Guide to Champagne and Sparkling Wine
What is the difference between Champagne and Sparkling Wine?
Any wine that contains bubbles of carbon dioxide gas is considered a sparkling wine, but technically, only those wines from France’s Champagne region can be called “champagne.” The rest receive the “lowly” designations of sparkling wine (sparklers from the U.S.), cava (Spain), prosecco (Italy), cremant (French wine from regions other than Champagne), sekt (Germany) or espumante (Argentina).
The history of sparkling wines
Contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine.The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire near Carcassonne in 1531.
Over one hundred years later–and forty years before it has been claimed that Dom Perignon “invented” Champagne–English scientist Christopher Merret documented how adding sugar to a wine that had already fermented created a second fermentation. Merret presented the Royal Society with a paper in which he detailed what is now called methode champenoise (see below) in 1662.
Dom may not have invented this delicious drink, but he is still to credit for advances in champagne production. One of his most important contributions to the wine world was inventing the wire collar (called a muselet) which was strong enough to withstand the fermentation pressure. No more shooting your eye out.
It is believed that the 19th century Champagne was much sweeter than the Champagne of today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouet decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to London. The designation Brut Champagne, the modern Champagne, was created for the British in 1876.
The processes of making sparkling wine
How does wine get its bubbles? There are four ways of infusing the wine with gas: methode champenoise, the transfer method, the charmat process, (aka bulk process), and the least popular, carbonation.
Methode champenoise, which is France’s champagne region’s primary method, requires a second fermentation in the bottle. Sugar is added to each of the bottles, and then the bottles must be turned periodically to ensure proper aging and fermentation. It produces small, refined bubbles, and produces bubbles for much longer than the other methods. Today, the bottles are usually turned mechanically; traditionally, they were turned by hand.
In the transfer method, wine is produced similarly to the methode champenoise, but the wine is placed through a filtration system to remove any sediment.
In the charmat process, pressurized tanks hold in the carbon dioxide that is released during fermentation, so that the gas which normally escapes instead stays inside the wine. This process is cheaper, but once poured, the wine tends to lose its bubbles quicker.
In the least popular method, carbonation, the wine is injected with carbon dioxide. It is the most inexpensive method, and produces larger bubbles that quickly loose their effervescence. (I have a funny feeling that it is this process which leads to the “cheap wine = a massive headache” adage.)
Varietals used to make sparkling wine
French champagnes are made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Menuier grapes; both Pinot Noir and Pinot Menuier are red grapes, and leaving their skins in the tanks will create a light pink to deep red colored blush wine, known as “blanc de noir.” Sparkling wine made from all white grapes is known as “blanc de blanc,” which literally translates as “white wine from white grapes.”
In recent years, wines have been made from many different varietals; particularly in Argentina, where Malbec sparkling wines are becoming popular. Australia also produces a fruity sparkling Shiraz.
Flavor profile of sparkling wines
When drinking sparkling wines, look for general flavors like citrus, (or lemon), honey, apple, toast, and yeast.
Sparkling wines will be dry or sweet depending on how much residual sugar they contain. The absolute driest wine is labeled “extra brut.” They are drier than wines labeled “extra dry” or “extra sec” because they contain less residual sugar. Next in line comes “demi-sec” and then “doux.” The last two are considered dessert wines.
More information on Champagne labels
We already know that only wines made in Champagne, France can be labeled “Champagne”. As it turns out, there are lot more on the labels of Champagne that we need to decipher! The following is a list of acronyms commonly seen on Champagne bottles, to help you distinguish what each of them mean:
RM: Récoltant-Manipulant, where the wines are sourced from one grower who also makes the wine.
NM: Négociant-Manipulant, where the grapes are sourced and not grown by the house that produces the wine.
CM: Coopérative-Manipulant, where a coop of growers pool their grapes and sell them to a winemaker or house. It is possible that a grape grower will be a part of the winemaking process.
RC: Récoltant-Coopérateur, where grapes are sourced from one individual grower, but are converted into wine at a cooperative winemaking center. The grower has little to do with the winemaking process but often receives credit for the end result.
SR: Société de Récoltants, two or more growers share the same winery and use it to make wine under their own label. Growers almost always have significant involvement in the winemaking process.