Pop culture – Champagne and sparkling wines

LIKE all wines, the sparkling variety starts life as fermented grape juice. Most sparklers as we know them — and certainly all of the ones mentioned on this site — are made in the way spelled out below.

So whether you’re tucking into Cristal Champagne or Jacob’s Creek Sparkling, this is what you’re getting:

1 First fermentation

The grape juice is partially fermented and then blended with older vintages of the same wine. In part, this is intended to enforce consistency from year to year. It’s the reason practically all sparkling wines are labelled as non-vintage or NV.

2 Second fermentation

The blend of wine from round one, along with added sugar and yeast, is bottled and sealed with beer-style crown caps. A secondary fermentation kicks off in the bottle. This is crucial to the style, not least because its by-product carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, most of it dissolved in the liquid.

3 Ageing

The bottles remain in the cellar for about two years and often much longer. A sludge of spent yeast cells (the “lees”) will have settled in the bottles. The lees-ageing of the wine adds breadth, body and a characteristic yeasty aroma that reminds tasters of bread or, perhaps reflecting the buttery notes of chardonnay, brioche.

4 Riddling (rémuage)

The lees must be removed to produce a clear wine. To facilitate their later removal, the bottles are arranged cork-down in racks and regularly rotated by a few degrees for weeks or months to allow those solids settle in the neck of the bottle. This used to be done by hand but is now mainly done automatically.

5 Disgorging (dégorgement) and dosage

The crown cap, along with the plug of sediment in the neck of the bottle, is removed and the bottle topped up with still wine and, usually, a little sugar. The bottle is now stoppered with a cork — far fatter than the the usual type — capable of withstanding the enormous pressures within. It’s held in place by a wire cage and foil. It’s now ready to be sold, but is likely to spend at least a few months in bottle before it’s opened.

If ever you get a chance to visit a winery making bubbly, viewing this last bit of the process is a treat. All but the tiniest producers will have automated production lines and, depending on the way it’s laid out, it can look as entrancing as one of those Busby-Berkeley dance numbers in the musicals of the 1930s.

Getting the cap off and the cork on is a precision process and usually involves freezing the neck of the bottle. In any decent-sized plant you’ll see hundreds of identical bottles in a line being whisked along, turning a graceful arc til each is upside down in the freezing solution. After it’s right way up again,  the crown cap is seamlessly popped off and replaced with the cork.

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Two other things worth noting

I specify that the method above is behind most sparklers “as we know them” because rather a lot of fizz is made in other ways. However,  relatively little of it is seen in this country, presumably in part because of the steep price threshold caused by high tax here. The principal alternative is Charmat method behind Prosecco which is basically the same as above except the second fermentation happens in the tank rather than in bottle.

Secondly, while Champagne and France are closely identified with one another, that region is not the country’s only source of fizz, but again they’re rather rare here. The only attempts I’ve seen imported into Ireland have been from the Loire, where quite a lot of it is made, from Savoie and Jura, and a sole bottle from Bourgogne which was pretty good and cheaper than Champagne, but sadly not widely available. ♦

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One Response

  1. […] look at the details of that elsewhere but if I needed any further ammunition to burst that bubble it came in the shape of some smashing […]

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