Champagne and Sparkling Wine – What to Know

Champagne was unknown before the 18th Century. We think of all sparkling wine as “champagne” even though that word is reserved only for sparkling wine made by a very specific process in the region of Champagne, in northern France. The central problems with making wine that far north are that grapes rarely ripen fully and the fermentation often stops prematurely as temperatures fall in the winter. As bottles warm in the spring they finish their fermenting creating not only alcoholic strength but carbon dioxide. In the old days, bottles would either burst in the cellar due the internal gas pressure or, if opened they would foam and bubble. But the wine wasn’t half-bad. If the problems could be understood and controlled, there might be potential here.

Dom Perignon, a 17th century Benedictine monk is popularly credited with inventing sparkling wine. Moet & Chandon named the first ever prestige cuvee in his honor. But the Dom spent most of his life trying to figure out how to prevent his wines from ending up bubbly. The real credit for founding the Champagne method goes to the widow (veuve) Clicquot, a 19th Century French woman who took over her husband’s wine business when he died. The fundamental feature of the Champagne method is that the second fermentation happens inside the bottle. Cheaper, mass-production techniques are used elsewhere although, worldwide, the best sparkling wine is made as the Champenoise make it. With the help of her husband’s experienced cellar masters Madame Clicquot made the erratic, explosive wines of Champagne into a consistent, luxurious wine that is never out of place and, at times absolutely called for.

“Champagne. In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it”

Napoleon Bonaparte

The secret in making Champagne is to control that second fermentation which happens inside the bottle. It requires a heavy bottle that can withstand the internal pressure and the precise blending of still wines for the base of the bubbly, to produce an elegant, balanced result.

Champagne is made by blending many table wines from different vintages. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the traditional grapes used, with sometimes a dash of Pinot Meunier.

Blanc de Blanc is made entirely from Chardonnay grapes.

Blanc de Noir is made from Pinot Noir grapes (skins removed, so it’s not a red wine).

Most Champagne houses do not grow their own grapes, they purchase grapes from small growers or sometimes purchase wine already made which they then blend. Sometimes over 100 different still wines are blended together with the goal of making a consistent cuvee year after year. Only in the very best years will a Champagne producer use grapes from the same vintage. The result is the rare vintage Champagne, generally more expensive and intended to showcase the quality of that specific growing year. Some of the best producers have developed prestige cuvee wines which may utilize grapes from very specific vineyards or otherwise carefully selected to express the house style at its very best. Once again; more expensive.

Champagne is made in very large quantity. There are many thousands of bottles aging in the cellars of the big houses. Champagne, as a category is very age worthy. Even if it is not the very best, it grows richer and finer with time.

Outside of the Champagne region but within France sparkling wines are called Cremant. There is Cremant d’Alsace (made from Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer), Cremant d’Bourgogne (made from Chardonnay) and Cremant d’Loire (made from Chenin Blanc). These wines may be made by the same Champagne method but they cannot claim the name Champagne. They are often somewhat less expensive than fine Champagne and offer lovely variations of the flavor profile though it is the nature of all French bubbly to be austere, crisp and elegant.

No one produces more sparkling variation than Italy. The most common version is Asti Spumant from the north which is quite sweet, made from the Moscato grape. There is also Moscato d’Asti, a more delicately sweet, softly bubbly wine that is a great aperitif or good after a meal with fruit and cheese. The Italians also produce Prosecco, made from a grape of that name in the northeast. Prosecco can be frizzante which is a softer bubble, or spumante which is more full-on bubbly. There is also Franciacorta, made in the Lombardy region of Italy. Franciacorta is made in the Champagne method from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Bianco grapes. It is the most champagne-like Italian sparkler and, although little of it is made its worth a try if you find it.

Sparkling wine made in Spain is called Cava, a word that refers to the caves in which the wine is aged. Cava is made from a triumvirate of native grapes (Parallada, Macobeo and Xarel-lo) with, more recently the addition of one or more of the traditional Champagne grape types. Cava is generally more earthy, ripe and bold compared to Champagne’s elegance. Some would claim that Cava is just not as good as Champagne because of the grape types that are used, but it makes for a more casual, economical special occasion.

In other places around the world the words “sparkling wine” are used, or the label may say the sparkler is made by the “methode Champenoise”, the Champagne method. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most common choices for grape types as well. Even within the Champagne region other grape types were eliminated from the blend after years of trial and error so, you have to figure they’ve got the recipe down.

Red sparkling wine is pretty rare. The Australians make sparkling Shiraz which is rich and full bodied fruity… and an acquired taste. It’s boldness prevents it from being as universal and flexible as true Champagne. Back in Italy, there is Brachetto d’Acqui, made from the grape called Brachetto, dark pink, fairly fruity with a hint of zesty sweetness. Also, from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy comes Lambrusco, a violet, slightly bubbly wine that is refreshing and light and runs from zesty dry to medium sweet. It’s a fun choice for the casual wine drinker or for a picnic, served chilled.

It would be unfair not to mention that some of the very finest champagne is rose. Commonly, pink wines are promoted by saying they combine the refreshing acidity and clean fruit of white wine with the fuller body and richness of a red. I don’t think this is anywhere more true than in sparkling wine. It can be expensive, because less is made, but a fine rose champagne is indeed very good and, as a partner to a full menu of great food, it is wonderful.

Wether from Champagne, Italy, Spain or elsewhere sparkling wines can be sweet, medium or very dry. Popular tastes would dictate that the drier styles are finer but all styles have their place, and many wine drinkers enjoy a touch (or more) of sweetness. Look for these words on labels to tip you as to how sweet a sparkling wine is.

Extra-Brut has under 6 grams per liter of residual sugar.

Brut has less than 16 grams per liter residual sugar

Extra Sec contains 12 to 20 grams per liter, and is also referred to as off-dry.

Sec means “dry” but it contains up to 35 grams per liter of residual sugar

Demi–Sec means “medium dry” and contains up to 50 grams per liter residual sugar.

Doux means”sweet” and is sweet at over 50 grams of residual sugar per liter.

Dolce, Doce (in Portugal) Dulce and Amabile (Italy) are all words that hint at perceivable degrees of sweetness. Most tasters who are not sweetness-fans will not be upset at anything under 25 grams of sugar per liter; they’ll barely taste any sweetness.

Champagne and Sparkling Wine is really good with just about any food. Champagne producers don’t seem to have any trouble selling their wine. In good times and tough times, it sells. Still, Champagne’s flexibility with food is not fully exploited. Perhaps, as I’ve always felt, it’s the bubbles themselves that prevent it from being an every day wine. It feels like a celebration whenever you drink it and the carbonation, going to your head accelerate the absorption of alcohol into your system.

Napoleon was right, you either need it or you require it. Don’t skip it.