Sparkling wine is often associated with special occasions, romantic dinners, and parties celebrating various milestones. And because Valentine’s Day is less than a week away, what better time to talk about bubbly.
First and foremost, not all sparkling wine is “Champagne.” So please don’t refer to your sparkling Cook’s “California Champagne” as such (and please, don’t buy Cook’s either). Only sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France is actually “Champagne”.
These wines often demand extremely high prices on the shelves of your local wine stores, as do other sparkling wines, but why? And where do those bubbles come from?
Well, these sparkling wines, including those from Champagne, use a very expensive and labor-intensive method known as Méthode Champenoise, or Traditional Method, to bring about those amazing bubbles. This process, and what goes into it, is well regulated, especially in the Champagne region.
The Champagne Appellation’s law states that only three grapes varietals are allowed to grow in Champagne, which include: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. However, in regions outside of Champagne utilizing Méthode Champenoise, any grapes may be used.
The grapes are hand harvested usually around mid-September and then they’re usually delivered a short distance to a pressing facility near the vineyard grounds. Once there, the grapes are pressed and the juice, known as must, is collected. The must is then delivered to the various winemakers (which are called “Houses” in Champagne).
The vintage wine, meaning that it is of a single harvest and its year is noted on the label, is put in oak barrels. Conversely, the non-vintage wine (i.e., the lesser, but still excellent wine) which is often a blend of several vintages labeled as N.V. (for “Non-Vintage”), is put into stainless steel tanks. Then, specially chosen yeasts are added to start primary fermentation in the oak barrels or stainless steel tanks.
The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide via anaerobic respiration. Once the alcohol levels rises to about 10%, the yeasts die off and the fermentation stalls, thus completing what is called primary fermentation. This typically takes around 10 days to complete. The carbon dioxide is allowed to be released during primary fermentation, so the bubbles in the wine aren’t formed during this step (what? NO BUBBLES?!” Just be patient.). This is the same fermentation cycle that all wines undergo.
Méthode Champenoise wines then undergo a spectacular secondary fermentation cycle. At that time, wines from different vineyards are blended together and bottled with a mixture of sugar and water. The bottles are then placed in a damp cellar for five weeks, during which the yeasts that were added during the primary fermentation process then increases the wine’s alcohol levels to around 12.5%. Finally, they lie the bottles down horizontally on a rack and rotate the bottles a 1/4 turn every few days (which is specific to each winery). This rack-rotation method must be done for a minimum of six months but can be done for up to 10 years.
Once the winemaker deems the wine ready, the bottles are turned upright and workers freeze their necks (the necks of the wine, not the people). The yeast residue, known as lees, sits at the top of the bottle. No one wants a glass of yeast from their sparkling wine, so the workers must remove the wine’s cork, by hand, prior to sending the bottle out to consumers. The pressure built up by the secondary fermentation process ejects the clump of lees when the cork is removed, a process known as disgorging. The bottle is then inspected and the wine is smelled, and if everything checks out, then a worker adds a special liqueur, known as liqueur de dosage, to each bottle of bubbly.
This liqueur, made from wine and sugar, is added to increase the sweetness. The amount added determines whether the wine can be classified as Brut, Sec, or Demi–Sec. Brut is the least sweet classification, while demi-sec is the sweetest.
Méthode Champenoise isn’t just used by the French. Spain’s Cava and Italy’s Franciacorta (see our prior post entitled, Franciacorta: Italy’s Bubbling Wine Region) both undergo Méthode Champenoise as well. In other words, it’s very popular.
There are other, less expensive methods of making bubbly, once of which is carrying out secondary fermentation in big tanks instead of individual bottles. The wine is then bottled under pressure. This process is known as Charmat, or Metodo Italiano, and is of Italian origin. The Charmat process is the most widely used method for secondary fermentation. For instance, Italy’s Prosecco is produced using this method. Because the process is less labor and cost intensive, these wines can be sold for as little as $5 a bottle.
Another method is the Transfer Method, where the winemaker bottles the wine for secondary fermenation, like in Méthode Champenoise. However, the bottle spends less time on the lees and is then transferred to a big tank, where the liqueur is added, and the wine is filtered and bottled.
The last method used to produce bubbles involves adding carbon dioxide to still wine. This method is not allowed to be used in the European Union. Really, it should only be used in soda-making. Period.
Finally, you may notice on your bottle of bubbly the phrases, “blanc-de-blanc” or “blanc-de-noir”. Blanc-de-blanc simply mean white wine made from light-skinned grapes, such as Chardonnay. Blanc-de-noir means white wine made from dark-skinned grapes, such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You can even have noir-de-noir, which is often sparking rose or red wine.
We don’t know about you, but this post has made us crave some sparkling wine. In fact, we have some chilling now which we will review in one of our next posts. We hope you, too, enjoy some great wine and hope that this information has made you bubble with joy!