Sparkling wine — a popular choice surrounding parties, celebrations, and most certainly the holiday season. I use the term “sparkling wine,” because it is frowned upon (no, not illegal) to call a wine Champagne unless it comes from the actual Champagne region in France. But before we pop the cork on a few sparkling wine (and, yes, a few Champagne) reviews, let’s talk about what makes bubbles so special.
When talking about Champagne coming out of France, undoubtedly the primary factor in what makes the bubbly drink so special is the terroir where the grapes are grown. The province is one of the northern-most grape-growing regions in the world: the combination of high altitude, cool temperatures, and chalky subsoils are the perfect ingredients for producing grapes with a high level of acidity (ideal for sparkling wine). Of course, as Jancis Robinson points out, as an ancient winemaking region, there are no shortages of dark, humid cellars either — which are pertinent to the Champagne-making process.
Some folks may be surprised to learn that Champagne (the drink) is made of a combination of grapes — most of which are red grapes. Less than 30% of the province’s vines are planted to Chardonnay (the one white grape ingredient in Champagne), while the rest are planted to Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (a red grape relative of Pinot Noir). Once again, Robinson explains it best when she describes the purpose of all three grapes: “Meunier gives youthful exuberance, Pinot Noir gives body, and Chardonnay gives a backbone.”
The exception to this rule, of course, are the sparkling wines known as Blanc de Blancs (made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes) and Blanc de Noirs (made exclusively from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes).
The traditional method of making champagne, known as methode traditionelle or methode champenoise, is the most common and readily used. Indeed, most “new world,” and certainly most Californian sparkling wine producers utilize the methode champenoise.
To start, grapes are picked — often a bit early to maintain youthful acidity — and fermented into a dry, still wine. The winemaker will then blend these “base” wines (again, usually comprising of a mixture of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier — though the latter is less common here in the States), creating a blend, or cuvée. In a process called tirage, the cuvée will receive additional yeast and sugars (to feed the yeast) before being bottled and topped with cap crowns and will undergo a secondary fermentation in bottle. This secondary fermentation adds just over 1% more alcohol, creating CO2 — the compound that produces carbonation (aka: it makes the still wine sparkly). Because yeast is a living breathing thing, it will ultimately die because of the lack of oxygen; the increase of CO2, along with the dead cells, remain in the bottle.
The wine will then age sur lies — meaning in the bottle with those dead yeast particles. The Champagne region requires at least 15 months of aging for non-vintages and 36 months for vintage Champagnes. Of course the longer the wine stays in contact with the yeast, the fuller, richer, and more complex the resulting sparkling wine will be.
The winemaker will then clarify the wine, a process called “riddling,” by settling the bottle upside down, collecting the dead yeast at the bottle’s neck. To remove those cells, the wine then goes through a process called “disgorgement” (although I’ve heard of a few winemakers who’ve neglected this process on purpose). This is when the sediment is actually removed by placing the upside down bottles into freezing liquid, causing the yeast to freeze. The winemaker will then pop off the crown cap, shooting out the frozen chunks of yeast. While there are machines that can take care of this process, traditionalists will do this by hand — even here in the States.
The final step, dosage, is an optional one, and one that takes place with sparkling wines that are not being aged for a significant amount of time. Truth-be-told, many traditionalist winemakers or those producing high-end sparkling wines will age their non-vintage wines (in bottle, sur lies) for at least two years (many for longer) to develop complex characteristics. However, in place of such extensive aging, winemakers may chose to add a mixture of reserved wine and sugar to the final bottles to add a bit of extra flavor — this is that final step called dosage. (Note: sparkling wines with minimal or no dosage will be labeled Brut, Extra Brut, or Zero Dosage).
And that’s (basically) how it’s done. Now you’re ready to pop the cork and enjoy a bit of bubbly. Below you’ll find a list of sparkling wines and Champagnes I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing. (Links will become live as the reviews are published.) Happy sipping!
J Cuvée 20 Brut
J.L. Denois Tradition: Extra Brut Pinot Chardonnay
Antech-Limoux Blanquette de Limoux Cuvée Brut Nature
Perigot Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Rosé
Rotari 2013 Brut Trento DOC
Balletto Vineyards 2013 Sparkling Brut Rosé
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