling wines will set you back around 25 euros, a bargain when a comparable bottle of champagne costs 200 euros. Bottles from their standard range sell for around 9 euros while some of their exclusive ones are over 300 euros.
Practicalities and more information:
To visit the Murganheira wine cellars, you’ll need a car, unless you’re visiting as part of an organised tour.
Guided tours of the cellars and wine tasting are free and take place from Monday to Friday at 10 am, 11 am, 3 pm and 4 pm. Just turn up at those times. There’s no need to book unless you have a large group and want to make special arrangements.
This article may help you plan your trip: How and When to Explore the Douro Valley