Bubbly, espumante, champagne, sparkling wine; whatever you call it, they’ve all got something we love to feel tingling and tantalizing our tongues. If you’re a fan of things that sparkle, you might have had a few bottles of sparkling wine in your lifetime and might have noticed the difference in each type you've tried in its flavor, aroma and how the bubbles feel on your palate. The process of actually producing sparkling wine is rather painstaking and shrouded in mystery, leaving everyone wondering just how do those clever little bubbles get in there?
We’ll start out with Champagne…
Not every Sparkling wine is Champagne, but every Champagne is a sparkling wine. That’s just to put it simple, but the manner in which the french have developed their method of making sparkling wine, which makes Champagne "Champagne", has been done so over many generations.
The first step in making any wine is to harvest your fruit and make a still wine. For Champagne, this is called a base wine or a "cuvee". And it should be noted that Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France, otherwise, it is referred to as sparkling wine. See our historical article on the Champagne riots of 1910 and 1911, which explains how this came to be. The three grapes permitted in the Champagne region for making their iconic libation are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The grapes are whole-bunch pressed, the juice is fermented and then vats are blended to create the base wine.
Every Champagne house has their own signature base wine.
How Traditional Champagne is Made
When the first fermentation process is finished, the wine is then bottled. Following the addition of wine in the bottles is a bit of sugar or a "liqueur de tirage". This is typically juice concentrated with high sugars which are combined with another addition of yeast in order to start the second fermentation. A special crown cap or other temporary cap is then placed on the bottle and it goes off to the wine cellars where it will stay for a minimum of fifteen months (some for up to 8 years, but that explanation calls for another article). During this time, the yeast consumes the added sugars and creates CO2, which is prevented from leaving the bottle thanks to the special cap.
The bottles first start out on their sides and as the weeks and months pass by, a person with the special job of "turning" the bottles, called "riddling", will pass through all of the bottles and give them a quarter turn each whilst tilting them at an ever-increasing angle until they are completely upside down. While there are still some Champagne houses who continue to do this by hand, there are others who utilize a special rack to hold the wine bottles to replicate the act mechanically. This method of creating the bubbles in wine is referred to as méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle.
Once the bottles are upside down, they are then taken through a process by which the top is rapidly frozen and the cap removed so as to extract the dead yeasts now in the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then topped off with another special blend of sugar, sulfur and sucrose and then sealed with that special mushroom-shaped cork along with the cage to keep it in place. With such a complicated and handmade process, now you might be able to understand why Champagne is a bit more pricey compared to other Sparkling wines. The finesse of this craft makes for fine wines with fine bubbles that are soft and silky on the palate.
The other methods for creating sparkling wine are not as complicated, however, it does not always make them a lesser quality wine.
How Low Quality Sparkling Wine is Made
Some of us are all familiar with the sugary, sweet soda-pop type of wines we might have consumed in our youth. You remember, the ones you would consume glass after glass as if it were lemonade and then wake up the next morning with the headache of your life. These wines are made with their zip and fizz by injecting CO2 into the bottle. They are low-quality, and you might have noticed that the bubbles are very large and harsh on the palate.
Method of Charmat
Some sparkling wines are made using the method of Charmat. This process is more natural, similar to that of method traditionelle, but it is done in larger volumes. A base wine is created and then it is placed in a special tank where it undergoes a secondary fermentation via the addition of sugar and yeast. These tanks can maintain the CO2 in the wine formed during the secondary fermentation.
Once the secondary fermentation is finished, it is then bottled and kept under pressure. This is the same method by which Prosecco and Cava are made. Other wines in France that are Sparkling must be referred to as Charmat as the term Champagne is not permitted by law outside of Champagne even though some might be made via méthode champenoise. The laws making sparkling wines in the Charmat method are not as strict as those in Champagne, however, some wines are worth their value. The bubbles may not be as fine as Champagne, but they are soft and enjoyable and not nearly as large as drinks injected with CO2.
Now that you know the process behind how each sparkling wine is made, you can grow to appreciate their differences and quality.