The term “champagne” is used generically to mean all sparkling wines. However, thanks to international treaty, the term “Champagne” can only appear on bottles produced in the Champagne region of France, north of Burgundy. Most bottles of wine produced in the Champagne style in the United States will say “sparkling wine” on the label.
The French only sought to protect this name a few decades ago. Before Champagne became legally protected, a California winery called Korbel used “champagne” on its labels. They can still use the name, but it must appear right next to California on the bottles.
Whether it is called Champagne or sparkling wine, this bubbly beverage is more difficult to produce that still wines. The process, called méthode champenoise, is time consuming and labor intensive. Some wineries take shortcuts, but the authentic méthode champenoise can be condensed into seven basic steps:
Grape juice is fermented, just like any other wine.
After fermentation, in a process called assemblage, the producer blends various lots of still wine together to achieve a certain style, namely the house style. This final blend is called the cuvée.
Liqueur de tirage, a combination of yeast and cane or beet sugar, is added to the cuvée, and the wine is bottled. A second fermentation takes place in the bottle itself over the next twenty to forty-five days, producing carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles.
When the yeast cells have completed their work, they sink into the neck of the bottle. The wine ages in the bottle in contact with the dead yeast. This is called sur lie aging.
The bottles are rotated from a horizontal position to a vertical, upside-down, position. This allows the sediment of dead yeast cells to collect in the neck of the bottle close to the cork so that it can be removed easily and quickly. Rotating the bottles is called riddling.
The neck of the bottle is frozen and the sediment (in the form of a frozen plug) is removed, called disgorging.
After disgorgement, the producer adds the dosage, a combination of cane sugar and extra wine, the latter of which makes up for what was lost during disgorgement. The amount of sugar added depends on how sweet the producer wishes his product to be. In some cases, the producers leave the sugar out entirely. The bottles are recorked.
Another sparkling process, the transfer method, is similar to méthode champenoise except that, instead of riddling and disgorgement, the wine is transferred after the second fermentation to pressurized tanks and filtered. You have to read the fine print on the label to know. “Fermented in this bottle” means traditional method. “Fermented in the bottle” means transfer method.
The bubbles will tell you something about what method was used. Méthode champenoise produces tiny bubbles that float upward in a continuous stream. Cheaper bubbles are large and random and don't last as long. Bubbles from carbonation aren't integrated into the wines like in Champagne — so they'll quickly disappear, much like the bubbles in your can of Coke.
The methode champenoise is not only a time consuming process; it is also expensive. You can bet that when you buy a $5 bottle of sparkling wine, it was produced another — cheaper — way. The Charmat method (also known as the tank method or cuve close) was likely used. It involves conducting the second fermentation in large, closed, pressurized tanks.
With this process, you can produce a lot of wine in a short period of time — so the sparkling wine is ready to drink not long after harvest, in maybe only a few weeks. The downside is that this method produces wines that taste more like still wines with bubbles rather than actual Champagne. Here's what happens:
Still wine is put into closed, pressurized tanks, and sugar and yeast are added to facilitate the second fermentation.
The wine is filtered under pressure to remove any solids.
Dosage is added to adjust to the sweetness level desired, and the wine is bottled using a counter pressure filler.
An even less expensive technique is sometimes used that simply injects carbon dioxide into the wine — like a carbonated soft drink. If that's the case, the label on the bottle will say “carbonated.”
Authentic Champagne is made from three traditional grapes: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier contributes a youthful fruitiness. Pinot Noir gives Champagne its weight and richness and is responsible for its longevity. Chardonnay adds lightness.
One of the most important decisions a Champagne maker has to make is how to blend these grapes to make the base wine. Wines from the different varieties and vineyards are kept separate. The producer then blends the wines (including wines from past years) in varying proportions to create its distinct cuvée. This is what distinguishes the ultimate taste of one producer's Champagne from his competitor's.