by David Padgitt
Branch Manager for PRP Wine
With the Holidays upon us, now is the perfect time to discuss wine with bubbles. After all, we toast to bring in the New Year so it is a good time to learn what you are putting in your mouth.
Let us start off with some definitions. Champagne is a sparkling wine (carbonated) that is produced in the bottle by inducing secondary fermentation to produce the carbonation. A true Champagne (capital “C”) is only produced in Champagne, France using specific grapes from a specific plot, grown a specific way under very tight regulations and only produced certain ways under law, all completed in the individual bottles. More details on this process will follow.
A champagne (note the small “c”) is a sparkling wine not produced in Champagne, France that is trying to capitalize on the name Champagne. It is now against European Union laws and most U.S. laws to use the name Champagne in sparkling wines unless you were using the word champagne before the laws were changed. Due to the fact that some laws in some countries are very weak when it comes to the use of the word Champagne you may find some “sparkling wines” call Champagne, champagne, or a misspelling of Champagne such as Champagn (without the “e”) or Champaigne (with the added “i”).
A sparkling wine is a wine of any country, any grape and any method of production that contains carbon dioxide bubbles. Carbon Dioxide is a natural bi-product of fermentation (yeast plus sugar, added or naturally in the grape juice, produces alcohol and carbon dioxide).
That being said; I would like to tell you how true Champagne is made. To start out, Champagne “laws” are set by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne. This is the governing body of Champagne makers that sets the rules. These rules include the codification of the best growing places, the types of grapes that are allowed, and very specific ways of growing the grapes. This includes the pruning of vines, the vineyard yield, the amount of pressing (squeezing of grapes to get the juice) and the time it must remain on its lees (deposits of dead yeast and other particulates) used in the second fermentation to produce the bubbles (carbon dioxide).
Although most true Champagnes are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier there are a total of 7 grapes allowed in making Champagne. The other four are rarely used in today’s Champagnes. After primary fermentation (the making of the wine under very specific guidelines) it is ready to begin the 2nd fermentation which traps the bubbles (carbon dioxide) in the bottle and makes it a sparkling. In Champagne, France, the second fermentation occurs in the individual bottles (not in giant vats like some sparkling wines are made). At this point a small amount of yeast (several grams) and a small amount of rock sugar (several grams also) is added to the bottled wine. The bottles are capped and placed in racks with the neck pointed downward. The bottles are turned a very small fraction, by hand, each day for at least 1.5 years to develop the full flavor. In exceptional years, the Champagne MUST age for 3 years.
At this point in the process (called remuage), the bottles are placed neck down, chilled and then the neck of the bottle is frozen. The bottles are then opened and the ice, along with the lees (dead yeast and particulates) is forced out from the pressure of the carbon dioxide. Syrup (le dosage) is added to top off the bottles. The bottles are quickly capped and sealed to prevent loss of the carbon dioxide.
And now you know! There are many, many more details in the making of true Champagnes but this gives you a good overview of this amazing process. You now understand why true Champagnes are more expensive.