Champagne and other sparkling wines

In the mood for celebration? Surely you will reach for sparkling wine. Nothing says success and happiness better than a toast holding a flute of sparkling wine in your hand. And within all frizzy wines, Champagne sparkles the most.

Champagne

Champagne is the sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France - the only with the right to the name. It is produced by the Champanoise method whith a second fermentation inside the bottle. It is not a wine to collect, but designed to be enjoyed on purchase and, because of clever marketing and branding, Champagne is associated with everything that is good.

Branding importance

Champagne is of course the best known sparkling wines. However, in the wider world only 10% of all sparkling wine produced is Champagne. The UK is the biggest export market for Champagne and the US is second, but in the UK people now drink more Cava - the Spanish sparkler - than Champagne.

Champagne is very evocative and synonymous with celebrations.... the result of skilled marketing and protection by the French. Only sparkling wine made in the designated Champagne area of France can be called Champagne. However, this is no guarantee of quality, style or value. within Champagne there are many styles and qualities ... and prices.

Understanding, and appreciating, Champagne is not always rational. For many, Champagne is about brands... and brands are emotive. Many a footballer would not wish to be seen drinking other than Krug or Cristal... but not because these are the best Champagnes or because of any understanding of quality. They are expensive and that can be sufficient reason. Many of us can also overpay for Champagne because it is an important celebration.

There's a lot of marketing involved! The brand is important and has been ever since Champagne's creation by the English; the English, not French, despite the Dom Perignon story.

Champagne is made mostly by Champagne houses not Champagne estates. Most houses buy the grapes from grape growers rather than grow their own although many may grow a small proportion of their needs. A few growers may also produce their own Champagne brand. There are around 5,000 grape growers in Champagne and over 50,000 different Champagnes.

Choosing a brand is often done on perceived image and price. Champagne bottles tend to give very little product information.

Ignoring brand and price, there are a few important considerations when choosing Champagne: blend of grapes, vintage or non vintage, dryness or sweetness.

Blend of grapes

Champagne can be made only from 4 grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Gamay - but no one currently uses Gamay. Each grape has a different function. Chardonnay adds elegance, finesse and longevity; Pinot Noir provides structure, backbone and fruit; Pinot Meunier adds extra youthful fruitiness.

Although some Champagne is made from 100% Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier – known as "Blanc de Noirs" and not very common - most champagne is produced either from 100% Chardonnay, or a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

If the bottle is labeled "Blanc de Blancs" the wine inside is 100% Chardonnay. If the bottle is simply labeled Champagne then it will be a blend of Chardonnay and one or both red grapes. The label will not tell you the relative proportions of each grape.

Important to remark that one is not better, or necessarily different in price from the other; Krug, for example, makes Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs and blends.

Vintage or non vintage

Vintage Champagne (about 15-20% of all Champagne) has to be made from grapes grown in the year stated on the label. Vintage Champagne involves the selection of better grapes. In poor years, vintage Champagne may not be produced. It follows that the character of vintage Champagne will often vary between different vintages. Vintage Champagne is more expensive, but not necessarily better than non vintage. Non vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from different years - the previous years' wine is called "reserve" wine. Non vintage Champagne is blended to be the same from year to year.

"Predictability" can be an issue. Many Champagne houses will disgorge and label the bottle shortly before shipping. If you buy two bottles labeled, say "1996" it is perfectly possible that they will have been disgorged many months or perhaps years apart. The length of time on the lees affects taste. You have no way of knowing.

Dryness/Sweetness

Today, this is less of a factor since most Champagne sold is "Brut" and Demi Sec or Sweet have declined. Brut is generally the driest and Doux is the sweetest although Demi Sec is now generally regarded as sweet. A hundred years ago, typical champagne was far sweeter than Doux of today. The level of sweetness is determined by the amount of sugar added after disgorging.

Pink Champagne

Very pretty but there is nothing special to it. Generally, pink Champagne is produced by adding red wine to the white wine at the blending stage. The amount of red wine added will normally be less than 10% of the total wine.

The Champagne Method

Still wine is produced in the normal way. After fermentation the wine is allowed to rest. The next and critical stage is "assemblage" when the winemaker creates the blend by selecting appropriate barrels and the proportions. These are then blended, rested and filtered. The next stage is bottling. The still wine is filled into bottles, a mixture of yeast and grape juice is added and the bottle capped with a beer cap and short plastic tube. The yeast and grape juice set off a second fermentation in the bottle - hence the expression "bottle fermented" - This fermentation produces the gas... and also sediment.

In order to remove the sediment, the bottles are turned regularly over many weeks and the bottle gradually turned completely upside down. At this stage the sediment has collected in the plastic tube under the metal cap. To remove the sediment, the bottle neck is frozen, the cap removed and the frozen sediment plug ejected. The bottle is then topped up with more juice to give the required level of dryness or sweetness.

It can then be corked. Normally, the bottle would then rest for a few months before shipment.

Other Sparkling Wine

Some differences

Most sparkling wine is made by the champagne method - but cannot mention the word Champagne. This does not, of course, mean that all sparkling wine made using the champagne method is similar to Champagne.

Key differences can be caused by the grape, pressure and production process.

The grape variety used - Sparkling wine can be made from almost any grape, white or black. Many sparkling wines are made from other than Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. The quality of the grapes is also a factor.

The degree of pressure in the bottle - The amount of pressure is determined by the wine maker and local regulations, not by the grape. Champagne has the highest pressure and can be equivalent to 3 or 4 times the pressure in a car tyre. Chilling sparkling wine before opening has the effect of reducing the pressure. Safety, as well as taste, is the reason for not serving warm Champagne. Huge quantities of small bubbles forming a rich mousse are characteristic of good Champagne.

Variations in the production process – These variations include the ageing time of the wines in the barrel, the type of barrel, the assemblage and length of bottle maturation.

Cava

Cava is the Spanish term for sparkling wine most of which is produced in Catalonia near Barcelona. Cava sales have risen sharply in recent years and now represent around 20% of all sparkling wine sold in the UK. The two major companies are Codorniu and Freixenet. Historically, Cava has been made from the local grape varieties: Macabeo, Xarel-lo and Parellada. In recent years, however, Codorniu - against considerable local resistance - has been using increasing levels of Chardonnay as well as experimenting with Pinot Noir and other red grapes.

Cava is generally low cost, soft, easy drinking with less mousse than Champagne. Cava quality is variable. There are premium priced Cavas available but generally Cava producers seem content to be relatively low priced and discount heavily through supermarkets.

Other areas producing Champagne method sparkling wine of note

Saumur produces high quality' sparkling wine - often from Chenin Blanc. Bouvet-Ladubay and Ackerman Laurance are the leading producers and both are owned by Champagne houses. Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy) can be another inexpensive French fizz.

Australia produces good quality sparkling wine from a variety of grapes including large quantities of red fizz from Pinot Noir and Shiraz.

Pelorus, from Cloudy Bay, is a notable New Zealand sparkler and Lindauer another.

South Africa has many good sparklers - Graham Beck, Villiers.

Nyetimber in England makes exceptional sparkling wine to rival many Champagnes.

California - the only area outside of Champagne able to use the word Champagne - has received major investment from Champagne houses and produces reasonable quality but perhaps at less competitive pricing.

Sparkling wine using methods other than the Champagne method

Asti Spumante is perhaps the best known wine using single, closed tank fermentation – i.e. not bottle fermented. This method helps to preserve the fruit character of the wine. The short fermentation period in the tank also ensures sweetness.

Asti is the area in North West Italy where it is produced, Spumante simply means sparkling. Nowadays, the term Spumante is used less. The producer name is important. Asti is inexpensive and can be delightful as an aperitif or with desserts.

Prosecco is the Italian sparkling wine made from the Prosecco grape using the closed tank method. Generally, Prosecco is an easy going fizz but there are some high quality examples -available from specialists. The frizzante - low pressure - can be a particularly refreshing summer drink.

Lambrusco, Central Italy is a sparkling, usually red wine that was popular in the early 1980s but is now largely ignored outside of its production area. Nowadays made in a similar way to Asti and it can have many styles and levels of sweetness or dryness - not always apparent from the bottle. There are quality Lambruscos, some of them using the bottle fermented method, but most Lambruscos generally available outside their region are perhaps best left alone.

Most Sekt, the German sparkling wine, is made by the closed tank method.


Arthur Till has been interested in the fruits of the vine for many years and shares his enthusiasm for wine with others through wine appreciation courses, a wine group and the tours he organizes.