Champagne and Other 'Champagnes'

Dec 28, 2009

...the girls' faces brighter than roses and the sparkle...
the hiss of sparkling wine-glasses...
- Aleksandr Pushkin

In just a few short days, 2010 will be here as the Old Year will replace the New. Typically, we celebrate this changing of the guard with kisses at midnight and the wines that sparkle. But as both Miguel Cervantes and Robert Frost once remarked, all that glitters is not gold, and if we think of wine, the same can almost also be said: all that sparkles is not Champagne.


For as long as I’ve known, Champagne will always be the by-word for sparkling wines the way that Kleenex has become synonymous with facial tissue. It’s here to stay. EU laws states that a wine must be from Champagne, in Northern France for it to be sold as Champagne. But when people say they are drinking Champagne when it's actually sparkling wine, they’re actually not that far off the mark.

Champagne, like many other sparkling wines is made using the traditional method (or méthod champenoise). The steps are as follows:

FIRST FERMENTATION: like every other wine, the producer has to make a still wine. So there's a harvest (in Champagne, there are three main varieties used: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay), the varieties ferment separately and wine is made. 

BLENDING:Each Champagne house has its own distinct style and taste so the blender will  work accordingly, aiming to stay consistent with the brand (some use just a bit of Pinot Meunier, the majority of the blend being Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).

Typically, the different wines will be non-vintage, meaning the wines for Champagne can be from any number of years. (If the vintage is stated, the wine must be 100% from that year.) Other things to keep in mind:

Blanc de Blanc – a wine made from white grapes only (i.e. just Chardonnay).
Blanc de Noirs – a white wine made from red grapes (i.e. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier).

Veuve Cliquot - famous Champagne House - example of vintage Champagne

SECOND FERMENTATION: Before bottling, a small amount of liquer de tirage (a wine containing sugar, yeast nutrients and a clarifying agent) will be added to the now blended wine. Once in the bottles,  the second fermentation gets going. A temporary seal is then used as a closure and the wines are laid to rest horizontally.

In Champagne, the cellars where the bottles are placed are traditionally fairly cold - 
EQUATION : lower temperature equals slower fermentation equals complexity of the flavours.

The yeasts in the bottle work and eat away at the sugar, creating three important things: alcohol, CO2, and a final deposit (wait: why is the deposit important? wait and see).

While the wine slowly ferments, the gas is unable to escape from the bottle and slowly dissolves into the wine, thus giving us the bubbles when we pop the cork.

MATURATION: As the dead yeast cells break down and their enzymes interact with the wine (a process called yeast autolysis), the wine takes on new characteristics and the result is a ‘bready, biscuit, toasty’ taste. This is because Non-vintage Champagne has to be aged a minimum of 15 months and vintage, at least thee years giving the dead yeast cells time to intermingle with the other flavours of the wine.

RIDDLING: So now we have this wine with a deposit in it. How do we get rid of it?

Riddling is the answer. The bottle has been lying horizontally (sur latte) with the deposit on the side in a rack called a pupitre. The holes in the pupitre allows for the bottle to be placed at different angles. Over time, a skilled remueur (or I guess Riddler… if you wanted to be silly) will come along and skillfully, gradually, every so carefully give each bottle a gentle shake and twist and incline the bottle toward the vertical position.                                                            Pupitres in Champagne wine cellar

DISGORGEMENT: We’re almost done. Almost there.

Once this sediment has slid towards the cork and the bottle is nearly vertical, the neck of the bottle is frozen in a brine solution. From there, the bottles are placed upright on a conveyor belt, the ice holding the solid solution. The temporary cork is removed, the plug of ice with the deposit is ejected under pressure.

DOSAGE: Of course during the disgorgement stage, some wine is lost. As I mentioned, each Champagne house is different and some want their wines sweeter than others. It is fair to say, the majority of Champagne is dry (it used to be sweet, the Russian Tzars drank sweet Champagne by the bucket-load) but during the dosage stage, the kind of wine used to top up the bottle can be high in sugar. Here are a few terms to consider when buying Champagne:

Brut Nature – absolutely dry (as dry as dry can be).
Extra Brut – very dry
Brut – very dry to reasonably dry
Extra Sec or Extra Dry – off-dry to medium dry (just a bit of sweet in other words).
Sec/Dry/Secco/Seco/Trocken – medium dry (a bit more sweet)
Demi-Sec/Semi-Dulce/Abbocato/Halbtrocken – a bit on the sweet
Doux/Sweet/Dolce/Dulce/Doce – really sweet…lush…

Crémant – besides Champagne, other French regions such as Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire also make traditional method sparkling wine. On the label you’ll often see Crémant de Bourgogne, etc… These wines can be made with other white wines such as Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Chenin Blanc.

Cava – Spanish sparkling wine is perhaps the closest you can get to the real thing (I swear by Cava and love it and some wine lovers can distinguish between them). The majority of the wine comes from the vineyards of Penedés in Catalonia (northeast Spain), the wine can be produced in other regions such as Rioja and Navarra.

For Cava to be truly Cava, it must spend a minimum of nine months in bottle before disgorgement (also the cork must have a four-pointed star on its base). It’s dry, easy to drink, low in acid and very similar to Champagne with that bready, yeasty taste. The main grapes, however are different and include Maccabeo (aka, Viura in Rioja), Xarel-lo and Parellada. Some producers are also using Chardonnay but unlike Champagne, Cava is rarely made for aging. 

New World – outside Europe, you can find some excellent sparkling wines made in the traditional method in New Zealand, California, Australia and South America. But you have to keep an eye out for the real deal. Some New World wines are made using other methods (Tank, Carbonation) and won’t have the same charisma and characteristics of Champagne. Be cautious and look for labels that explain the method (i.e. Made Using the Traditional Method, etc..).


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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