I have spoken about Champagne wines in the past, whether they are made in the AOC of Champagne or elsewhere in the world, with different names, like Cava from Sapin, or Sparkling wine in the USA and Israel.
A quick aside please do not use Champagne unless you mean it! Champagne is wine made in the AOC of Champagne, which is a region of France. It is kind of like asking for the Kleenex when actually they are passing you generic tissues. Or asking someone to Xerox that article, when you mean, copy or photocopy it.
Now, of course, people from Champagne would blanch at that comparison, but sorry, trademark laws are what France is using to mandate the term Champagne be used ONLY for wines from Champagne, so it is LITERALLY the examples I gave.
Impressively France has been waging this war for centuries now. According to Wikipedia: Sparkling wines are produced worldwide, but many legal structures reserve the word Champagne exclusively for sparkling wines from the Champagne region, made in accordance with Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne regulations. In the European Union and many other countries the name Champagne is legally protected by the Madrid system under an 1891 treaty, which reserved it for the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous region and adhering to the standards defined for it as an appellation d’origine contrôlée; the protection was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Similar legal protection has been adopted by over 70 countries. Most recently Australia, Chile, Brazil, Canada, and China passed laws or signed agreements with Europe that limit the use of the term “Champagne” to only those products produced in the Champagne region. The United States bans the use from all new U.S.-produced wines. Only those that had the approval to use the term on labels before 2006 may continue to use it and only when it is accompanied by the wine’s actual origin (e.g., “California”). The majority of US-produced sparkling wines do not use the term Champagne on their labels, and some states, such as Oregon, ban producers in their states from using the term.
Sadly, people use Champagne interchangeably with sparkling wine, much akin to Kleenex and Xerox, and no matter the efforts of France and the education around the name, folks like Korbel still use the label, Korbel Champagne of California.
So, what is Champagne and how do we get all those cool bubbles? Well, it all starts with a grape of some sort, in most cases, Chardonnay, but we will get back to the other varietals further down. For now, like all wine on planet earth, Champagne starts with a grape. It is picked (often early to lower alcohol and increase acidity), then crushed, pressed, and allowed/encouraged to go through primary fermentation, exactly like all white wines on planet earth. At this point, most houses ferment the base wine in metal tanks or barrels. Some still use wood, but they are the minority.
Of course, like much of France (Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne), especially in Champagne, the wine can be chaptalized after racking, until an 11% ABV. Now before the heat waves that have covered much of this earth (call it what you wish), Bordeaux and Champagne prayed to hit their desired mark of ABV, and therefore they used to add sugar to bring up the ripeness on their fruit. Nowadays, Champagne is picking earlier and earlier, and Chaptalization is not a common thing anymore, as mother nature is taking care of the fruit’s ripeness all on her own!
Once the wine has been fermented the next question arises, should they let the base wine go through a wine’s second natural fermentation called Malolactic Fermentation? Most allow the fermentation to take place and require it, a fact that is easy nowadays with controlled winery environments, though some do not like it at all. Finally, the barrels/tanks are blended or in the rare case, kept aside as a Vintage Champagne, meaning the base wine used in it, is sourced from one vintage and not a blend of a few vintages.
So, at this point what we have is base wine, and while it may be an OK wine, it is far from what the final product will be like. Most base wines are nice enough, but it would be like licking on a lemon, these wines are highly acidic, and not normally well balanced at that point.
The next step is to bottle the wine, with yeast and basic rock sugar, which causes a second fermentation. The actual amount of the two added ingredients is a house secret. The wines are closed with a simple beer bottle cap. You will notice that ALL wines made in this manner have a lip around the top of the bottle, where the cap is attached to. Again, if the year is exceptional than the wine becomes vintage champagne and is aged for at least three years. If the vintage is normal than the bottle’s content is a blend of a few vintages and is aged for at least one and a half years.
All the while during this second fermentation process, the wine is aged and the wine becomes more complex from the yeast. The yeast breaks down as it eats the rock sugar, adding the effervescence, and while the yeast breaks down, it adds a lovely mouthfeel and rich complexity. This process is known as autolysis, releasing molecules that are slowly transformed as they interact with those in the wine. Read the rest of this entry