Champagne, that wonderful nose tickling beverage, is by far the most famously celebrated of all sparkling wines.
Champagne is a type of Sparkling Wine, but…
The type of sparkling wine that can be truly called Champagne is made only from grapes of the Champagne region of France.
Not only that, but French law dictates that all sparkling wines made in that area must be made by a special process called the traditional or champagne method. The French term is méthod champenoise. Only then, should it be called Champagne.
Bubblies produced in other parts of the world, even if they are created by the traditional method, should be referred to as sparkling wines.
This does not necessarily mean that they are of lower quality. It simply means that they would not be referred to as Champagne. There are many high quality sparkling wines made in other areas of the world.
How Champagne is Made
Champagne is typically made from a blend of three grape varieties, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Each grape lends a special character that blend to create a unique symphony of flavors.
Creating The Base Wine (Cuvée)
Before the blending though, the grapes are carefully pressed to release the juice while not allowing the color and bitter qualities from the skins of the black grape types to flow into the juice.
Then, the juice from these individual grape varieties are fermented and set aside for either aging or blending.
After the first fermentation, the winemaker will take the fermented juice from the three different grape varieties mentioned above to make a base wine or cuvée. Often, the winemaker will blend in some aged samples and samples from different vineyards. In extreme cases, there may be over 100 different samples of these three types of grapes to make the base wine.
The Second Fermentation
There are two main techniques for the second fermentation. The first one was developed in order to greatly reduce the expense and time needed to produce the wine. It is called the charmat (pronounced shar mah) method or tank method.
The other method is the traditional or champagne method. This is the preferred and only method that is used to make true Champagne. It is a laborious process that involves the second fermentation to take place in small bottles instead of a large, closed tank.
If you’re wondering how the sparkling wine gets its bubbles, it’s from the second fermentation. After the base wine has been blended, more yeast and sugar is added. Then the wine is sealed off (in bottles for the traditional method and in a refrigerated tank for the charmat method).
Note: The cheapest sparkling wines get their carbonation just like your colas do… with compressed carbon dioxide blasted into the wine. This creates large bubbles that are aggressive in the mouth and very short lived.
As the yeast consumes the sugars, alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced. Since the carbon dioxide cannot escape, it absorbs into the wine until it can be liberated by some lucky fellow in the form of tiny, streaming bubbles.
After the yeast has finished the second fermentation, it settles to the bottom and forms a sediment called lees. In the charmat method, this is simply filtered out from the tank. The traditional method involves turning over the bottles and rotating them over a period of up to three months to allow all of the lees to settle into the necks of the bottles. Then they are flash-frozen and the sediment is removed as a frozen plug.
After the lees are filtered or removed as plugs, more sugar is added to balance out the high acidity of the sparkline wine. Then a super strong cork is inserted and the bottles are ready for further aging or selling.
Things to Know When Buying a Sparkling Wine
Champagne is more complex, toastier, and has more and smaller bubbles than sparkling wines from the charmat method because of its long term exposure to lees.
Sparkling wines may be high quality, but the charmat method was chosen because it creates a fruitier flavor from limited exposure to lees. An example would be Italy’s Asti.
The sweetness of a sparkling wine or Champagne ranges from:
- Extra Brut (Brut Sauvage) – Totally dry
- Brut – Dry
- Extra Dry – Medium dry
- Sec – Slightly sweet
- Demi – Sec: Fairly sweet
- Doux – Sweet
Vintage Champagne is made only from grapes harvested during a specific year. They only make vintage Champagne during years where the grapes had exceptional growing seasons and it is aged longer than non-vintage Champagne. They can range from $35 – $50 a bottle.
Premium vintage Champagne or prestige cuvée is made using only the best grapes from top vineyards for that year and the Pinot Meunier variety is often left out. They can range from $60 to literally hundreds of dollars.