The Basics of Bubbly
By Jimmy Quaile, Certified Sommelier
All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne!
The name Champagne is so branded that it has become a catch-all for all sparkling wine, much to the great chagrin of France. They do have a point…Champagne is a place. If the wine is not made in that place it’s not Champagne. Look at it this way; an Idaho potato has to come from Idaho!
Aside from location, the process of making real Champagne differs from making sparkling wine in other regions. Without going into the entire process, it involves a secondary fermentation that happens in the bottle.
The main thing to know is that it’s a blend. The three main grapes varietals used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. If it says Blanc de Blanc it’s made using 100% Chardonnay grapes, and if it says Blanc de Noir it’s 100% Pinot Noir.
Rosé Champagne is made using one of two methods. The first is simply to add red wine to the white wine. Winemakers will generally add up to 15% of pigmented juice to achieve the desired color and flavor profile. The second process, called “Saignée” allows the grape must to remain in contact with the skins. After macerating for a couple hours the juice is bled off leaving a beautiful pink hue.
Most Champagne is “Non-vintage”, meaning the grapes were harvested from multiple years. In a particular year, if the conditions are perfect they will make a “Vintage” Champagne. That has to have at least 85% of the grapes from that year. Lastly, there are sweetness levels. This amount of sugar added after that second fermentation (called the Dosage) determines the sweetness. Here they are from dry to sweet:
- Brut Nature (between 0 and 2 grams of sugar)
- Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar)
- Brut (less than 12 grams of sugar)
- Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams of sugar) Yes, Extra Dry is SWEETER than Brut.
- Sec (between 17 and 32 grams of sugar)
- Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams of sugar)
- Doux (50 grams of sugar)
Around The World in Bubbles
Sparkling Wine (United States)
In the U.S. any grape can be used. Some are made using the Champagne method and some are not.
Made from the Glera grape using what’s called the Charmat method, where secondary fermentation takes place in a stainless steel tank. It is currently America’s top selling bubbly.
Made using from the grapes Xarel-Lo, Macabeo and Parellada. A Cava uses “Methode Champenoise” and is a great alternative to Champagne.
Asti Spumante (Italy)
Made from Muscat Canelli grapes and named after the town that supplies the grapes. “Spuma” means foam.
Made from traditional Champagne grapes in the traditional Champagne method…only in Italy.
A Crémant is a French sparkling wine made in the Champagne method but in a region other than Champagne.
Made from wine grapes grown in other European countries but bottled in Germany using the Charmat (tank) method. Deutscher Sekt is made using exclusively German grapes.
Champagne should be chilled to a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. That can be attained by leaving the bottle in a refrigerator for a couple hours. Although not recommended, you can put a bottle in a freezer for 15 minutes. The classic way to chill a bottle is to place it in an ice bucket filled with half ice and half water. 20 minutes should do the trick. Adding a cup of salt to the bucket makes the water colder!
Take off the foil cap and immediately put your thumb on the top. Don’t take it off!! Unscrew the cage (it’s ALWAYS 6 turns). Wrap your hand around the top, cage and all, and turn the bottle NOT the cork. Push back when you feel the pressure. There should be a slight hiss not a pop.
A raisin that is dropped in a glass of champagne will repeatedly fall to the bottom and rise to the top of the glass.