Lesson 05 – How do sparkling wines get their bubbles?

One of the most frequently asked questions in wine is “how does Champagne get its bubbles?” Well, there are actually several ways. The most famous and arguably the best method is called the methode champenoise, so named because it is the method used in Champagne, purportedly invented by the famous monk, Dom Perignon. This process involves a second fermentation of the wine sealed inside the bottle. Carbon Dioxide emits during fermentation, creating pressure when trapped in sealed bottle with nowhere to go but to dissolve itself back into the liquid as bubbles into the wine.

So there you have it, Champagne is made, simple enough.

Well, not quite I’m afraid. The process itself is a bit more complex than that. But it’s easy to understand. Let’s quickly run through it, shall we?

Step 1: we start with dry still white wine – called the base wine or cuvèe – no bubbles and usually quite high in acidity, not delicious to drink actually
Step 2: the wine enters the bottle and a bit of life yeast is added before sealing to provoke a secondary fermentation which produces carbon dioxide and creates immense pressure inside the bottle.
Step 3: the bottles are stored upside down. In preparation for getting rid of the solids, a process called remuage or riddling is performed. Essentially each bottle is rotated a little regularly. This helps the solids to slide down into the mouth of the bottle, and why? Read on.
Step 4: we have to get rid of the solids from the wine, easily done normally when there is no extreme pressure inside the bottle to spill out the wine along with the solids. A process of degorgement takes place. First a neck portion of the bottle is frozen in brine. Then the bottle is uncorked, pressure inside the bottle jettisons the bit of frozen wine and the solids out of the bottle. With perfect timing to a few milliseconds, spillage is halted right after the solids are thrown out.
Step 5: Before resealing, the bottle is topped up with a “dosage” of wine, sugar and even a bit of grape spirit to achieve a consistent style, the right degree of dryness and alcohol strength.

There are a few variations to this method, mostly in Step 2 with the objective of avoiding the very expensive processes in Step 3 and 4. For example, there is the Charmat or tank method in which secondary fermentation takes place in a (large) sealed tank. Pressure again causes carbon dioxide created from fermentation to dissolve into the wine while solids are created containing dead yeasts. The sparkling wine is filtered and transferred into a pressurized tank to “decant” away the solids. The wine is bottled from that tank. A lot of Proseccos are made this way.

The word “Champagne” can no longer be put on labels unless the wine comes from the appellation Champagne and has conformed to a certain set of rules and regulations governing the making of the wine. Lesser non-conforming wines from the Champagne region can only be called Crémant or just Sparkling. For the rest of the world, the generic term “Sparkling Wine” replaces the familiar once-generic and ubiquitous Champagne, not without some very notable exceptions. Some sparkling wines never had the need or the urge to call themselves Champagne to being with. Let’s run through a short list of these illustrious sparkling wines.

Blanquette: sparkling wine from France’s Limoux region within Languedoc, made from Mauzac grape
Cava: Spain’s pride and joy, affordable fizz made from macabeo, xarello and parellada
Crémant: both in Limoux and Loire, fresh and crisp sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc
Crémant de Bourgogne: “Champagne” made in other parts of Burgundy, no longer legal to bear the Champagne label
Prosecco: Italy’s fizz made from grape of same name
Sekt: Germany’s slightly lesser known but nevertheless excellent bubblies

There are many styles of Sparkling wine and here are a few most notable ones:

Vintage Champagne: made only in very good years from grapes of a single vintage always built for ageing
Non-Vintage Champagne: NV as they are called, these are “house” blends made from base wine from several vintages, done with precision to achieve consistency. Although NV can easily live for several years, even over a decade for the high-quality brands, it is designed for consumption on release
Brut: bone dry; classic blend is Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
Blanc de Blancs: Made from 100% Chardonnay
Rosè: a bit of red wine added in resulting in pink color and often a little more body than the usual brut
Blanc de Noir: made from red grapes like Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier

Champagne is customarily served chilled to near freezing. There is wisdom behind this practice. Acidity is purposely high in Champagne to achieve vigor and freshness. In our lesson on serving temperatures we discussed how lowering the temperature can soften the sharpness of acidity on the palate. However if you have bottle of luxury Vintage Champagne, it is probably better to drink it a few degrees warmer. Our palates become numb if temperature is near freezing. It would be hard to appreciate the nuances of a great wine.

Although most Champagne and sparkling wine are drunk on their own, they are remarkably good with food. Strawberries and shellfish are classic pairings but Champagne is a lot more versatile than that. For example, cheeses like Double Gloucester and Red Leicester, Brie and even Gouda go very well with Brut. Chablis is a first choice with raw oysters but Champagne is a very close runner-up. With Sushi, Champagne is the wine of choice.

“In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

“I 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’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” – Madam Lilly Bollinger