There are many topics in wine that cause confusion amongst the casual consumers. But when it comes to the question I get asked the most, “What is the deal with Champagne?”
Well, here’s the deal:
- Champagne is a sparkling wine
- But, not all sparkling wine is Champagne
- To be Champagne, it must come from the Champagne region in France
- Champagne is also the name of the method of production for sparkling wine
Got it, right?? I know, let’s go a bit deeper.
While not the first region to develop a method for sparkling wine, Champagne is the most renowned. Naturally people would want to follow their methods for sparkling wine production therefore creating ‘Methode Champenoise’ or the Traditional Method. This method is used to create Cremant (France), Cava (Spain) and Cap Classique (South Africa).
- Ferment the wine
- Blend – a blend of different grapes, different vineyards or different vintages; winemaker’s choice
- Add Liqueur de Tirage – a mixture of wine, sugar, clarifying agent and yeast is added to the blend
- Second fermentation – set off by the liqueur de tirage, this occurs in the bottle to create the fizz and sparkle. The yeasts go to work on the sugars causing the wine to ferment a 2nd time. CO2 is naturally created, but this time the gas has nowhere to go (as the bottle is sealed) and is dissolved back into the wine creating bubbles.
- Maturation – the dead yeast cells from the 2nd fermentation eventually complete their work and die. They sink to the bottom of the bottle and rest, the wine matures on top of the cells and adds toasty, bready, biscuit-like qualities to the final wine.
- Non-vintage Champagne must age at least 15 months.
- Vintage Champagne must age at least 3 years.
- Cava must age at least 9 months
**The minimums aging requirements are regularly exceeded
- Riddling – the bottle has been horizontal up until now but needs to be moved to vertical and upside down. This will allow the yeast cells to fall to the neck of the bottom and be removed. Occurring over a period of time, the bottles are given a shake, a twist and are inclined from horizontal to vertical.
- Disgorgement – once all the sediment is at the neck of the bottle, it’s frozen and then ejected under pressure.
- Dosage – after disgorgement, a bit of the wine is lost. The wine is topped off and a mixture of wine and cane sugar solution are added to the bottle. Even with this addition, the final wines are typically pretty dry. But oddly enough, ‘dry’ isn’t exactly that dry…go figure. If you’re looking for sweeter styles, check the label for the sweetness/dryness below.
- Brut Nature/Brut Zero/Ultra Brut = bone dry
- Extra Brut = very dry
- Brut = very dry to dry
- Extra-sec/Extra Dry = off-dry to medium-dry
- Sec/Dry/Secco/Seco/Trocken = medium-dry
- Demi-Sec/Riche/Halbtrocken/Semi-Dulce/Abbocato = sweet
- Doux/Sweet/Dulce/Doce/Dolce = luscious
The Traditional Method is quite time consuming and expensive so the Transfer Method was developed. Everything remains the same until disgorgement, where it takes place into a tank under pressure. The disgorged wine is filtered into bulk and then bottled again in another fresh bottle. The resulting sparkling wine still maintains its consistent quality, but at a much lower price than the traditional method. This method is designated on the bottle label by saying ‘bottle-fermented’. Technically it was fermented in the bottle, just not necessarily that bottle.
Yet another sparkling wine method is the Tank Method. Luckily this one is a bit easier to explain, especially since we’ve gone through the other two methods. In the tank method, the 2nd fermentation is done in a sealed tank, not a bottle. The dry base wine, sugar, yeast and clarifying agents all go together in the tank. After the 2nd fermentation has completed, filtration is done to remove the sediment under pressure and then the wine is bottled. As with the transfer method, tank method is considerably less expensive but the resulting wine has larger bubbles and fewer flavors imparted by the yeast. This method is best served for base wines that have more aromatics like Muscat or Riesling that aren’t best served by being covered up by the yeast. Some tank-fermented wines are Sekt (Germany) and Asti (Italy).
Got more questions? Did I just confuse you even more? Send me an email or a tweet, let’s clear this up!