Sparkling wine, such as Champagne or Prosecco is one of the most frequently sipped celebratory beverages. Even consumers who typically stray away from wine tend to enjoy the refreshing nature of a nice sparkling Moscato d’Asti or the like. But where do those bubbles come from?? There are a couple of different methods to create a carbonated, quality wine, the first being the “Traditional” method. It is the process used to make Champagne (meaning, sparkling wine from the region of Champagne in France), high quality Cava made in Catalonia, high quality Sekt or Germany sparkling wine, as well as other sparkling wine of fine quality from any region. The base of any sparkling wine is wine that has been put through typical alcoholic fermentation. The growing and selecting of these grapes tends to be a bit less intense than that of say, a Bordeaux blend. This is because the base wine for Champagne is intended to be combined with other must and put through quite a bit, therefore the vintner is aiming for a grape and juice that is high in acid and low in flavor rather than a complex and perfectly balanced grape. This base is called “vin clair.” The grapes making up the vin clair from Champagne are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and the lesser known Pinot Meunier. The grapes are fermented separately into their own vin clair and then blended in the process of “assemblage.” The blender is choosing not only different varietals to combine, but different vintages and possibly, product from several vineyards. Sugar and yeast is then added into the tank resulting in “Liqueur de Tirage.” The next step is to bottle and top with a temporary crown cap for in bottle secondary fermentation. The yeast and sugar react to create alcohol and carbon dioxide. During primary fermentation in a larger vessel, the CO2 escapes, but in the bottle, the CO2 is forced into the liquid, giving us bubbles.

The long-term contact of the yeast with the wine imparts unique flavors that we find in Champagne and the like. The dead yeast, however, is solid matter and must be gathered in the neck of the bottle and removed. This can be done in a couple of different ways, one of which being “remuage” or “riddling.” The bottles of the “Liqueur de Tirage” are stored horizontally on a large wooden shelving structure called a pupitre. The bottles are rotated by hand several times a day over several weeks until the bottles are vertical. This allows the yeast to gather in the neck of the bottle rather than being dispersed throughout the wine. A more modern method is the mechanized gyropallette, a machine that does the same thing over the course of three days rather than weeks.

The next step is “degorgement” or disgorgement. The bottle neck is dipped in freezing solution so as to harden the dead yeast, the crown cap is removed and the yeast forced out by the excessive CO2 within the bottle. When the yeast flies out, some of the sparkling wine is also lost and must be replaced. This is done by adding “Liqueur de Expedition,” wine that has been sweetened with sugar. It is this step when the wine maker determines the color (if any) and level of sweetness. The bottle is closed with a cork and cage, ready to be released.

Understanding the label on a bottle of Champagne? To be continued…