... save the bubbles ...
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
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.
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
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.
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 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 cap3 contraption that retains sparkling wine corks, c. 1844), and more.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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. 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.
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).
at Schramsberg, 1977
Shortcuts to Bubbly Ends
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.
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 as would be for en tirage. However, after a short time following secondary
fermentation, those fermentation bottles are emptied under pressure
and the wine filtered into tanks. 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.
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.
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.
is considerably less expensive and time-consuming than Méthode
Champenoise. It begins much as Methode Champenoise up until aging en tirage, but after a short time in the bottles, they are emptied into a pressurized tank to be finished and bottled. The transfer method goes from harvest to bottling in
as little as ninety days on 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.
In spite of this criticism, even genuine Champagne producers generally use the transfer method for
any size bottle either smaller than 750 milliliter or larger than 1.5 liter.
Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, adopted a process in 1907, that was invented twelve years earlier by Federico Martinotti, an Italian. Instead
of individual bottles to produce the secondary fermentation, they used glass-lined pressure-capable tanks for the entire process. 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. For decades, Charmat was the popular term (because it sounds French?) for the Bulk
Process in the United States. As Prosecco popularity and production have risen in the New Millennium, most recent references are now to the Italian Method.
the transfer process and Italian method are time and money savers. There
are knowledgeable wine critics who contend that the different manners
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 bulk process sparklers
are few and far between, although Prosecco fans might take exception.
between the processes are readily noticeable in their end products.
Both the transfer and bulk 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)
Extra Dry (U.S. mkt)
.0 — .5 %
.5 — 1.5 %
1.2 — 2.0 %
1.7 — 3.5 %
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
3 Muselet is French for "muzzle". Most metal caps are mass-produced, but can be quite decorative. Some have evolved into art pieces, hand-painted, rare, and worth thousands of dollars each. Collectors of sparkling wine caps, called placomusophiles, hold a convention every two years.
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.