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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Putting the Bubbles in Champagne

Sparkling wines and Champagne are bubbly because they have carbon dioxide bubbles trapped in the bottle from a second fermentation. The most famous sparkling wine is Champagne from France made in the méthode champenoise or Champagne method that the French developed over many years to create the tiniest, longest-lasting bubbles.

Wherever it is used, the méthode champenoise, or Champagne method, produces the world’s finest sparkling wines. This method involves a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle—the same bottle that you eventually buy in the store. Many other countries, including Spain, Italy, and the United States, have successfully adopted this method for the production of their best sparkling wines. The following sections describe the méthode champenoise process for producing great sparkling wine.

Harvesting and Pressing the Grapes

Grapes are harvested 100 days after the grapevines flower in June. This places the time of harvest in the northern hemisphere in September or October. The CIVC (Comitè Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), the official organization that represents the Champagne industry, declares great vintage years when the harvest is exceptionally good because of an excellent growing season. Prices for grapes from the best single vineyards in the Champagne region are always higher, with the 100%-rated vineyards getting 100% of the going rate, 95%-rated vineyards getting 95% of the going rate, and so on, based on their ranking. The finest Champagnes are Vintage Champagne from a single declared great vintage year, and those are from the best vineyards.

Experienced sorters cull out any green or rotten grapes in the vineyards before they get to the presses. This costs extra and is only done for top-of-the-line Champagnes. The grapes are pressed quickly in low, flat, wooden presses to extract the clear juice from the skins. Even with this quick pressing of the black grapes, the juice is tinted an "eye of the swan" blushing pink/gold color, which will be bleached out somewhat during the second fermentation.

Fermenting and Blending the Juice

The first fermentation in the méthode champenoise turns the grape juice into wine. But the juice from each vineyard and each grape variety is fermented separately, usually in stainless steel for temperature control (though some Champagne companies may ferment in traditional oak barrels). All these separate fermentations create a large number of individual wines that will later be blended in the assemblage of the cuvée.

The following spring, professional tasters blend the assemblage or cuvée (pronounced "koo-vay") from different vineyards and grape varieties so that the sum is better tasting than the parts. Most French Champagne is a blend or cuvée of 2/3 black grapes and 1/3 white grape. In French Champagne, the only black grapes allowed are Pinot Noir and their relative Pinot Meunier, and the only white grape allowed is Chardonnay. This means most French Champagne is actually blanc de noir though they do not label it as such. The exception to the rule of French Champagne being made mostly from black grapes is the more delicate, rare, and costly blanc de blanc Champagne. It must, by law, in France be made from 100% Chardonnay.

Each Champagne house or company has its own house blend or style, some using more Pinot Noir, some using more Chardonnay—although Chardonnay is expensive since it comes from one small hillside called the Côte des Blancs ("slope of white"). Most Champagne houses use very little Pinot Meunier in their top of the line cuvées.

Adjusting and Bottling for a Second Fermentation

After blending, a first dosage (pronounced "doh-saj")—technically called the "liqueur de tirage"—of sugar and yeast is added to the newly blended wine. Then the wine is bottled and closed with a cork or crown cap (looks like a soda cap) . The Champagne will remain in this bottle until it is purchased from a store’s shelves by some lucky wine lover. The yeast finds the sugar and begins a second fermentation in the bottle. The second fermentation runs its course until the yeasts die from creating too much alcohol. The powdery sediment of dead yeast cells or "lees" in the bottle gives Champagne its characteristic yeasty, toasted bread or brioche flavor. The alcohol that is produced from the second fermentation bleaches the slightly pink/gold blanc de noir color somewhat. The bubbles of carbon dioxide produced during the second fermentation become an integral part of the wine, forming tiny, long-lasting bubbles that will rise in your glass for a long time.

Aging the Wine, Removing its Sediment, and Adjusting its Sweetness

Vintage Champagne is aged on its lees of yeast in the cellar for three years after harvest. Non-vintage (abbreviated NV and sometimes called multi-vintage) Champagne is a blend of juices made in years where the season did not produce grapes good enough to be declared and labeled with a single vintage year. NV champagne usually is aged on the yeast in the bottle for 15 months, though the most prestigious companies go over these minimum limits. Because French Vintage Champagne is made only from one vintage year, and a great one at that, it is more expensive than non-vintage Champagne.

Since no one wanted to drink the powdery sediment of yeast, the young Veuve (Widow) Cliquot developed the next two steps in the Champagne method to remove the yeast. Her name remains on one of the greatest French Champagnes whose top of the line Vintage Champagne is called "La Grande Dame" or the great lady. Veuve Cliquot Champagne is also available as a Rosé.

The first step in the process of removing the sediment takes place in triangular racks that hold the bottles upside down, and the lees of yeast are spiraled down onto the crown cap by hand riddling or rotating of the bottles. It takes almost two months of daily turning and shaking of the bottles until the yeast is in the neck. Imagine riddling thousands of bottles! No wonder some modern wineries use machine operated metal cages that automatically do the riddling.

The upside-down bottles with yeasty sediment in their necks are then aged in the ancient 60-foot-deep chalk tunnels dug by the Romans under the Champagne district. If you wish to visit one of the six remaining original Roman chalk tunnels still in use for Champagne making, we recommend a visit to Taittinger in Reims, France where a million bottles of Champagne are aging on their yeast.

The second step in the process to remove the yeast is called disgorging. After years of aging, the neck of the bottle is placed in a brine solution to freeze the yeast sediment. Then the cork or crown cap is popped. The frozen plug of sediment shoots out because of the pressure of the carbon dioxide bubbles trapped in this bottle. The wine is topped up with the same kind of Champagne, and a final dosage of sugar and older wine is added to achieve the various sweetness levels. Here are the descriptions of the levels of sweetness used to describe champagne:

  • Extra Brut (also called Naturel in the U.S.) is the driest type, having no sugar added

  • Brut is the most common style of dry Champagne having just the tiniest amount of sugar

  • Extra Dry is actually medium-sweet and costs less because there is less of the original wine

  • Sec and Demi-Sec are the next higher sweetness categories

  • Doux dessert style Champagne is the sweetest of all

The wide range of sweetness found in these different types of champagne forms the truth behind the statement that "one can drink Champagne with every course of the meal."

Brut Champagne is perfect not only for a wedding toast to the bride and groom, but also for salty appetizers such as smoked salmon or sushi, light seafood dishes such as Dover sole or scallops, chicken or turkey, and veal or pork with cream or even mustard sauces.

Finally, the bottles are corked with a very thick cork made in sections to hold in the bubbles. The cork is wired down to make sure the cork remains firmly seated in the bottle so the Champagne doesn’t go flat. Even so, experts know not to keep Champagne for too long because of the danger of it losing its bubbles and oxidizing. This danger is especially great for non-vintage champagnes, as you have no way of knowing how old they are. Now you know why the Champagne method is so great, and why it costs so much.

Buying and Enjoying Bargain Champagne, Big Bottles, and Splits

Champagne corks are large. When you remove them, they take on an hourglass shape, and you won’t be able to get them back in the bottle. If you don’t drink all of the champagne, you will have to use a screw down metal closure designed especially for re-capping sparkling wines. My husband and I never seem to have this problem.

If you think you’ll drink less than a full regular-sized bottle of champagne in a single sitting, you can buy champagne in half-bottles or even splits. It should be mentioned that all wines age more quickly in smaller bottles and age more slowly in larger bottles. For example, the magnum or 1.5 liter (50.8 oz.) size is equivalent to two 750 ml. or 25.4 oz. regular-size bottles. Sometimes even larger bottles are available, such as the jeroboam, which holds four 750 ml. bottles or 3 liters of Champagne. In Bordeaux, a jeroboam holds six 750 ml. bottles or 4.5 liters. These larger bottles command a proportionally higher price because few are made and the wine ages more slowly. Since the Champagne method is done mostly with regular size bottles, the small half-bottles (375 ml. or 12.7 oz.) and even smaller quarter-bottle "splits" (187.5 ml. or 6.35 oz.) are filled from them, and can be disappointingly flat as a result.

Though champagne is a luxury wine, you don’t need to feel reluctant to enjoy it often. You will be very pleasantly surprised to learn that real French Brut non-vintage Champagne can be purchased for only $20 per bottle! Champagne is the wine of celebration—so always invite a lover or friends over to share when you pop the cork of a full-size bottle.

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