You may be a Champagne lover like me, but have you ever considered how the bubble gets in the bottle? Why some bubbles are small and creamy, while others are much larger and dissapate faster? It all depends on how Champagne is made.
First off, Champagne is a sparkling wine that is made in the Champagne region of France. The Champagne region is located approximately 90 minutes northeast of Paris. Its far northern location, with cool climate and chalky sub-soil combine to create their unique terroir. I did visit the capital city of the region, Reims, in June a few years ago, and it was terribly cold and wet.
Champagne wasn’t always known for sparkling wine. It was originally a producer of still white wines. The knowledge of how to add the bubbles came later. Also there was the need to produce stronger, thicker bottles to withstand the pressure caused by the dissolved carbon dioxide bubbles.
Part of what makes Champagne, Champagne are the grapes used: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, in various combinations and amounts. These grapes are fermented to produce a still dry wine. At this point this wine, as well as other still wines from previous vintages may be blended together to make a consistent “house” style (FYI, most Champagne is non-vintage). Once blended, the wine is bottled, and a mixture of sugar and yeast, known as the “liqueur de triage”, is added. The bottle is closed with a crown cap (think beer bottle cap) and laid down horizontally in a cool, dark cellar. The minimum amount of time the wine ages is 15 months for non-vintage and 3 years for vintage wine, but most Champagne is aged for a longer period. The yeast interacts with the sugar in the bottle to produce carbon dioxide which is dissolved in the wine.
After the aging period is over you have dead yeast cells remaining in the bottle and needs to be removed. The removal process, called ‘riddling‘ is undertaken by slowly tilting the bottle upside down through a series of quarter or half-quarter turns done over around an 8 week period by hand. This riddling process is mechanized by many wineries, speeding up the time required to get the dead yeast into the neck of the bottle.
Getting out the yeast is the next step, called ‘disgorgement‘. The Champagne bottle neck is bathed in an ice-cold brine that freezes the dead yeast cells into a small ice block. By removing the crown closure, the pressure from the carbon dioxide in the bottle will push out the ice block. Then a small amount of sugar dissolved in wine (known as dosage) is added before the cork is inserted in the bottle. Again this could be done by hand or by machine. The amount of sugar added to the wine will determine the overall sweetness of the Champagne.
This entire process is known as méthode champenoise.
Styles of Champagne
There are in general 5 levels of sweetness for Champagne:
- Brut: dry, less than 1.5% sugar
- Extra Sec: extra dry, 1.2 to 2% sugar
- Sec: medium sweet, 1.7 to 3.5% sugar
- Demi-Sec: sweet, 3.3 to 5% sugar
- Doux: very sweet, over 5% sugar
A Champagne house may produce all these different levels of sweetness, to cover different people’s tastes and occasions to enjoy their sparkling wine. Besides the sweetness of the Champagne, there are a few other variations that you should know.
Champagne made from Chardonnay grapes only will be labelled as “Blanc de Blancs“. Blanc de Blancs tend to be lighter in colour and more citrusy in flavour, and I have found that the bubble is smaller and creamier.
If the Champagne is made from only the red grapes, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, the wine will be labelled “Blanc de Noirs“. This style of Champagne tends to be more full-bodied, and generally has a larger bubble.
You may also get a rose Champagne, which can be produced in one of two ways. The first method is to add a bit of red wine to the final blend, while the second method is to expose the grape juice (must) to the red skins during pressing so some of the colour bleeds into the must.
Vintage Champagne is Champagne produced using wine from only 1 year (or vintage). This is quite rare, and is meant only when the wine produced for a particular year is exceptional, or possibly due to an important date. For example, there were vintage Champanges produced from 2000. Most Champagne as I mentioned earlier is Non-Vintage, as it is a blend of multiple vintages, and is meant to keep a certain flavour and aroma profile for a Champagne house.
You may see the term méthode champenoise used by other countries for their sparkling wines, which let’s you know that they produce their sparkling wine in bottle just as they do in Champagne. This method tends to produce finer, more persistent bubble than the other major method to produce sparkling wine, known as the Charmat method. With Charmat, wine undergoes it’s second fermentation in bulk tanks, not in a bottle, and is later bottled under pressure. Prosecco is probably the most well-known sparkling wine made with the Charmat method.
There is much more information about Champagne and sparkling wine in general, and I will try to write some follow on articles to go into these details. But for the moment, enjoy the upcoming Vancouver International Wine Festival, which has France as the theme country and sparkling wine as the theme wine. The Champagne houses attending the festival are:
- Champagne Barons de Rothschild
- Champagne H. Blin
- Charles de Cazanove
- Nicolas Feuillatte
- Champagne Taittinger