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Sparkling Wines ... save the bubbles ...

Wines with bubbles are associated, for many people, primarily with festivities and celebrations. More precious and complicated to make than still wines, they have traditionally been considered as occasional extravagances. With higher acidity, more delicate flavor, their unique palate tingle and lower alcohol than most table wines, they are, however, some of the most versatile wines to accompany food. Modern production techniques have brought sparkling wines to market that are more affordable and accessible for everyday enjoyment.

Roederer Estate in Anderson Valley.Bubbles in wine were known to vintners long before they could reliably capture and preserve this phenomenon in the bottle. As a natural by product of the fermentation process, carbon dioxide is released in the liquid to provide a "sparkle." In the Northern climates, cold weather sometimes arrives early after harvest, stopping fermentation before the sugar is completely used up. Warm weather in the spring often causes it to start up again, resulting in carbonated wine. The English imported wine in casks. They found also that adding sugar to tart, acidic wine would often soon cause it to sparkle and they developed a liking for it. English bottles were much stronger than those in France and not as inclined to burst when the pressure built up.

Early success making sparkling wines in the French district of Champagne made its name famous, so much so that "champagne" has become generic for sparkling wine, to the eternal aggravation of the resident producers.1 The Champagne Appellation has some of the strictest, most exacting standards for growing, producing and labeling of any area in all the wine world.

Cheap American brands have long copied the Champagne name, while ignoring its quality standards and avoiding its exacting methods. Producers of quality American sparkling wine, however, often emulate the standards and apply the traditional production methods, while, out of respect and in deference, they leave the Champagne name to the originals. The European Union continues to support and enforce protecting the Champagne name. The EU established and agreement with Australia to replace "Champagne" with "Australian Sparkling Wine" starting September 1, 2001. In January, 2008, Belgian customs agents destroyed 270 cases of California sparkling wine destined for Nigeria because it was labeled "André Champagne."2

BASIC RULES of CHAMPAGNE (since 1927)

1. Growing Area: Champagne Appellation includes less than 78,000 acres of vines (although expansion is currently under consideration)
2. Cépage: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier only.
3. Viticulture: specifies vine spacing (between rows), vine density (between plants), vine height, pruning, and grape yields.
4. Harvest: by hand only, no machine-picking.
5. Bottle Age: 15 months minimum for non-vintage; 3 years for vintage, before release.

The Méthode Champenoise involves many specialized steps in both viticulture and enology has taken centuries to evolve, through the contributions of scores of inventors, innovators, and workers, both famous and nameless. Modernization and refinement of the "traditional" sparkling wine process continues to this day, although its beginnings are in antiquity.

Around the 1690s, a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon made some very significant developments as cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers in Epernay. His celebrated remark "I am drinking stars" brought him great fame, but Dom Perignon did not, in fact, "invent" Champagne. There is even a possibility he may have uttered his phrase, not out of jubilation, but rather from remorse. It is fairly certain that Frere Perignon long attempted to find a way to remove or prevent the bubbles, before he accepted and embraced them. His innovations were probably initiated towards this end.

Dom Perignon's contributions did provide the early impetus to eventually develop modern Champagne. He had the idea to harvest selectively, over a period of days rather than all at once, so that only the ripest fruit was taken with each pass. He also is credited with inventing the Coquard or "basket" wine press and using it to make the first "Blanc de Noir." Another of his major developments was to blend wines of different vineyards and varieties to achieve better balance between their individual characteristics. He was an excellent taster and his cuvée system is still followed closely to this day by the house of Moêt & Chandon to produce their finest Champagne.

Finally, although corks had already been used by the Romans as closures for wine bottles, and the seagoing and trading English had corks and made sparkling wine several decades earlier than the landlocked Champagne area, Dom Perignon has been credited with the idea of using string to secure these stoppers in the bottles, thus retaining the sparkle for long periods of time.

Methode Champenoise
Methode Champenoise would not be as we know it without the significant developments and improvements made by many persons during the Nineteenth Century, including Jean-Antoine Chaptal (quantified the proper amount of sugar to set the alcoholic strength, c. 1801), Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot (inventor of riddling and dégorgement, c. 1810), Jules Guyot (pioneer of planting vines in rows, training vines onto trellises, and pruning methods, c. 1835) Adolphe Jacquesson (inventor of the muselet, the wire cage/metal cap contraption that retains sparkling wine corks, c. 1844), and more.

Cuvée
The only varietals allowed for (French) Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir. Blanc de Blancs on labels designates white wine made only from white (green) grapes; Blanc de Noirs is white or sometimes faintly pink wine made only from black (red) grapes. Rosé Champagne may be made by blending a small amount of red wine into a white wine base, but the finest are made by crushing the red grapes into a tank briefly to extract a bit of color prior to separating the juice from the pigment-containing skins, along with the pulp and seeds, by pressing.

The grape harvest for sparkling wine is always early in the season compared to the picking of still wines. Picking when sugars are relatively low keeps the alcohol low, since secondary fermentation will boost it later. Also, the youthful acids help to preserve the wine over the long course of its development. Except for those destined to be made into Rosé, the grapes are pressed immediately, by-passing the crushing equipment, to avoid both oxidation and color in the wine.

Initial fermentation takes place most often in stainless steel tanks, although many varieties of container, from concrete vats to redwood tanks, are used. After the usual period of three weeks or more, when all of the natural grape sugar has been converted to alcohol, the wine is "dry." While the wine rests in a cold environment, solids and particles settle to the bottom. The clear wine on top is then racked or siphoned off the murky lees. Sometimes it is aged in oak barrels during or after this clarification and racking. The new wine is quite weak in flavor, very tart and low in alcohol. It may then be blended with stocks of older wine saved from previous vintages, to keep a consistent "house" style, or cuvée.

En Tirage
At bottling, a small amount of sugar that has been dissolved in old wine, along with special yeast is added. This liqueur de tirage assures a uniform secondary fermentation in the bottles. Until the application of three scientific contributions, making sparkling wine could be more dangerous than making bombs. The proper amount of sugar to add for balanced wine was quantified by Jean-Antoine Chaptal in 1801; Pharmacist André François invented, in 1836, a way to measure the remaining amount of sugar in wine; and Pasteur explained the fermentation process in 1857.

Some producers now insert a small plastic reservoir, called a bidule, which later aids in collecting and removing the sediment. After closing with cork-lined metal crown caps, the bottles are stored on their sides in cool cellars while the yeast ferments the sugar, boosting the alcohol and producing the bubbles of carbon dioxide. At this point, the wine is only half made, although the wine will become complete and reach the consumer in this very same bottle. The cuvée is now en tirage. This phase may span from two to several years. Meantime, the bottle stacks are observed for the inevitable breakage that occurs; flawed glass is sometimes unable to withstand the pressure that gradually increases to 100 pounds or more per square inch.

Remuage
During the secondary fermentation, sediments form from dead yeast and solids left behind during the initial clarification procedures. Consolidating the sediments for removal is another long process, known as remuage. This sediment is very fine, sludgy and sticky. Removing it from the bottle, without removing the wine, is a problem. Getting it to collect in the neck, near the opening, is the first step. In 1805, Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin Clicquot, became a young widow and head of a major Champagne house. Seeking assistance from gravity, she cut holes in her kitchen table, in order to invert the bottles. She found that shaking helped loosen the sediments, although some still stuck to the bottle bottoms. In 1810, she employed Antoine Muller and he improved the procedure by beginning with the bottle at a 45° angle, gradually increasing the angle with each shaking, until the bottom was up, the neck straight down.

Traditionally, the bottles are placed at a forty-five degree angle, necks-down, in specially built "A-frame" racks, called pupitres. An experienced worker grabs the bottom of each bottle, giving it a small shake, an abrupt back and forth twist, and a slight increase in tilt, letting it drop back in the rack. This action, called riddling, recurs every one to three days over a period of several weeks. The shaking and twist is intended dislodge particles that have clung to the glass and prevent the sediments from caking in one spot; the tilt and drop encourage the particles, assisted by gravity, to move ever more downward; the time in between riddlings allows the particles to settle out of solution again.

wall-mounted gyropalettes.Computer-automated machines called Gyropalettes accomplish the riddling chore in batches, using movable bins containing hundreds of bottles rather than by the individual bottle. Invented in Spain, they became common in all sparkling wine producing countries the late 1970s. This mechanization has meant saving time, space and production cost for the producers. Hand riddling requires a minimum of eight weeks to complete; gyropalettes finish the task in under ten days.

While automation means that a bit of the romance of wine is lost for consumers, this application of modern technology compensates by increasing product consistency from bottle to bottle. Production cost savings also has allowed the introduction of traditional method sparkling wines into the lower price end of the market where formerly only bulk or mass-produced wines competed.

Whether riddled by hand or machine, in the end, the bottles are standing nearly straight upside down, with the sediment now resting on the caps. Kept in this position, the bottles are transferred to bins where they are stored, necks down, until ready for shipping to market. The final operations that ready the wine for sale are removing the sediment formed during aging, topping up the contents, adjusting the sweetness level to the house style, replacing the crown caps with corks, wire hoods, and finally, applying foils and labels just before packing the bottles in cases for shipment.

Dégorgement
Removing the sediment from the bottles is a process called dégorgement, or disgorging. The bottle necks are dipped in a solution of freezing brine or glycol. This freezes a plug of wine and sediment in the top of the neck. Skilled workers then invert each bottle as they uncap it, releasing a small amount of wine as the plug of frozen sediment flies out.The bottle is then topped up with a dosage of reserve wine, sweetened to the right amount for the determined style, also known as the liqueur d'expedition. Disgorging at Schramsberg (photograph).Modern bottling lines accomplish these tasks mechanically with amazing speed and precision. Méthode Champenoise takes normally from two to five years to complete, depending on the house style.

In addition to the normal smell and taste criteria of still wine, sparkling wine quality is judged by the size of the bubbles (smaller is better), their persistence (long-lasting is better) and their mouth feel (how well the bubbles are integrated into the wine and the relative smoothness or coarseness of their texture).

Traditional disgorging at Schramsberg, 1977
(click to enlarge)

There are, in fact, other processes to put the sparkle in wine. Techniques have been developed that are very different and, many would argue, inferior to the Méthode Champenoise, based on sensory judgment. Twentieth century technology brought, besides injected carbonation, the Charmat or "bulk" process, and the "transfer" process.

Sparkling wine made by the transfer process, follows the same procedure as Méthode Champenoise, up to the point of bottling. The secondary fermentation does not take place in the actual bottle sold to the customer. The wine is bottled en tirage. However, immediately following secondary fermentation, the fermentation bottles are emptied under pressure and the wine filtered. This replaces the rémuage, riddling, and dégorgement steps. The transferred wine is then bottled under pressure into a new set of bottles that are shipped to market.

The French use only Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir to produce Champagne. Many American producers of quality sparkling wines adhere to this list, although very little Meunier is grown here. Other sparkling wine producers worldwide can and do use anything from Thompson Seedless to various clones of Muscat.

The Transfer Method, invented in Germany, does not have a proprietary name (possibly because no individual or commercial entity would claim it). On wines sold in the United States, it is only announced by a deceptively subtle packaging regulation. The label statement "Fermented in this bottle" means Méthode Champenoise, whereas "Fermented in the bottle" refers to the transfer process; so much for reading the fine print.

Transfer is considerably less expensive and time-consuming than Méthode Champenoise. The transfer method goes from harvest to bottling in as little as ninety days, up to one year. Proponents claim the transfer method produces a more consistent product from bottle to bottle; detractors say the process strips flavor elements, especially yeast flavors. Champagne makers generally use the transfer method to produce any size bottle smaller than 750 milliliter or larger than 1.5 liter.

Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, invented his process in 1907. Instead of individual bottles to produce the secondary fermentation, he invented the glass-lined tank. The wine stays under constant pressure in bulk, through the filtering and bottling process, which takes as little as ninety days from picking to bottling. Charmat is also known as the Bulk Process.

Both the transfer and Charmat process are time and money savers. There are knowledgeable wine critics who contend that the different methods of producing sparking wine can each produce equal quality product given the same fruit to begin with. These critics are in the minority and commercial attempts at high quality Charmat or bulk process sparklers are few and far between.

Differences between the processes are readily noticeable in their end products. Both the transfer and Charmat wines usually have larger, less-long-lasting bubbles. Méthode Champenoise bubbles are usually more integrated into the wine and longer lasting. Also, because of the additional time Méthode Champenoise takes to clear the wine of sediment, the flavors of yeast autolysis (chemical breakdown) add complexity and a creaminess to the wine that is absent in the faster methods.

SPARKLING WINE SWEETNESS
(listed by increasing order, using
European Union Standards)

LABEL TERM
Brut Nature
Brut
Extra Dry
(U.S. mkt)
Sec
Demi-Sec
Doux

Residual Sugar
.0 — .5 %
.5 — 1.5 %
1.2 — 2.0 %
1.7 — 3.5 %
3.3 — 5.0 %
over 5.0 %


 

There are European Common Market Standards for levels of residual sugar (see chart) in sparking wines, but adherence is voluntary. Brut nature should taste bone dry. Brut should taste dry with no perception of sweetness. Extra Dry tastes slightly sweet and is a style invented for the American market that "talks dry and drinks sweet." Sec literally translates to "dry", but is noticeably sweet. No wonder the public is confused! Demi-Sec is very sweet and Doux is extremely sweet.

American sparkling wines producers don't conform to the European standards of dryness, although they do follow the same hierarchy of nomenclature: "Natural" is drier than "Brut", which is drier than "Extra Dry", etc.. The general guide for American "champagne" is: the cheaper they are, the sweeter they taste.

French sparkling wine not made in the Champagne region is labeled Vins Mousseux or Cremant. Italians call their most well-known sparkling wine Spumante, the most popular one made in a sweet style with Muscat grapes grown around the town of Asti. Prosecco is another Italian sparkling wine, made from grapes of the same name, that has gained tremendous popularity since its introduction to the American market in 2000. Sekt is the German designation for sparkling wine. The Spanish call their sparkling wines Cava, if made by Méthode Champenoise.

Sparkling wine style is determined by the maker. Some prefer a less flavorful, more delicate style that emphasizes texture and freshness; others favor more flavors of yeast, oak, aged wine or some combination thereof.

Most sparking wine is non-vintage, which allows the winemaker to blend older wine with the new, to achieve a consistent flavor style. These non-vintage dated wines are ready to consume immediately and should be within one or two years. Slowly but surely, they will begin to deteriorate; further aging does not improve these wines at all.

Vintage-dated Champagne or sparkling wine can usually benefit from some bottle-aging, provided the consumer enjoys the older, richer, fatter, less vivacious flavors that will ensue. There is generally no improvement more than ten years beyond the vintage date, although there are cultists with curatorial interest in old Champagne who might disagree.

Sometimes a Méthode Champenoise producer will leave the wine en tirage for an extended period of years and then bottle a "Reserve" or "Late Disgorged" bottling. These wines are mostly vintage dated, usually a decade or more old when released for sale, and also immediately ready to consume.

Consumers would do well to realize that aging is an intrinsic part of the process of making sparkling wine. The vast majority of sparkling wines, including true Champagne, will lose both flavor and fizz after a couple of years in the bottle, especially when not stored under optimum conditions. To celebrate that special wedding anniversary, it is much better to enjoy a freshly-purchased bottle of the same brand originally enjoyed than to suffer through one saved from the event itself.

Jim LaMar


NOTES
1 There is a village, above Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland, also named Champagne, that began producing still white wine 700 years before sparkling wine was first made in France. although most of their wine is locally consumed, the 39 Swiss growers are no longer permitted to use the name of their village on wine bottles, due to EU regulations. RETURN

2 Belgian Customs Agency Destroys Shipment of American Sparkling Wine Mislabeled Champagne from Reuters News Service. RETURN


RELATED LINKS
Le Champagne is the official web site for growers and vintners of French Champagne (unfortunately, it seems they've cancelled the English language version).

The Independent Champagne & Sparkling Wine Invitational festival was held April 15-18, 2010, in New Orleans.


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Article created August 1, 2000; Last updated August 16, 2011
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