by Liana Bennett
All that bubbles is not Champagne. Champagne is a wine-producing region in France that makes sparkling wine. And it is only this sparkling wine, which follows a strict set of rules and regulations according to Champagne’s Appellation Origine d’Controlle (AOC) that can be called “Champagne”. The rules state that Champagne is to be made from one or a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir. (Yes, white and red grapes). It also designates specific production methods (more below). A small amount of non-sparkling wine is made in Champagne and carries the designation “Coteaux Champenois”.
However, sparkling wine is made throughout the world using a variety of grapes and several production processes. The various methods to making wine determine both quality and price. As well, sparkling wine made in other regions may be called “region” Champagne (e.g. American Champagne).
No matter how much the bottle costs, the sparkly bubble in any bottle is due to the addition of a significant level of carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide results from natural fermentation, either in the bottle or in a large tank. These methods create a result in the product very different to each other. Remember to read the label and that all Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne.
The Real Deal
The méthode champenoise (champagne method) is also known as méthode traditionnelle (traditional) or méthode classique. The grapes are harvested and pressed and the initial fermentation takes place in stainless steel vats and continues until the wine is completely dry. It is then blended with other vintages to make the cuvee (base wine). The cuvee is bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast, known as triage that becomes the catalyst for secondary fermentation. The bottles are then placed at a forty-five degree angle, necks-down, in an “A-frame” racks, called a pupitre. The bottles are then twisted by hand to dislodge sediment and have them resettle into the bottle neck. This is called riddling. Traditionally riddling is done by hand but it is now being replaced by machines, Gyropalettes, that are less labor intensive and quicker in production time. Once the bottles have finished a turn rotation, the sediment is removed through disgorgement. The bottle necks now contain the sediment and are frozen. The pressure inside the bottle releases the ice-block of particles. A small amount of wine, dosage, is added back into the bottle to both fill the bottle and adjust the sweetness levels. From harvest to final bottles, the champagne method takes at least 2 to 5 years.
King of Champagne
Champagne would not exist if it weren’t for a 17th century Benedictine monk and cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvillers near Epernay, named Dom Perignon. He of course, “invented” champagne. Since the cold weather did not allow for a complete fermentation, the wine essentially re-fermented in the spring. This resulted in bubbles. Dom Perignon originally thought this was a sign of bad winemaking and when he couldn’t figure out a way to prevent the bubbles, he decided to focus on making the sparkly wine more appealing. Like he said, “Come quickly, brothers, I’m drinking stars.”
The transfer method is less expensive, less time consuming and less labor intensive than the champagne method. The process is the same until the wine is removed from the bottle while still under pressure. This maintains the bubble. The wine is then filtered and bottled into new bottles. The wine still has a decent flavor but the filter process can reduce full yeast flavors and some of the sparkle. The label may read, “Fermented in the bottle” whereas champagne method labels will read, “Fermented in this bottle.”
In the Tank
The charmat process, the bulk process or closed cuvee all describe the sparkling wine production method wherein the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in a large stainless steel tank. The wine is filtered and bottled from the bulk tanks while under pressure. This method results in coarser, large bubbles with simple flavors.
This method is great for aromatic grapes such as Muscat Blanc. Charmat process is faster and can be done in about 3 weeks. Many American sparkling wines use this method. Although not the greatest quality, it is still a great way to have a quick congrats to the bride or a job well done.
Quick and Easy
Artificial carbonation is the cheapest way to go. Carbon dioxide is injected into the wine like soda pop production. This method produces large bubbles with a very short sparkle. These are the $4 choices.
Cuvee – the base wine made from a blend of vintages
Blanc de Blancs – white wine from white grapes; fruity, light, and creamy
Blanc de Noir – white wine from black (red) grapes; full-bodied, and less elegant than B de B
Cremant – “creaming”, moderately sparkling
Non-vintage – Most Champs are a blend of 2 or 3 vintages. This helps to ensure a consistent product that is ready for immediate consumption.
Vintage – Vintage Champagne does not occur every year but is reserved for stellar vintages. Only the best grapes of single vintage are used.
Mimosa - champagne and orange juice cocktail
Champagne producers are not called wineries but Houses. Each Champagne House has its own distinct style and flair. You may recognize some of these names: Charles Heidseick, Krug, Laurent-Perrier (Ellie - you would really like this one), Moet et Chandon, Perrier-Jouet Fleur, Pol Roger, Louis Roederer (Cristal) and Veuve Clicquot.
How Sweet It Is
Brut – driest level; savory; good with food
Extra Dry – not as dry as Brut; soft feel
Sec – med-dry; parties; breakfasts
Doux – sweet; dessert
These words are used to describe French and other European sparkling wines. American sparkling wines use different words but the general rule for the US product is that the more expensive the wine, the drier it is.
Spumante – Italy; “foaming”; usually seen with production area (Asti Spumante)
Prosecco – Italy; white sparkling wine from Veneto
Lambrusco - Italy; red crackling wine
Cava – Spain; Sparkling wine made using the traditional method
Sekt – Germany; Sparkling wine made using the traditional method
Vins Mousseux – France; regions other than Champagne; Sparkling wine made using the traditional method
Homegrown Sparkling Wine
For those of you true Michigan Wine fans, you already know the greatness of L. Mawby’s wines. These sparkling wines are made using the champagne method, although with a little help from automation. As well, the winery has a tank method line called M. Lawrence. Either way, these are great serving choices for your next celebration.
Ready to Drink
• For the most part, sparkling wine is ready for immediate consumption. That is, you should drink it within 2 years of purchase.
• There are about 6 4 oz. glasses in a regular, 750 ml bottle.
• Sparkling wine should be chilled for about 3 or 4 hours prior to serving.
• There are two types of sparkling wine glasses - a tulip-shaped and tall, thin flute. These glasses are perfect for allowing the bubbles to flow to the top, accentuate the wine’s aroma and preserve the bubbles.
• When opening a bottle of sparkling wine, it is important to remember the contents are under pressure. Do not shake the bottle, point the bottle away from people and open slowly at a 45’ angle.
• Pour the wine slowly into the glass to an inch. Let the wine settle and then fill 2/3 from the top.
• If making a “champagne cocktail”, chill all ingredients, add the sparkling wine last and use frozen berries as garnish.
• Always store sparkling wine on its side to keep an airtight seal.
From: The Beverage Alcohol Report - December 2005, Liana Bennett
The Beverage Alcohol Report (The BAR) was published on a monthly basis until May, 2006 compliments of Liana Bennett. Its main purpose was to further the knowledge, appreciation and general enjoyment of all alcoholic beverages. Your comments, questions and tasting stories can be sent to [email protected]