The word "champagne" has gathered an aura around it like no other in the wine world. The very word evokes romance, sophistication and celebration. Most of us probably first experience champagne, or at least an imitation of it, as a drink to toast a wedding.
Understanding the language of sparkling wine gives an insight into the history, politics, economics and production methods of these wonderful wines.
Champagne is only one of hundreds of differing sparkling wines, but as the best and most expensive it has given its name to the style. Legally only wines made from grapes grown in a defined area of France can be called "Champagne" but over the years wine producers all over the wine world have used the name for their own sparkling wine. Producers in the Champagne region have successfully fought to change national and international laws to prevent the word "champagne" appearing on the labels of sparkling wines from other regions.The bubbles that give the wine its sparkle are the familiar gas carbon dioxide, just like the bubbles in beer or soft drinks. Under pressure carbon dioxide is dissolved in the liquid, when the bottle is opened the pressure is released and the carbon dioxide gas comes out.
In most wines the presence of bubbles indicates that something has gone wrong with the winemaking. In fact Dom Perignon, the reputed inventor of Champagne, spent a great deal of his time trying to prevent secondary fermentation.
All sparkling wines are made from a base wine that is made just like any other white wine. The winemakers select a number of base wines often from vintages and blend them to get the required characteristics. You can often find the words 'Non Vintage' or 'NV' on the label, this indicates that you have a blend made from several vintages. In exceptional years a vintage champagne or vintage sparkling wine will be made, and labelled with the year.
There are a number of different methods used to put the bubbles into sparkling wine. The method champenoise is the most meticulous and therefore the most expensive. Base wine, usually a blend of wines from several vineyards and vintages, is selected and bottled along with some sugar and yeast. The secondary fermentation converts this sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide and the yeast dies and becomes lees. A period of aging allows the wine to pick up extra flavours from the lees. The bottles are gradually inverted and the lees is removed by a method called disgorgement. The wine is topped up and sealed with the familiar champagne cork.
Other methods of putting the fizz into wine are less labour intensive and therefore less expensive, but the end product is of lower quality. Very cheap sparkling wines are gassed with carbon dioxide from a cylinder just like soft drinks.
The grape varieties permitted to make Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot noir and Pinot meunier. Two of these are red wine varieties, but the juice is usually run off the skins as soon as the grapes are crushed so it only picks up a tiny amount of colour. Champagne made from Chardonnay alone is labelled "blanc de blanc"
Outside of the Champagne region many other varieties are used to make sparkling wines. Most producers however use the recognised champagne varieties, or at least the Chardonnay and Pinot noir. In Australia many sparkling wines are labelled "Pinot Chardonnay" which indicates the varietal blend.
The sweetness of Champagne and other sparkling wines is described by the terms Extra Brut, Brut, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux.
Another word you will often see on the label of sparkling wines is Cuvee. This has several shades of meaning. It is derived from the French word for vat. In the context of sparkling wines it means the vat with the best base wine, but the usage of the word Cuvee is rather loose and is used more for its marketing appeal than for any real information about the wine.
French sparkling wines made outside of Champagne but using the traditional method are called Cremant. These are often excellent wines and less expensive than Champagne.
Spumante is the Italian word for sparkling. Spumante can be dry or sweet, but the dominance of the cheap sweeter versions in the marketplace makes it hard to convince anyone that a wine labelled 'spumante' could be dry.
The base wine for sparkling wines needs to have high acidity and this quality is best achieved in cooler regions. It is no accident that Champagne is one of the coldest wine regions in the world. In Australia the premium sparkling wine producers tend to be in Victoria or Tasmania. For example the popular brand Yellowglen is based on a vineyard in the Ballarat region where the climate is unequivocally cool.
Several large companies have vineyards in Tasmania specifically to produce base wine for sparklers. Taltarni originally built their reputation around red wines from the Pyrenees region in Victoria but they established Clover Hill in Tasmania specifically to make sparkling wine.
The world's largest producer of Champagne is Moet and Chandon. They are the parent company of Domaine Chandon, based in the Yarra Valley and one of the best Australian sparkling wine producers.
Finally, what glassware is best for drinking sparkling wine? The traditional flat, saucer shaped coupe has been largely replaced by the flute. The advantage of the flute is that it allows the bubbles to stay in the wine longer. My answer is that the best way to drink these wines is in convivial company, with whatever glassware is available.
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