The sparkling wine world is huge and inimitable. Careful examination of all its part requires time, patience, and trained liver.

Today we will talk about the origin of sparkling wine, about champagne – the foremother of all of them, about the main methods of sparkling wine production, and about countries those sparkling wines are wildly present in the world market.

Of course, we start with Champagne. Actually, the name “Champagne” appeared only around 1860 (the production started two centuries before, but the wine was called simply “sparkling”). Nevertheless, in the XIX century, Champagne become so popular, that many people since what time use the word “Champagne” as an eponym, as a word for any sparkling wine.

But it is not a good idea to follow such a bad habit. According to the law, this kind of wine can only be named Champagne if it is made in the province of Champagne, using very specific technology (Read about EU wine law here, and about French wine law here). Although, some countries (especially it is popular in the USA, Russia, and Canada) have a habit to give a famous, someone else’s name to their not so popular product. Nerveless, Champagne is a very specific thing, and all other wines with bubbles are called ‘sparkling wines’ (Spumante, Sparkling, Mousseux, and so on, depending on the chosen language) or are called by their own names, like Spanish Cava, German Sekt, or Italian Prosecco and Asti.

Nowadays Champagne province is strictly associated with Champagne sparkling wine, although they produce some good still wines as well. Interestingly, Champagne was famous for its wine long before the creation of its namesake. The climate of the province brought strong input into it. Champagne is the most northern vinicultural part of France. The annual temperatures are ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot noir. Chalk hills provide the perfect drainage, collect the sun warm and return it to vines during cool nights. From the IX century, Champagne still wines were delivered to the king’s and Pope’s tables. Kings of France, England, and Spain had their own wineries in Champagne. By the way, on a secondary note, the love of Englishmen for champagne wines was the cause of important investments towards the creation of Champagne.

Champagne, as a sparkling wine, appeared in the XVII century, although the technology wasn’t completely developed until the XIX century, which was the century of Champagne’s highest glory and popularity. Very often, the creation of champagne is linked with the name of Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon. His name is now on the Prestige Cuvee, of one of the famous Champagne Houses, Moet et Chandon. But Dom Perignon didn’t create Champagne, although he prepared the base for this to take place. Actually, he did a lot for winemaking in general, the same as Benedictines in total. In particular, Dom Perignon invented the idea of how to make white wine from red grapes and began to make white wine from red varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

The climate of the province of Champagne, and English glass, also brought an impact on the creation of Champagne. What was the process for winemaking? Grapes were pressed, yeast was added, and must be left in casks for fermentation. As you may know, yeast notoriously needs a warm temperature to work, but Champagne is a northern province, and the cold autumn stopped fermentation before it was finished. Spring brought the necessary warmth, and the yeast started their work again. However, the problem was that the yeast made from sugar not only alcohol but also CO2. And CO2 is exactly the gas that forms champagne bubbles. The produced CO2 increased the pressure in the casks and bottles that caused blown-out bottles. Dom Perignon counted this as a reject and tried to fix the problem. Coincidentally, at the same time, Englishmen traditionally bought young wine from Champagne in winter, took them to England, and bottled it into their own bottles. The English glass at those times was much stronger than French glass, many thanks to King James I. Fighting for the protection of English forests, he issued the royal decree prohibiting wood-fueled furnaces. Switch to charcoal increased the flame temperature that resulting in a stronger glass. Englishmen also had a habit to set corks harder. After spring fermentation, they ended up with slightly sparkling wine. It was a happy accident, indeed. They loved it, the French saw this passion, and so, the production of Champagne, the sparkling wine, started.

I also should say, that at the first time the process of sparkling wine production was documented also by Englishman, specifically by Christopher Merret in 16662. Although the first wide-recognized manual for sparkling wine production (all Champagne and not only Champagne, winemakers used it) is a book of Jean-Antoine Chaptal, published only in 1801. Of course, the priority of Merret doesn’t reduce Chaptal’s contribution, because his book covered much more aspects of viticulture (even the process of sugar adding to the wine during preparation calls chaptalization), but the role of England in the process of Champagne creation cannot be rejected.
What is the modern legal method to produce champagne?

First, let’s discuss the grapes that are used to produce Champagne.

Only three varieties of grapes are allowed for champagne production: two red, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white, Chardonnay. All champagne wines are made from them. Well, to be honest, formally there are three other varieties that are permitted to use – Pinot Blanc Vrai, Arbanne, and Petite Meslier. They are not used a lot, but still, for example, Moutard makes Vintage Brut Champagne using all six permitted varieties, Сuvee des 6 Сepages (three main plus Arbanne), and Vieilles Vignes from old vines Arbanne. However, these varieties are now prohibited for planting, so after the last old vines will leave the Champagne soil, these varieties can be forgotten completely. Among three main varieties, Pinot Meunier plays the second role. It has a high yield and is better ripe in Champagne conditions than Pinot noir, but it has a more trivial and plain taste. Pinot Meunier is usually used for non-vintage Champagne with a short time of maturation. Grand Cru vineyards don’t grow it et al (and if they decide to do this – they lost their status).

According to the used grape varieties, champagne wine is divided into the following groups:

Balnc de balncs – white wine from white grapes, from Chardonnay only
Blanc de noir – white wine from red grapes, from one of (or both) Pinot
Usually, it is marked on the label. If not, it is quite possible that it is a blend of Pinot and Chardonnay. Most Champagnes is such a blend.
Rose. There are two ways to produce rose champagne. The first one is the same as for a regular still rose, to keep the must on the skins for several hours. The second one is to add some red wine into white wine. This way is very seldom used for a still rose, but it is very popular for champagne because decreases tannins amount.

Now about technology.

First at all, it is a two-step method. For the first step, still wine is made, and for the second step, champagne is made from this still wine.

Still wine for Champagne is made according to the standard white wine technology, but with high gentleness.

-For the first stage, ripe grapes are harvested, immediately crushed, and pressed. The grape is preferably harvested at a cool temperature to keep a gentle aroma. Some ricegrowers do it during the night only. Only hand harvest is permitted. Very often grape is pressed on the vineyards directly to prevent berry damage during transportation. The press should be also done very gently to prevent the damage of seeds that contain that tannins (tannins are not good for sparkling wine). Previously wooden Coquard presses were used for this purpose, and some traditionalists have still used them. It is wildly believed that Dom Perignon developed and introduced the Coquard press. However, nowadays a pneumatic press with an inflatable bladder and a hydraulic press with a large metal plate is mostly used. Pressure in both is controlled by a computer that measures all current conditions to avoid overpress.

-Nest step is fermentation. At the present time, fermentation mainly occurs in stainless steel tanks, however, some famous Houses, like Krug or Bollinger, still use traditional oak barrels. They are huge and old, so the wine doesn’t have any trace of oak. Fermentation goes up to the end and results in a completely dry wine. The total time for this part of the process takes about five months.

The next stage is blending. Champagne’s taste is a result of blending art. It takes up to 70 wines from different wineries, and of different ages, to make the cuvee. Vintage champagnes are very rare.

The way of production champagnes are divided on are:

Non-vintage. Most Champagnes are non-vintage. It means that they are blends of wine of different ages. Each blend reflects the style of the House it was produced from.
Vintage. If a year is especially good, a vintage wine can be made. It would be a still blend of different wines, but all of them will be of the same year. The year of the vintage will be listed on the label. Maturation of vintage wine takes up to 15 years (minimum 3 years by law). They are very expensive, but not necessarily the best product of the House.
Tete du Cuvee or Prestige Cuvee. It is the face of the House. These can be vintage or non-vintage, it is the best blend of the House. Only the best grapes are used for this. Every Champagne House has its own Tete du Cuvee, with a specific name and label. For Moet et Chandon, the biggest Champagne House, Prestige Cuvee is “Dom Perignon”. For Veuve Clicquot, it is “La Grande Dama”.

Finally, the wine is bottled and just a little amount of liqueur de triage is added into each bottle. Liqueur de triage is a solution of sugar with yeast.

Here, I should step aside and talk shortly about the importance of a cool climate for the production of Champagne. The second fermentation gives another 1.5-2% of alcohol to the wine. A high alcohol level doesn’t improve the taste of sparkling wines, so normally it is 12% or below for them. Thus, to make 12%, the final base of the still wine should be 10-10.5%. Also, the still wine should be dry, having no residual sugar. Meanwhile, it is important to note that under-ripe grape cannot be used, as it would spoil the taste of the wine. The only solution is a cool climate that naturally decreases the level of sugar in the grape. The climate of Champagne is ideal.

Bottles are corked by a crown cap or by a standard cork for champagne with wire. This is now the time for the second fermentation.
The second fermentation is quick; it takes only about five days. Typically, the taste of reach champagne is formed by wine maturation on lees. Lees mainly are the yeast remains. Non-vintage wines should be kept on lees for at least 15 months, while vintage ones should be kept on lees for at least 3 years. Tete de Cuvee maturates on lees for up to 15 years.

After the second fermentation and maturation on lees, there is a time for sediment removal. It should be done without wine thickening and bubbles lost.

I should say that it is now Champagne means crystal-clear drink (it is even not an epithet, but the technical term in wine description), but until the end of XVIII century Champagne was quite cloudy wine. Nobody could find a way how to remove the yeast sediment without CO2 loss. And without gas Champagne is not Champagne. Only at the beginning of the XIX century, Anton (Antoine) Müller, a legendary cellar master, who worked for Madam Cliquot Champagne House developed the method, that is used till the present time. Nothing better was invited.

Bottles are placed into special racks, neck down with some angle. Every day, bottles are turned in the way that the sediment moves into the neck. The whole process takes about six weeks. Early on, it was done by hand, but nowadays, this process is entirely controlled by computer.

Once all of the sediment is concentrated in the bottle neck, it is removed without losing the bubbles. The bottle is maximally cooled down to increase CO2 solubility. The bottle necks are placed into a solution (ethylene glycol nowadays) with a temperature that is below zero. Bottles are placed “necks down”, with sediment in the neck. The content of the neck freezes, and the bottle is turned “neck up”, and the cork is removed, so the pressure blows away the “icicle” from the neck. The bottle is then topped up and corked. And, if it is not supposed to be dry, sweetened wine might be added.

The sweetness of champagne depends on the amount of sweet wine that was added before corking. Used terms do not correspond to the literal meaning of words, so it is better to know them.

By sweetness, champagne is divided on follow groups:

Brut nature — 0-0.5% of sugar – completely dry
Brut – 0.5-1.5% of sugar – dry, the main amount of champagne is brut
Extra dry — 1.2-2% of sugar – off-dry , although the name means “very dry”
Sec — 1.7-3.5% of sugar – although sec means dry, the wine is really semi-sweet
Demi-Sec — 3.3-5% of sugar – sweet
Doux — more than 5% of sugar – very sweet, liquorish

I should say that it is only for modern wine-lover Champagne and Brut is almost the same things. Until the middle of the XIX century, Champagne was only sweet, very sweet. 20% of sugar (200 grams per liter) was the norm. It is a syrup actually; the rare ice-wine has such sugar concentration. It was consumed very cold as a desert. Russians (in the first half of the XIX century Russia was in second place with Champagne import) preferred even sweeter, especially for them wine was made with 30% of sugar. By the way, Englishmen preferred the lesser sweet Champagne (twice less as standard). They also pushed constant sugar decreasing in the wine, and because of them to the beginning of the XX century, humankind got the brut.

-The wine is technically ready for consumption at this point, but it is usually rested for another 6 months to harmonize the taste completely.

This is the traditional method, known as Methode Champenoise. There are some good sparkling wines, other than Champagne that are also produced with Methode Champenoise. On the labels of these wines, a mention of Methode Champenoise, or Methode Traditionelle or Traditional Method, can always be found. However, on the label of Champagne, it wouldn’t be marked, because there is no other method for producing Champagne.

Champagne makers.

Champagne is produced by vineyard owners (92% of all producers), cooperatives (1%), and Champagne Houses (7%). However, the vineyards in Champagne are small, but Houses are big, so 70% of all Champagne are produced by Houses, that own only 10% of the vineyards. They buy grape and/or base wine from producers, but Champagne would be named after a House. Among 19 thousand vineyard owners only 2 thousand produce wine under their own name. Outside Europe, 97 % of all Champagne is produced by Houses. 261 Champagne Houses exist now, but 60% of all champagne business belongs to Great Houses (Grande marques).

Champagne is one of the first French regions that got AOC (appellation origin controlee) status (read). There is no wonder in it because at the beginning of the XX century the amount of adulteration of Champagne wine reached unbelievable numbers. All vineyards were rated, and because Champagne is mainly produced by Houses, but not vineyards, the rating of grape quality was made in an unusual way. At the beginning of the XX century, the grape price is regulated by the government. All Champagne villages (317) were divided into three groups according to the grape quality. This Echelle (stairs) de Cru (EDC) system calculated how much of the maximum price, that was determined by the government each of them can get every current year. Seventeen best vineyards, Grand Cru, got 100%; forty-three Premier Cru got 90-99%, depending on their place on the stairs; the rest (75% of all vineyards) got 80-89%. Nowadays price is regulated by the market, but the maintenance (or improvement) of the category is still very important for every vineyard. Usually, non-vintage Champagne is made from grapes from 80-90% EDC vineyards. For vintage wine 90-100% EDC is used. For Tete du Cuvee only the grape of Grand Cru vineyard is used. If Grand Cru vineyard produces its own wine, it would be mentioned on the label.
The current EDC system gives the same rate to the whole village, but the village can have several vineyards of different quality. So, now, a new, more detailed system is in development.

Here is the list of the biggest and most famous Champagne Houses and their Prestige Cuvees.

– was founded in 1829. Prefers Pinot. Prestige Cuvee – vintage Grande Annee.
Moet en Chandon – 1743, Prestige Cuvee – Dom Perignon.
Krug – 1843, very traditional House, uses barrels for first fermentation. Prestige Cuvee — Clos du Mensil, 100% chardonnay, very rare wine.
Pol Roger – 1849, Prestige Cuvee – Sir Winston Cherchill.
Pommery – 1856, Prestige Cuvee – Cuvee Louise
Louse Roederer – 1760, Prestige Cuvee- Cristal, one of the top non-vintage wine -Brut Premier.
Veuve Cliquot– 1772, prefers Pinot, Prestige Cuvee – Le Grande Dame. One of the top non-vintage wines – Yellow Label Brut.

Many Champagne Houses have their brunches around the world, USA including.
These wines are not formally Champagnes, but are made completely according to the rules of the House, and have appropriate tastes.

House USA Domain
Mumm Napa Mumm
Moet et Chandon Domaine Chandon
Taittinger Domaine Carenose
Freixenet Gloria Ferret
Codorniu Codorniu Napa

Thus, what kind of information can we find on the champagne label?

Example: Yellow Label Brut Veuve Cliquot and Dom Perignon Moet et Chandon.

Champagne Appellition controlle – It means that this is Champagne – sparkling wine that is made in the Champagne region, with the traditional method from approved grapes. By the way, Champagne is the only region in France, where the words “Appellition controlle” on the label are not required. “Champagne” is enough.

Name of producer– the name of House or name of winery – Veuve Cliquot / Moet et Chandon

Name of cuvee Dom Perignon / in this specific case of Yellow Label Brut, the name is not on the label, as the specific design of the label says it.

Level of sweetnessBrut

Year, if it is vintage wine. For non-vintage, sometimes you can see NV, but not necessarily.

Grape variety – Blanc de blanc or Blanc de noir, if nothing mentions it is a blend.

Serving and food pairing

It is far better to serve sparkling wines in flute glasses than any other glassware, in order to keep the mousse longer. Wine will change taste once its bubbles disappear.

Young wine should be cooled up to 6-7C, from the ages of one, up to 9-10.

Sparkling wines are usually enjoyable on their own, but they are also good when paired with complimentary food. Dry ones are perfect with omelettes, smoked salmon, chicken in cream sauce, seafood, or sushi. Roses are well paired with red meat, for example, grilled steak. Grilled shrimp would also work well with a rose.

Sweet ones are especially good with fruit desserts!

About other methods of sparkling wine production, and about other sparkling wines of the world – in the second chapter “World of Magic Bubbles”.

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