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Understanding Sparkling Wine/Champagne
by Darryl Roberts
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 5.2

imageFollowing our Special Tasting in the last issue, we thought maybe, just maybe, you'd be interested in understanding the sparkling wine/Champagne winemaking process. You know what they say: a little knowledge is dangerous. So, here you go.


What's the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine? Well, basically nothing. Then why the different names?


As a French Chablis is called "Chablis" when it's produced in the Chablis region of France, sparkling wine -- named so because of its effervescence (trapped carbon dioxide) -- is called Champagne when it's produced in the Champagne region in the classic methode champenoise tradition. Like Chablis, which in France is made from the chardonnay grape, the name Champagne has been bastardized around the world. (I guarantee a Chablis made in the United States is anything but a chardonnay!) Sparkling wines, labeled Champagne and made from inferior grapes and through bulk processes, are abundantly sold around the world. These wines, which neglect the true quality and classic method used by winemakers in Champagne, France, are often sweet (to hide defects) and inexpensive. Because most consumers think of any sparkling wine beverage as "Champagne," cheap imitations are often considered quality standards. These standards often prompt adverse reactions -- headaches, product discrimination, etc. -- which is unfortunate, unjustified and the primary reason why sparkling wine isn't a more common table beverage.


Methode Champenoise


Of the three methods of producing sparkling wines, methode champenoise is the most costly and labor-intensive.


In France (and most New World wine-producing countries), the two primary grape varieties used in making sparkling wine are chardonnay and pinot noir. All sparkling wines are harvested at lower sugar content than those picked for typical table (still) wines. This is done for two reasons: first, to obtain a lower alcohol level in the base wine (wine made from the initial fermentation and also called the cuvee). Since sugar is converted to alcohol during fermentation, the lower the sugar level in the juice, the lower the alcohol content in the finished product. Winemakers need this lower alcohol content in the base wine because they induce a second fermentation later in the process, which produces additional alcohol. The second reason for harvesting grapes at lesser sugar levels is to obtain a higher total acidity (and lower pH), which gives the wine its crispness and longevity.


Grapes, basically, start out as balls of acid. During the ripening process, acids decrease and sugars increase. For still wines, winemakers seek the perfect balance of sugars and acids. For sparkling wines, they're more concerned with sugar levels, which are usually desirable between 17 and 19 percent (brix) at harvest. Table wine sugars are around 22 to 24 brix at harvest.


After grapes are harvested, the juice is pressed off and sent to containers -- either oak barrels or stainless steel tanks -- for a first fermentation. After the wine has spent the desired time in the vessels, the various lots are blended together to form the assemblage -- the final blend of grape varieties and/or lots for the finished wine.


At this point the tirage -- a mixture of sugar and yeast -- is added to the base wine. The wine is bottled with a bidule, a small plastic cup that fits in the bottle's neck and into which the sediment eventually settles. A crown cap, like ones on a bottle of beer, secures the opening.


It's in the bottle that the second fermentation takes place, as the tirage produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. (The reason sparkling wine bottles are thicker than regular wine bottles is because they must withstand the pressure of the carbon dioxide -- up to 90 pounds per square inch.) This process, along with aging that takes place during the second fermentation, is called en tirage. Temperature is very important during second fermentation. The cooler the fermentation, the finer the bubbles in the finished product. So wines en tirage are often stored in very cool cellars.


After the second fermentation is completed, dead yeast cells break down (a process called autolysis) and settle to the bottom or attach to the side of the bottle. At this point the winemaker determines how long the wine will remain en tirage, or on the yeast. (Extended yeast contact gives wine a "yeasty" characteristic plus added complexity of secondary flavors.) Once the desired time has passed, the sediment must be removed without losing the sparkle, or carbon dioxide. The first step in this process is riddling or remuage.


In the olden days, riddling was done by hand. Bottles were placed on a pupitre, or riddling rack -- an A-frame device with holes into which the bottles' necks were fitted. Bottles were then placed at a slight angle to start, and a mark was painted on the bottom of each so the riddler -- the person responsible for turning the bottles -- could gauge how far to turn the bottle each day. Each day he gave the bottles a slight turn, increasing the upward angle of the bottles' bottoms so the sediment would collect in the neck (in the bidule) against the crown cap. This process continued until the bottles were almost perpendicular, with the necks facing down.


Today, riddling is automated. Bottles are placed in large bins that are attached to gyro-pallets, which complete the task more easily and in greater volume. Each day the machines' timers trigger bin rotation, thus increasing the angle. The bottles eventually end up perpendicular.


To reiterate, the trick is to remove the sediment without losing the sparkle. To do this, the bottles are placed neck down into a freezing brine bath (bac a glace) for a short stint, thus freezing only the bottles' necks. At this point disgorging, the expelling of the frozen plug of sediment and any solids still left in the wine, takes place. With the carbon dioxide trapped inside, the bidule is basically shot out of the bottle from the pressure when the cap is removed. A dosage -- a tiny amount of wine, sugar and/or brandy -- is quickly added to replace the wine expelled during disgorgment, and the bottle is corked and secured with a wire hood.


The dosage determines the sweetness -- or dryness -- of the sparkling wine. The greater the dosage, the sweeter the wine.


Transfer Method


Grape growing and harvesting for this process is identical to the methode champenoise. However, grapes used in making sparkling wines with this method are often lesser quality sparkling wine grapes, such as chenin blanc or riesling.


As with methode champenoise, the wine is pressed and transferred to containers for fermentation. After the base wine is made, it's transferred to bottles, with sugar and yeast added during the transfer. The second fermentation takes place in the bottle, as with methode champenoise. However, after the second fermentation is complete, the sparkling wine is filtered -- a quicker, less expensive process that often strips the wine of some of its flavor characteristics -- instead of riddled. After filtering, the wine is returned to the bottles, with the dosage being added. It's then secured with a cork and wire hood.


Charmat Bulk Process


This is the quickest and least expensive way to make sparkling wine. Once harvested, the grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks. When the base wine is complete, it's transferred to pressure-secured tanks and the tirage added. These large tanks act as one big bottle, so to speak. Once the second fermentation is over, the now sparkling wine is filtered and bottled, with the dosage being added. (Often the dosage for these wines is sweet, hiding some of the wine's flaws due to inferior grapes used.)


Terms


Autolysis - The breakdown of yeast cells inside the sparkling wine bottle after the second fermentation is completed; contributes to wine's complexity and elegance.


Blanc de Blancs - Wines made primarily from chardonnay or other white grapes.


Blanc de Noirs - Designates white or slightly blush wine made from red grapes, usually pinot noir; blush color comes from pigments in red grape skins. See rose.


Bottle Aging - Allowing sparkling wine to acquire complexity, depth and fine texture while in bottle; also known as aging "on the yeast," "sur lattes" or "en tirage."


Charmat (shar-MOTT) - Also called "bulk" process. Refers to sparkling wines fermented in large tanks.


Cuvee (kew-VAY) - Bblend of many still wines into a well-balanced sparkling wine.


Cuvee de prestige - A winery's most thoughtfully conceived, carefully crafted sparkling wine.


Disgorging or degorgement (day-gorj-MANH) - Process by which sediment collected in sparkling wine bottle neck during riddling (see riddling) is frozen and expelled prior to final corking.


Dosage (doe-ZAZJ) - Liqueur (sugar dissolved in reserve wine or brandy) added to sparkling wine just before final corking; finishes sparkling wine and determines sweetness level.


Mousse (moose) - Ring of foam around top of glass of sparkling wine.


Non-vintage - Refers to sparkling wines with cuvees containing wine from previous vintages.


Press - Equipment used to gently separate grape juice from grape skins.


Prise de mousse - French term describing effervescence created in sparkling wine bottle during second fermentation; also called "birth of the champagne."


Punt - Dome-shaped indentation in bottom of wine bottle.


Reserve - Term often used to designate special wine.


Reserve wine - Wine from previous vintages added to cuvee for consistent quality and style.


Riddling or remuage (reh-mew-AHJZ) - Art of turning and tilting bottles of sparkling wine to ease sediment into bottle necks. See disgorging.


Rose (row-ZAY) - Champagne or sparkling wine with slight pink tint often coming from addition of red wine to cuvee.


Still Wine - Wine without bubbles.


Tirage (ter-RAZJ) - Process of bottling cuvee with addition of active yeast and sugar to induce second fermentation; carbonation produced via second fermentation trapped in bottle, producing effervescence of sparkling wine.


Vintage (vin-tazj - just kidding) - Year particular grapes are harvested.

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