In the world of bubbles, it’s important to note that Champagne is just one type of sparkling wine. Real Champagne must come from Champagne, France for it to be labeled as such on the bottle.
Any other sparkling wine isn’t Champagne at all, especially if it’s from somewhere else. In fact, it’s illegal to label a sparkling wine as “Champagne” in many countries unless it originated in Champagne, France and was crafted using permitted techniques in the region.
Crafting Champagne in France
Champagne may display a straw-colored hue, but more often than not, it comes from black grapes– Pinot Noir to be specific. While Pinot Noir is most commonly the grape of choice for champagne production in France, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay can also be used individually, as in the Chardonnay-only Blanc de Blancs, or as a blend. There’s a simple reason why Champagne made from black grapes isn’t red. It’s because, during the winemaking process, only the flesh of the grape is utilized to craft the wine. While the skins may be black, red or blueish, the flesh inside is white.
Strict Rules for Making Champagne
Grapes used in making Champagne must only come from select pieces of land according to the laws set in place by the Champagne appellation. The method for producing Champagne is dubbed Méthode Champenoise in France. This is also the method that tends to produce the largest and longest lasting bubbles! It entails picking approved grapes that are typically quite unripe with higher levels of structure-building acidity, which gives the base wine a bitter taste at the beginning of the process.
Once the grapes have been picked and undergo an initial pressing, additional sugar and yeast are added to the mix to further enact fermentation. This is done in compact tanks that allow for no exposure to the outside environment. As the yeast digests the tart wine mixture, the organisms release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Once released, carbon dioxide can’t escape the tanks, thus carbonating the mixture inside and further pressurizing the enclosed environment.
Secondary Fermentation & Aging
Once primary fermentation is complete, a secondary form of fermentation is enacted within the bottle. Additional yeast and rock sugar are added at this point, and this phase of fermentation should last for a minimum of 18 months.
Once aging is complete, the bottles are then turned upside down in a process called “Riddling.” This allows the dead yeast cells, known as “lees,” to settle in the neck of the bottle. Bottles are then rotated daily until the lees fully settle at the top.
At this point, the Champagne bottleneck is then frozen. Once frozen solid, the bottle top is removed, and the solidified lees immediately fly out of the bottle — thus getting rid of any sediment. Once the frozen sediment is ejected, and depending on the brand, additional sugar called a dosage and wine is added to bring the level of fluid back to normal in the bottle. It also helps set the desired amount of sugar content. The bottle is quickly corked to maintain carbonation following this process.
The Best Glasses For Drinking Champagne
There are two main styles of Champagne glass that are most commonly used. The most common is the Champagne Flute, which has a narrow and elongated bowl. When holding the Flute, it’s important to utilize the stem to keep the contents of the glass chilled and safe from the heat of the hand. By using a narrow bowl, carbonation tends to last longer by leaving a smaller gap and less surface area for it to escape.
Other styles of wine glasses are acceptable for drinking Champagne, but they may change what part of the wine is accentuated. While the flute emphasizes the carbonation, using a white wine glass may actually increase the perception of aromas escaping the widened bowl. The Champagne Coupe is a popular choice for Champagne Cocktails, but it allows the bubbles to dissipate at a much faster rate.
Winetraveler Tip: Looking for some great Champagne Glasses? Try out these beautiful Schott Zwiesel Tritan Crystal Glass Forte Stemware Collection Champagne Flute with Effervescence Points, 7.7-Ounce, Set of 6.
Why is Champagne So Expensive?
Champagne, above all else, is a quality sparkling wine. Pricing decisions throughout history have considered many variables. Marketing of the region and its wines has always been important and even dates back to the 18th century when Claude Moët was able to convince French royalty that Moët would make a woman more beautiful. Every detail of the wine from the romanticized bottle and gold leaf appearance helped to associate the brand, and many others from the region, with luxury and exclusivity. To this day, Champagne prices are usually higher than other sparkling wines due to many factors including the size of production, quality winemaking standards, and clever marketing techniques.
What is Cava?
Cava is a style of Sparkling Wine typically produced in North-Eastern Spain, mostly in the Penedès region (DO). This style of sparkling wine tends to have more of a blend of citrus and tree fruit firmly backed by a chalky minerality and is classified based on aging requirements. Basic Cava is aged for 9 months, Reserva is aged for 15 months, and Gran Reserva Cava is aged for a minimum of 30 months.
What is ‘Prosecco’?
Prosecco is another style of sparkling wine. There are some critical differences between Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco, but the main difference is in the style of winemaking. Additionally, Prosecco is Italian, while Champagne is French, and Cava is Spanish.
Bottles of Prosecco are typically made to be enjoyed early-on without aging and usually have more tree fruit and tropical fruit-flavors when compared to Champagne, which can give the Italian sparkling wine more “fruitier” characteristics as well. Many Proseccos are made to have Brut level and higher amounts of sugar, resulting in an off-dry bubbly beverage.
Other Names for Sparkling Wine (And Where They Come From)
Many countries, both Old and New World produce Sparkling Wine today. There are a large number of designations, some based on Region, others based method. Below are a few more common names for Sparkling Wine.
- Prosecco (Italy)
- Franciacorta (Italy)
- Asti (Italy)
- Spumante) (Italy)
- Pezsgő (Hungary)
- Sovetskoye Shampanskoye (Soviet Origin)
- Cava (Spain)
- Blanquette de Limoux (Southern France),
- Espumante (Portugal)
- Panciu (Romania)
- Sekt (Germany – though sometimes made with imported grapes from nearby European countries)
- Cap Classique (South Africa)
Corks Used for Champagne & Sparkling Wine
Agglomerated “twin top” corks are almost always used for Champagne and for many Sparkling Wines. Agglomerated corks are part natural cork, and part synthetic cork. The bottom piece of the cork (touching the wine), is natural. It’s glued to a blend of glue and cork dust. The cork is compressed before inserting it into the bottle in order to make it fit. As the wine ages, this compressed state adheres further to the bottle neck, and agglomerated top tends to mushroom out. In some cases, the longer a Sparkling Wine is aged, the bigger the shroom at the top.
RELATED: The 5 Main Types of Wine Corks
The ‘theory’ goes, and I’m stressing theory because it’s not completely scientifically backed (but makes sense), is that the larger the bottle of Champagne, the less oxygen in the bottle. This in turn means that the wine is more pressurized in a magnum, giving it the best size and bubble length. A bigger bottle of Champagne is also better, just based on the fact that you’ll have more Champagne.
Brut, Sec and Doux – What does it all mean?
Champagne and sparkling wines are given these sorts of designations depending on the amount of residual sugar left within the wine following fermentation. Some sparkling wines are dry, others are off-dry, some are sweet.
There are 7 levels of dryness as they relate to Champagne specifically, and very often Sparkling Wine as well, depending on region. Here are the levels of sweetness found in Champagne from Driest to Sweetest.
We’re Drinking THIS Sparkling Wine Currently
I love Spanish Cava. As mentioned above, it has a distinct chalky mineral flavor and texture that I’ve had trouble finding in any other sparkling wine. We’ve been drinking the 2015 Vintage Juve y Camps Reserva de la Familia Gran Reserva Brut. A stunning value given the quality, depth and complexity of this Traditional Method vintage wine. Check it out while it lasts!