Style, Wine News / February 7, 2012

Things Go Better With Bubbles: Champagne and Sparkling Wines 101

When we pour our wines at tastings, we are often asked, “When are you going to start making a Champagne?” Although Champagne and sparkling wine are often associated with special occasions, we’ve noticed that a lot more people are a lot more interested in the possibility of bubbly as part of everyday celebrations.

We think this is a terrific. Sparkling wines are actually fantastic with many foods as they tend to be lower in alcohol and higher in acid than other wines. While the famous Champagne labels can be quite pricy, we’re now able to find more and more everyday-priced sparklers from the U.S., Italy, Spain and Australia which won’t break the budget. Plus, bubbly wines are just plain fun to serve and drink. In anticipation of the festivities before us in the months to come, we thought we’d have ourselves a little Bubbles 101 session.

What’s the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine?

Only sparkling wine from the Champagne region in France is officially allowed to be called Champagne. Bubbly wines from all other regions are called sparkling wines.

How does sparkling wine or Champagne get its start?

It’s important to remember that before the wine gets its bubbles, it begins as still wine. In Champagne winemaking terms, this is called the “base” wine. The classic wine varieties of Champagne and many other sparkling wines are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

A Champagne made from only Chardonnay is called Blanc de Blancs (white from white); a Champagne made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier is called Blanc de Noirs (white from black).

Prosecco, a popular sparkling wine from northern Italy, is made from Prosecco grapes (sometimes called Glera).  Cava, sparkling wine from the northern part of Spain, is made with Macabeo, Xarello, and Parellada. Sparkling wines can be made from just about any variety—Sparkling Shiraz is popular in Australia.

Rosé Champagne is not only beautiful, but rising in popularity. In Champagne, the wine can be made by blending red wine into the “base” white wine until the desired hue is reached or created through a process which involves draining juice from fermenting red wine before it becomes deep red.  In other regions, pink sparklers can be made from other types of grapes, such as Monastrell in Spain.

How to make Champagne or Sparkling Wine

Let’s start with the classic technique for making fine Champagne or sparkling wine. The process is called Méthode Champenoise or Méthode  Traditionelle (outside the Champagne region). This method produces wines of distinction with great elegance and complexity and very small, fine bubbles (called the “bead”).

There are several steps to the process: blending, secondary fermentation, aging on the lees, riddling (rémuage) and dégorgement (disgorging).

Blending

After the still wines are made, the arduous process of blending begins. Many lots of wines, sometimes as many as 200 separate components from different vineyard blocks, vineyards, varietals and vintages, are blended together to achieve what is called “the house style”. This is the flavor profile which has come to be associated to any given producer.

With non-vintage Champagne (without a date on the bottle), the winemaker blends wines from several different vintages to achieve the house style. With vintage Champagne (date on the bottle), the wine expresses not only the house style, but also the character of the vintage. Typically vintage champagnes are only made in superior vintages. Vintage champagne is also usually more expensive.

Secondary fermentation in bottle

Once the final blend is decided, the still wine is bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast (liquor de tirage). It is closed with a “bottle cap” and left on its side for the second fermentation to proceed in the bottle. As the added yeast consumes the sugar (secondary fermentation) carbon dioxide (bubble) is produced, the dead yeast cells (lees) drop down to the bottom (side of the bottle) and pressure of about 9 atmospheres is generated.

Aging on the lees

The finished wine will sit on the lees for a time to extract delicate flavor and aroma components while developing a characteristic rich mouthfeel. The length of time spent on the lees is determined by the winemaker, preferred style and history of the house, and can range from as little as a year or so to ten or more years.

During the riddling (rémauge) process, the bottles are turned periodically then the lees are gently coaxed into the neck of the bottle. Today, this process is mechanized in all but the prestige Champagne houses where the bottles are still turned by hand, old-school style. The neck is then frozen, and an ice plug containing the lees is allowed to pop out (dégorgement or disgorgement). TaDa!

A dosage (small amount of mature wine, sugar and often brandy) is added to replace the liquid lost and the cork and wire basket are then put in place. Thesweetness of the dosage determines the sweetness level of the finished wine. Ranging from sweeter to drier, you may find these words on the label: Doux, Demi Sec, Sec, Extra Dry, Brut, Extra Brut and Brut Nature. Brut is in the middle in terms of sweetness and most commonly found. In general, the sweetness level in a wine labeled Brut would be comparable to what you might find in a still wine of the same variety.

So that’s Méthode Champenoise (Méthode Traditionelle). In the Charmat method (used in the making of Prosecco among others), the still wine undergoes the secondary fermentation in the tank and is transferred under pressure to the bottle. No need for riddling here as the lees remain in the tank. With simple carbonation, the still wine in tank is carbonated by the injection of carbon dioxide and bottled under pressure.

How to open a bottle

Make sure the bottle is well-chilled. Remove the wire cage while maintaining control of the cork. Although not likely, the wine is under pressure and the cork could shoot out without your permission. Gently twist the bottle, not the cork. Despite the popular image, you should release the cork very gently, so only a slight “sigh” is heard.

Glassware

Flutes (stemware with a long, narrow bowl) have been the preferred shape but lately there’s been renewed interest in the retro “coupe” glass (wide, shallow bowl). Legend has it that this glass was molded in the shape of Marie Antoinette’s “girls”!

Some sommeliers recommend a Chardonnay glass (or your pretty standard wine glass) to improve aromatics. There are even fancy, shatterproof and recyclable stemless Champagne flutes made by our friends at GoVino. Proving once and for all that Champagne or sparkling wines go great with picnics and tailgates!

Food Pairings

Let’s start with what probably DOESN’T pair well with Champagne, because so many foods do. A big, ole cowboy steak, baby back ribs or other similarly heavy, meaty dishes might tend to overpower Champagne’s more subtle charms. But everything else, well, game ON!

Oysters go without saying, caviar, Asian cuisine, fried anything, seafood of all kinds, even popcorn and potato chips. Feel free to experiment with your pairings and you will soon begin to appreciate Champagne or sparkling wine for its food-pairing versatility as much as its knack for getting the party started.

Are you a bubble lover? What are your favorite sparklers! Let us know!

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