Champagne 101

August 10, 2010

Though people often refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France are the real deal.

Though people often refer to all sparkling wines as Champagne, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France are the real deal. Indeed, in 1891, the Madrid Agreement, which dealt with the international registration of trademarks, declared that only wines originating from the Champagne region could use the name "Champagne" on their labels, and this was reiterated in the Versailles Treaty of 1919, after World War 1.

There are two methods of making sparkling wine. Only one of these, the Méthode Champenoise, in which the bubbles form in the bottle, can be used to make the trademarked Champagne.

Champagne must also use only the following grapes (either singly or in a combination): Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.

Sparkling wine can be made from any grape the winemaker chooses. All sparkling wine is the result of two fermentations. The first fermentation process is done to create still wine in pretty much the same way as regular, non-bubbling wine. The second fermentation process can be done in one of two ways - for most sparkling wine it is done in tanks in a process called Charmat. For Champagne and other sparkling wines that use the Méthode Champenoise it takes place in the bottle.

The most common method used for sparkling wine has been around for about a hundred years. It is known as the Charmat process, and is very much cheaper to do than the Méthode Champenoise. Still wine is put in cold, large pressure sealed tanks where it is "seeded", meaning that sugar and yeast are added, and allowed to ferment. The fermentation creates carbon dioxide bubbles. The next process is filtering, to remove sediment, which is done under pressure so the wine remains "bubbly". The now-sparkling wine is adjusted for sweetness, bottled, and then shipped out. This entire process can take as little as three weeks.

Méthode Champenoise is the traditional way, and it is why a bottle of Champagne costs so much more than sparkling wine using the Charmat method. The bottle is filled with still wine, sugar and yeast, then sealed and laid to rest in a cool, dark cellar. The fermentation producing carbon dioxide takes place in the bottle. The sediment, or "lees," in the bottle add to the flavor. After a minimum of nine months, (although it could be several years) the bottles are slowly turned upside down over a period of months, so the sediment, or "lees" falls into the neck. The "lees" are then frozen, and "popped" out. Then a “dosage” sweetening adjustment is added to the now clear Champagne, which determines if the wine is to be dry or sweet. The bottle is then corked, labeled, and sent off to shippers.

Vintage, Non-Vintage, and Rosé are all different terms used to describe Champagne. Non-vintage is a blend of different years and accounts for 85 percent of all Champagne sold. Vintage Champagne is from a single year and only comes out two or three times a decade. It occurs when the grapes produced in that one year are exceptional, and no blending from previous years is needed or desired to make an exceptional Champagne.
Rosé Champagne happens in one of two different ways: red wine is actually added to the blend or the red grape skins are left in contact with the wine for a period of time.

Champagnes and other sparkling wines use four main terms to describe the wines:
Brut: driest
Extra-dry: not as dry as brut
Sec: very slightly sweet
Demi-sec: sweeter

Price is a key differentiator between true champagne and other sparkling wines. A vintage Champagne - that is, one produced from a specific harvest - is the most expensive. Bottles priced over $100 are not uncommon, and the top end can fetch in excess of $2,000.
That's the bad news. The good news is that fine-tasting sparkling wines, including some true Champagnes, can be found in the $10-$40 range.