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Sparkling Wine 101

by David on June 25, 2009

When we took on wine 101, for the sake of brevity, we didn’t go into sparkling wine because it’s a subject unto itself. Once you visit a sparkling wine house, and see how laborious it is, you’ll wonder why it doesn’t cost even more than it does!

Let’s get some of the confusing terminology out of the way, starting with the word “Champagne”. Champagne is the northernmost wine region in France, just northeast of Paris.

The people of the Champagne region didn’t necessarily invent sparkling wine – there’s evidence that the fore-runner to the Champagne we know now was made first in the south of France. And, reasonable facsimiles have been made by accident as long as wine has existed. However, Champagne is the region that perfected the arduous process and made it famous. True Champagne is still the benchmark for all that bubbles. For more on the history of Champagne, click here.

What’s in a Name?
In the European Union the wine may not be called Champagne unless it comes from the legally- defined area that goes by that name. In fact, to make a point of it, very recently the labeling laws were changed so that they no longer refer to wine made in the traditional method as the Champagne Method or Méthode Champenoise. Instead, they call it the traditional or classic method and you’ll see Méthode Traditionnelle or Méthode Classique on the label to indicate that the wine was made in the labor intensive, Champagne style. This traditional method requires almost all the work it takes to make table wine and then numerous steps are added. And, this method requires that the wine is managed bottle by bottle instead of tank by tank or barrel by barrel.

In other parts of the world, Champagne is viewed as a somewhat generic name, like Kleenex. But, most producers outside of the EU avoid using the name out of respect for the Champagne region. In the US we aren’t allowed to use the name unless the label was approved before 2006 and also states where the wine was actually grown, for instance California Champagne. And, if we used a method other than the traditional Champagne method, it has to be clearly stated to call it Champagne. So, most of the new world calls it sparkling wine and many countries have their own names. In Spain, it’s called Cava. In Italy, the Prosecco and Spumante are very popular. The Germans call it Sekt and in France, outside of the Champagne region, it’s common to call it Crémant.

The Varieties
The traditional varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which is a mutation of Pinot Noir. This is a generalization, because location is everything when it comes to vineyards, but the conventional wisdom is that the Chardonnay brings freshness, floral character and finesse to the blend. Pinot Noir gives the wine a bit of weight and power, and the Pinot Meunier adds brightness and fruitiness. While the grapes for table wine are generally harvested between 22 and 26% sugar, sparkling-wine grapes are harvested earlier, at around 18% sugar. This is important, because the wine has to be fermented twice and its delicacy will be compromised if the alcohol is too high when all is said and done. This also means that the wine is subtle in flavor, compared to most table wine and, especially in a very cool region like Champagne, almost painfully acidic.

Making the Base Wine
The grapes for fine sparkling wine are nearly always hand harvested. And, it’s also important to press the juice away from the skins as gently as possible so the juice is low in solids and also to avoid bitterness, astringency or other flaws that may be magnified by the second fermentation. In fact, in France, whether it’s Champagne or Crémant, the yield in juice per kilo is regulated.

Then it’s time to get this lovely juice fermented. The winemaker has the same myriad choices he would in making still wine – such choice of yeast, fermentation temperature, method of stabilization and whether or not to induce malolactic conversion.

The Assemblage
The winemaking takes several weeks and then the real fun begins. It’s time to make the assemblage, or cuvée, which is the blend. This is a crucial moment for the wine, from a stylistic point of view, and there are almost countless possibilities. The winemaker has probably already decided which style he wants to make: a Blanc de Blanc (white of white), which is traditionally all Chardonnay; Blanc de Noir (white of black), which is made of black grapes; Or rosé, which can be made by adding a small amount of red wine to the blend or, less frequently, by letting the Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier juice remain in contact with the skins for a short time. Oddly enough, you’d generally reverse those practices in making a rosé as a still wine. Of course, many producers make all three styles and then some.

In any case, the winemaker usually has numerous batches of all three varieties. Another quirk in making Champagne in the classic way is that it’s a standard practice to blend different vintages together. Each year the winemaker holds back some of the wine, which is called reserve. Of course, this term causes confusion. The term reserve, in reference to sparkling wine, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a special lot – it’s just wine being held in reserve for future blends. These reserve wines are kept to help balance difficult vintages and to achieve consistency of style over the years for their non-vintage sparkler. The Champagne region is so far north that the weather can be challenging. Only a few times a decade is a vintage declared, which means that the quality was good enough, that year, to vintage date the wine. Recently we’ve seen the emergence of single-vineyard and single-village Champagnes but these are these are still relatively rare. Non-vintage, regionally-blended Champagne accounts for the vast majority of the wine of the region and most producers will say that their non-vintage blend is the embodiment of their house style.

What all this means is that besides the various varietal batches, often from different parts of the region, the winemaker has a selection of older wines available for blending. In the best houses the wines are tasted and re-tasted over a period of months in an effort to make the sum greater than its parts. It’s truly an art and the best qualification for the winemaker, at this point, is experience.

So, this tart blend needs to be clarified and stabilized in the same way table wine is handled. Now, comes the crucial step – making the wine fizzy.

Second Fermentation
The important thing to know about any fermentation is that, beside alcohol, it produces a considerable amount of carbon dioxide gas. In a still-wine fermentation the gas is released but, in this case, it needs to be captured. The traditional method is to bottle the wine in very heavy glass, add a little yeast and sugar to it and close it up. Incidentally, this is the same bottle in which the wine will later be sold. These days, many winemakers like to fit the neck with a small plastic cup called a bidule, to collect the sediment later on, and then the bottle is sealed with a crown cap, which is just like a beer- bottle cap. The second fermentation is usually done in a very chilly cellar and takes several weeks. Champagne yeast has been selected for flavor attributes and also for its ability to settle nicely since the wine can’t be filtered later. It’s not uncommon to use Champagne yeast to make table wine, too. This second fermentation will usually bring the alcohol up by at least 1% and all the wonderful carbon-dioxide gas is trapped inside the bottle and absorbed into the wine, creating a tremendous amount of pressure – thus the heavy glass. Eventually, when you open the bottle, the pressure is released as those glorious bubbles! Two scientists, that we know of, have tried to estimate the number of bubbles in a bottle of Champagne and they came up with very different, yet equally impressive answers: 49 million and 250 million! After the yeast is later removed, the pressure is typically about 5-6 atmospheres or 60-90 pounds per square inch – the pressure has been compared to the tire pressure on a double-decker bus! That’s why we’re not joking when we say to be careful not to point the bottle at anyone when you open it!

Aging, riddling and disgorging
Now, the winemaker is faced with a decision: to age or not to age and, of course, this refers to bottle age, not barrel age. In the Champagne region there isn’t a choice – 15 months of aging is the minimum. Vintage Champagne is usually aged for years, which is one of the reasons it’s so expensive. In most other parts of the world it’s up to the individual producer. The reason to age the wine on the spent yeast cells is that it gives it additional complexity, quite often by way of a toasty or brioche-like character to complement the fruit. The bubbles also get smaller and finer, with age, so that they feel almost creamy rather than assaulting your palate like a soft drink. The only way to know how the wine is coming along is to open a bottle, but the winemaker has previous efforts and sensory experience as a reference when it comes to how long to leave the wine on the yeast.

At the end of aging it’s time to clean the wine up. The dead yeast cells form a sticky sediment that clings to the bottle and needs to be removed without losing too much wine in the process. The traditional method, hand riddling or remuage, can take upward of six weeks of nearly daily effort. The bottles are placed neck down, in a special riddling rack, which is an A-frame rack with numerous holes, for the bottle necks, in it. The first riddling rack was created in the 1800s by the widow Cliquot of Veuve Cliquot fame. She simply cut holes into her kitchen table, stuck the bottles in them, nose down, and gave them a little shake in order to dislodge the sediment. That isn’t much different from what happens in a riddling rack today. Each bottle is abruptly shaken and turned by 1/8 of a rotation, each day, and is slowly inclined until it’s nearly vertical. This terribly labor-intensive approach gradually works the yeast up into the bottle neck so it can be removed. The very best wines will be further aged, upside down, or “en point”, even longer. Fewer and fewer producers carry on with this very costly method. In the early 1970s a nifty machine called a gyropalette came into use and can riddle over 500 bottles at a time by remote control. It gets the whole job done, sometimes, in a matter of only a few days.

Now, it’s time to get rid of the yeast, which is called disgorgement or dégorgement. Traditionally, the bottle neck is submerged in a freezing brine forming a pellet of frozen, dead yeast cells. When the cap is removed, this pellet shoots out under about 100 pounds of pressure. As you can imagine, this is quite exciting when it’s done manually! These days, it’s nearly always done by machine and, of course, a little wine is lost in the process. The bottle is topped up with a wine and sugar-syrup mixture called the dosage.

Brut, extra dry, etc. (EU regulations)

  • Brut: This term is meant to tell you that the wine is bone dry. In reality, it may be up 1.5% sugar. (human threshold for sugar is about one half of one percent), but the wine doesn’t taste sweet because of the high acidity.
  • Extra dry: The sweetness is between 1.2 and 2% sugar, just slightly sweet.
  • Demi-sec: between 3.3 and 5% sugar – quite sweet.
  • Doux: 5% sugar and up – very sweet
  • Extra brut: .6% sugar – very dry
  • Brut nature or zero dosage – .3% sugar, with no dosage – extremely dry and tart

Non-traditional methods
The most common alternative to the traditional method, the Charmat or bulk process, increases efficiency because the second fermentation takes place in a tank instead of the bottle. This is perfectly delicious, but tastes more like table wine, with bubbles, than traditional sparkling wine. Less common is the transfer method. In this case, after the second fermentation and a period of time aging in the bottle, the wine is moved to a pressurized tank for clarification and dosage before being bottled again. There are a select few who make sparkling wine in the way it was first made – by bottling the wine before it’s completed the first fermentation. It’s called Méthode Ancienne, the ancient method. The easiest way, by far, to make fizzy wine is to inject it with Carbon-dioxide gas, which is appropriately called the injection method. This is the one that will be easiest on your pocket book.

Research continues regarding alternatives. For instance, recently, a procedure has been developed to keep the yeast for the bottle fermentation encapsulated when it’s introduced. This means that riddling is unnecessary and disgorgement a breeze. The practice isn’t wide spread because, apparently, there are still some bugs to work out.

Sparkling wine and food
You don’t need to save the bubbly for a special occasion. It’s one of the most food-friendly wines because of the high acidity. So, if you have a tricky food, go for the bubbly! It’s a great answer to the eternal question of what to serve with Chinese food and other Asian preparations. For hot, spicy dishes, you might think about opening an extra dry. The small amount of sugar soothes your fire-ravaged palate.

Sparklers are terrific with salty foods, so if you have a piece of Parmigiano Reggiano or a bowl of popcorn reach for the bubbly. Aged sparklers have a wonderful affinity with mushrooms and truffles – something to keep in mind when you’re deciding on ingredients and preparation.

Some of the great houses have been known to prepare multi-course, all-Champagne dinners! When you attempt it, at home, the Blanc de Blanc is probably going to be the lightest and most elegant in style. The Blanc de Noirs and the Rosé will usually have more body. The guidelines for sweet sparklers are the same as for still wine. The wine should be at least as sweet as the food or it will taste sour. The demi sec is heaven with a piece of blue cheese for dessert!

Making sparkling wine in the traditional method is a remarkable testament to man’s creativity and problem-solving abilities. It’s a delicious, chaotic blend of old world and new-age techniques which will, no doubt, continue to evolve. So, next time you pour yourself a glass of bubbly, and watch those beautiful bubbles rising, furiously, to the top of your glass, it will taste even better, knowing what a truly amazing beverage it is! Cheers!

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