“I only drink Champagne when I’m happy, and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
– Lily Bollinger
Bubbles in wine is something that has been observed throughout history, but little understood. It has even been attributed to gods or evil spirits. Today, we know that carbon dioxide is created during the fermentation process. If this CO2 can’t escape, it becomes integrated into the wine.
Sparkling wine, as we know it, is a relatively recent phenomenon in the world of wine. Throughout the history of winemaking, most winemakers were concerned with keeping those pesky bubbles out of the wine. It is still a challenge today. As the story goes, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon, a talented winemaker known for his skills in blending wines, was the first to discover the pleasures of wine with bubbles. The story may be fallacious, but the legend was born and the region in which he lived is now the most famous for producing sparkling wine.
How It’s Made
Grapes, for making sparkling wine, are harvested slightly under ripe. This means the grapes will have more acid, which will be necessary to counterbalance the sugars in the final product. For this reason, cool climates are usually better for making sparkling wine. The conditions in Champagne (located in the north of France) are ideal.
After the grapes are harvested, they are very lightly pressed. The best sparkling wines are made from what is known as free-run juice. This is the juice that escapes when the grape has been broken, but not pressed. Harder pressing extracts lots of flavours and aromas that are great for still wine, but not at all desirable in sparkling wine.
After the juice has been separated from the grapes, it goes through an initial, primary fermentation. This creates a still wine. How sparkling wines get their bubbles varies. Less exquisite sparkling wines are given their bubbles by having CO2 pumped into them. That is not, however, the way it is done in Champagne. In Champagne, the juice goes through a secondary fermentation in a process known as the méthode champenoise.
Winemakers outside of Champagne, who use this method, refer to it as the traditional method. The method involves bottling the still wine, adding some yeast, and sealing the bottle. After the yeasts have done their work, they are extracted and the wine is topped up. All of this makes Champagne one of the most labour-intensive wines in the world.
The Qualities of Good Sparkling Wine
When you look at a good sparkling wine in the glass it should have a steady stream of tiny bubbles rising to the surface. Big bubbles are a sign of poor CO2 integration. Poor CO2 integration will also mean far fewer bubbles. The method used in Champagne results in the best integration and, therefore, the tiniest and most numerous bubbles.
A good sparkling wine should have a balance of sweetness and acid. As well, there should be no bitter taste. A bitter tasting finish is usually the sign of over-pressing.
The well-integrated CO2 bubbles in a Champagne create a creamy texture. If the effervescence bites your tongue or burns your throat, then the wine was not made using the traditional method.
The sweetness of a Champagne is indicated on the label. It can be a little hard to understand so here’s the key:
Extra Brut – Totally dry
Brut – Dry
Extra Dry – Medium dry
Sec – Slightly sweet
Demi-Sec – Fairly sweet
Doux – Sweet
The Really Fine Print
Somewhere, on all Champagne labels, there is a two-letter code. Here’s what the code means:
NM: Négociant-manipulant, refers to houses which buy grapes to make their wines.
RM: Récoltant-manipulant, refers to houses that make their wines from their own grapes.
RC: Récoltant coopérateur, refers to houses that make and sell their wine with the help of co-operatives.
CM: Cooperative-manipulant, a group of growers that make and sell the wine on behalf of its members.
MA: Marque d’acheteur, a brand that is owned by a third party, and not by the winemaker.
Sizes of Biblical Proportions
Split – 187ml
Half-bottle – 375ml
Bottle – 750ml
Magnum – 1.5L
Jeroboam – 3L
Methuselah – 6L
Salmanazar – 9L
Balthazar – 12L
Nebuchadnezzar – 15L
There are three varieties of grapes grown in Champagne, and they each have their own character and purpose in the wines:
Chardonnay – provides freshness and elegance
Pinot Noir – gives body and structure
Pinot Meunier – brings fruitiness and aroma
Champagne has 5 main regions, with 17 sub-regions:
Montagne de Reims – mostly grows Pinot Noir.
Côte des Blancs – mostly grows Chardonnay.
Vallée de la Marne – mostly grows Pinot Meunier.
Côte des Sézanne – mostly grows Chardonnay. Very chalky soil. Wines tend to be very aromatic.
The Aube – mostly Pinot Noir.
Non-Vintage – The basic blend. Champagne houses pride themselves on creating a consistent style through the blending of multiple vintages. This is usually the most affordable wine. In an unexceptional growing year, a Champagne house will not create a vintage wine. Instead, they will keep the best grapes for the non-vintage wine in order the keep the quality and style of the wine consistent.
Vintage – Wine made from a single-year’s harvest. Usually, this style is only made in the best years. The best grapes usually go into this wine and the style is far more expressive of that year’s harvest and far less consistent, year to year, than non-vintage Champagne.
Blanc de Blancs – Champagne wine made from only Chardonnay grapes.
Blanc de Noirs – Made from only Pinot Noir grapes.
Rosé – Traditionally made by letting the wine have extended contact with the skins from the Pinot Noir or the Pinot Meunier grapes. These days, it’s more common to add a little red wine to the final product.
Cuvée de Prestige / de Luxe – A type of reserve wine made by certain Champagne houses. Usually vintage, but not always. Commands high prices.
Cremant – Used to mean Champagne wine with a little less bubble. These days it nearly always refers to sparkling wine made in a different region of France.
Chateaux Champenois – Still wines made in the Champagne region. Very uncommon, and almost never exported.
What Makes Champagne the Best
Ideal growing conditions, loads of experience and a commitment to quality put Champagne at the forefront of quality sparkling wine. But, it’s impossible to describe the difference. It has to be tasted. Although, there are many fine sparkling wines produced elsewhere, the wines of Champagne are like no other.