The bubbly wine commonly known as "champagne" is sparkling wine - wine with carbon dioxide bubbles. Technically, champagne refers only to the sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France, but for better or worse, in the United States the term is used indiscriminantly for all sparkling wine.
How is sparkling wine made? What kinds of sparkling wine are there? Read on!
Sparkling Wine Production
Sparkling wines can be produced via several methods and the technique used plays a considerable role in the final cost. The original champagne method is the most difficult and labor-intensive and commands a higher price, while at the low end the bubbles come from a carbonater (just like soda) and doesn't cost much at all.
This method is what they use in the Champagne region of France and is also known as methode traditionelle (the traditional method).
- The harvest for champagne is usually slightly earlier, so that the grapes are more acidic and less sweet. Since champagne is often a mix of red and white grapes, the pressing must be done quickly to prevent the red grapes from coloring the wine
- The first fermentation follows the same process as any still wine. At the end of this stage the cuvee (blend) is made, between different vineyards and (for non-vintage champagne) different years. The base wine at this stage is said to be somewhat unpleasant.
- The blend is put into bottles with yeast and added sugar (liquer de tirage) and left to ferment horizontally. French law requires 1.5 years for AOC Champagne, and 3 years is common for the better vintages. Carbon dioxide builds up inside the bottle during this time.
- The wine is aged on the lees for a considerable time, at least 15 months in France and at least 3 years for vintage champagne, although producers usually age significantly longer in good years.
- The bottles now undergo the riddling (remuage) process, where the bottle is gently shaken and the angle at which it rests is slowly increased. The result is that the sediment is encouraged to settle towards the neck. At the end of riddling, the bottles are pointed down and the sediment is all in the neck. This process used to be done by hand (and still is in higher end champagne) but is more commonly done by machine now.
- The final step is called degorgement in French and involves the removal of all the sediment. This was originally a manual process that requires considerable skill to remove the lees and the cork without losing too much wine in the process. Modern methods involve freezing the neck and removing the plug of ice (and all the lees) with it. Since some amount of wine is lost in this process, the bottle is topped off again with the liquer de expedition, which is a mix of the original base wine and sugar. The sugar determines the resulting sweetness of the champagne, as all the original sugar is consumed during fermentation.
This method is used worldwide for finer sparkling wines, not just in France. Different countries call their methode traditionelle wines different things; see below.
Metodo Italiano (Charmat process)
This method, as the name indicates, is often used in Italy (especially for Prosecco and Asti Spumante), as well as in the United States for low-cost bubbly.
- The process begins similarly to champagne, with the creation of a base wine.
- The base wine is placed in a complicated system of large pressurized steel tanks for the second fermentation, instead of in bottles as champagne. These closed tanks retain the pressure from secondary fermentation. When fermentation is complete, the wine can be removed from the tank under pressure and placed directly into the bottles.
This process is also sometimes known as the bulk process and does not produce quite the same results as the traditional method, but is a lot cheaper.
In the cheapest sparkling wines, a simple still wine is made and carbon dioxide is injected by a carbonator, much in the same manner as soda.
Sparkling Wine Around the World
Sparkling wine is made in most countries that make wine, but there are several well-known regional variants.
- Champagne is a region in France and is the progenitor of bubbly wines. It has come to be so associated with bubbly wine that in many places (especially in the United States) it has become synonymous with sparkling wine, much to the dismay of the French. According to EU law, Champagne refers specifically to the original champagne from France, all others must be labeled as sparkling wine or something else. Real Champagne must be made from Chardonnay, Pinor Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes, the exact ratios of which are secrets that are jealously gaurded by the old Champagne houses. In the United States, champagne is often used generically, even for wines that bear no resemblance to the original beyond the bubbles.
- Cava is the Spanish version of Champagne. It can be white or pink but must be made in the traditional method, using the usual Champagne grapes along with native Spanish grapes like xarel.lo.
- Cremant is French sparkling wine made outside of Champagne proper. There are several appellations, with Cremant d'Alsace being the most common on store shelves.
- Asti is a sweet low-alcohol sparkling wine made from moscato grapes. Proper sparkling Asti (such as Asti Spumante) is made with true bubbles, while Moscato d'Asti is made slightly fizzy (and does not require the wire cage around the cork). Note that spumante itself is a generic term for bubbly and much of the "spumante" sold in the United States is not Asti Spumante but lesser (and headache-inducing) plonk.
- Cap Classique is South African bubbly. It is made the same way as Champagne, but typically uses saugivnon blanc and chenin blanc for the base wine.
How Does It Taste?
The bottle often provides clues for how your bubbly will taste.
First, the bottle may indicate (sort of) the grapes used. The designations are:
- Blanc de Blanc indicates that only white grapes (typically straight chardonnay) are used, resulting in a crisp and bracing wine.
- Blanc de Noir indicates that only red grapes are used (red grapes are actually white on the inside), typically pinot noir. The grape skins are pulled before they have a chance to color the wine, but often a very slight pink tinge remains. The wine itself tends to have more berry flavors.
- Rose indicates a pink wine. It is not necessarily a blanc de noir with more color as white grapes can be used.
The sweetness is often indicated on the label as well. Although these terms are not regulated in all parts of the world, they are commonly understood enough to be meaningful:
- Extra Brut is extremely dry.
- Brut is dry and is the "typical" champagne.
- Sec is slightly sweet.
- Demi-Sec is sweet.
- Doux is extremely sweet, coming up on dessert wine territory.
These reviews appear elsewhere on this site under their respective countries and are duplicated here for your convenience.
27 May 2011 Fizzy pear jelly with a creamy mouthfeel. Pleasant but undistinguished.
$20 / bottle
2010 Crisp and effervescent citrus with a strong mineral finish.
$14 / bottle
14 February 2011 Powerful apples and white grapes. Bracingly crisp, minimal yeast, and surprisingly heady.
$35 / bottle
9 August 2010 Steely and restrained, with mellow fruit and an apple-yeast flavor. Very aloof.
$50 / bottle
31 December 2009 Crisp and clean with prominent red grape skin flavors and berry essence. Minimally yeasty.
$15 / bottle
4 November 2008 Sharp and slightly yeasty with very clean fruit. More like a brut than a demi-sec; not a hint of sweetness.
$15 / bottle
20 May 2008 Juicy apple flavor over a crisp effervescent base. Minimal yeast. Tasty.
$26 / bottle
1 May 2002 Effervescent, prominent toasty beer-like yeast flavor. Smooth and creamy, with light pear and citrus flavors. High acid, long finish.
$18 / bottle
9 January 2010 Bracingly crisp with sour apple and yeast notes. Very acidic.
$10 / bottle
27 February 2010 Bright and off-dry with strong pear flavors backed by a hint of apple. Fun.
$15 / bottle
1 January 2008 Somewhat coars texture with explosive citrus and green flavors, especially apples. Tart but with a slight hint of sweetness in the long finish.
$19 / bottle
1 May 2002 Coarse texture, rather light and simple grape and citrus flavors. Somewhat acid and rather simple.
$9 / bottle
1 May 2002 Very effervescent, low acid, very buttery bread and toast flavors, medium finish.
$20 / bottle
1 May 2002 Effervescent, intense fruit and toasty yeast flavor. Prominent grape and citrus with berry fruit.
$20 / bottle
1 May 2002 More delicate, wine-like flavor. Extremely lively cherry and strawberry fruit flavor, balanced acid, and bread-like yeast. Excellent mouth feel. Superior.
$44 / bottle
31 December 2003 Very sharp and tart, with clean fruit and a touch of yeast.
$30 / bottle
13 April 2008 Apples and light grape over wet bread. Muddled flavors, lots of bite.
$8 / bottle
17 May 2008 Herbal and tropical nose with bright citrus flavors. Crisp, minimal yeast flavors, and fine bubbles.
$21 / bottle
24 April 2008 Dark apple and yeast flavors. Large soda-like bubbles. Unimpressive.
$11 / bottle
16 May 2008 Bitter and unbalanced, with a strong grain alcohol nose. Unpleasant.
$8 / bottle