What is Champagne or sparkling wine?
Sparkling wine is a wine that creates carbonation through yeast fermenting in an airtight container. This can be in a stainless steel tank or in the bottle. This is done in secondary fermentation. The primary fermentation is when the yeast converts sugars to alcohol, this makes regular still wine.
Did you know that Burgundy and Alsace also produce a sparkling wine called Cremant? It is delicious and often gets overlooked because of Champagne. These were also around during the earliest recordings of sparkling wine being made by the Benedictine monks. Sparkling wine has a lot of history in France.
Sparkling Winemaking Methods
These two types of winemaking methods are used consistently throughout the world, although the grapes used in the wines can vary greatly.
Tank “Charmat” Method
After regular fermentation is complete, additional yeast and sugar are added into the wine (tirage). As the yeast eat the sugars, they release carbon dioxide, which causes bubbles to form. This is all done in a sealed tank to ensure the carbon monoxide doesn’t escape.
The amount of sugar and yeast that are added for secondary fermentation depends on the sweetness level you want to end up with; brut (dry) or doux (sweet).
Common Charmat method sparkling wines you will see are Prosecco and Lambrusco.
The traditional sparkling winemaking method (or Champagne method or methode champenoise) is a bit more complicated than the Charmat method and requires a few more steps.
The Cuvee, or base wine used for traditional method sparkling wines is a lot more tart because sugars will be added later after first fermentation is complete.
After the base wines are bottled, sugar and yeast are added to the bottles. This starts the second fermentation process. The closed environment of the bottle ensures that the carbon monoxide being released by the yeast has nowhere to escape and creates that perfect effervescence we all love.
Next, these bottles are aged upside down on the lees well after secondary fermentation is complete. The lees are the leftover debris after fermentation is complete. This consists mostly of dead yeast cells. This adds yeasty flavors of bread, popcorn, and biscuits.
As the bottle’s age on the lees, they are also riddled (Le Remuage). While traditionally done by hand, they now have machines that do it. Riddling is the process of slowly rotating the bottles so that it collects the lees or dead yeast into the neck of the bottle.
After the lees are collected into the bottle and aging is complete, the neck of the bottle is dipped into a liquid nitrogen bath. This freezes the lee and allows for it to be disgorged. Once the cap is popped off, the frozen lee comes out.
Next, the wine is topped off in a method called “dosage” or crown cap before corking, labeling, and processing for sale.
Base wine–Bottling–Secondary fermentation–Lees aging–Disgorgement–Dosage
This is the winemaking process for Champagne, Cava, and other regional sparkling wines around the world.
Traditional sparkling wines have small bubbles with 6-7 atmospheres of pressure. You can often tell if it was made in the traditional method because there will be a small steady stream of bubbles coming from the bottom of the glass.
Charmat method sparkling wines have medium-sized bubbles with 2-4 atmospheres of pressure. You can often tell if it was made in the Charmat method because the bubbles will be slightly bigger and will be throughout the glass.
Learn more about the differences between Prosecco and Champagne here.
The Rules of Champagne
Before getting into the profile differences of different sparkling wines, let’s make sure to cover the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine. Many people associate any bubbly wine with Champagne. However, they are not the same.
Champagne is a place. It is a town in France and one of their most famous wine regions, located about 100 miles northeast of Paris. Like many wines in France, the region and wine share the same name. Because of this, Champagne can legally only be on labels of sparkling wine made in Champagne.
If a producer in Spain or New Zealand makes their sparkling wines in the traditional method, like Champagne, they cannot call it that. Any bottle that says Champagne that was not made in Champagne, France is a huge red flag.
Champagne can be made of three grapes; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay. Classic Champagne is made from both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Only small amounts of Pinot Meunier are used, if ever. Just because black grapes are used does not mean that it makes a red wine. Blanc de Blancs is made only from Chardonnay. Blanc de Noir is Champagne made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, both red grapes. Blanc de Noir does not, however, create a rose sparkling wine. The grape juice does not sit on the skins at all after pressing the grapes. They also make a rose Champagne that is often made from combining red and white wines after primary fermentation.
Most Champagne is non-vintage or a blend of different vintages. This ensures that each winery has a consistent wine and flavor. Vintage Champagnes are very rare and are only made during the best harvests.
Cheaper versions of sparkling wines, especially those that are sweet, are often a mixture of wine and cane sugar. Buying authentic sparkling wine like Champagne, Prosecco, or Cava can be very affordable and worth it. Because these wines are sought after and popular around the world, there can sometimes be a black market for knock-offs. Always buy your wines from a reputable source.
Sweetness Levels of Champagne
On the label of any Champagne bottle, you will see the sweetness level. Often, these terms are used for other sparkling wines as well throughout the world.
Brut Naturelle- Bone dry
Extra brut- Very dry
Extra Dry- Dry to medium
Sec- Medium dry or medium sweet
Doux- Very sweet
Notable regions in Champagne
The most common Champagne regions are:
- Montagne de Reims
- Vallee de la Marne
- Cote des Blancs
- Cote des Bar
What makes Champagne so special?
The Champagne region of France gets its own name and region because of the history, culture, and quality surrounding it. Champagne has been around for centuries. Not only is it a time-consuming art, but it is also costly to do so. Some of the best winemakers reside in Champagne and devote their lives to this sparkling goodness. The consistency and quality of wines coming from this region are outstanding. Champagne (both the region and wine) are a vital part of French history.
The Champagne region is famously rich with chalk and limestone soils, which are important for growing top-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Next time you pick up a bottle of Champagne, remember all the effort and love that went into making it. It doesn’t need to be a bottle of Dom Perignon either, all of the Champagne houses create excellent and consistent wines. $20-30 will get you a very decent bottle of Champagne.
Tip: Champagne is a great pairing wine!
We seem to think that glasses of bubbly are only for New Year’s Eve and celebrations, but Champagne and other sparkling wines make great pairings. Pair with oysters, a cured meat and cheese plate, and more.
Looking for something more fruity? Try Prosecco or an off-dry sparkling wine.
There are tons of great bottles of bubbly for under $20! Try to plan a dinner around a bottle or bring some bubbly to your next get together. Moet & Chandon is a very popular international brand that you can find in most places that sell sparkling wines.