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It's commonly said that all Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. But what exactly is Champagne? What makes it different from other sparkling wines? And how do you make Champagne?
Here's what you need to know.
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What is Champagne?
Champagne is a French sparkling wine, named after the Champagne wine region of France where it's produced. It's primarily made from a blend of three grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot noir, and Pinot meunier. Pinot blanc, Pinot gris, Petit Meslier, and Arbane grapes are also allowed in Champagne production.
How is Champagne different from other sparkling wines?
To those of us who aren't professional wine producers or go-for-broke wine lovers, Champagne might be indistinguishable from any other sparkling wine.
Like other sparkling wines, Champagne is produced through the process of grape pressing and fermentation, but there are specific, complex production rules that differentiate Champagne from prosecco (Italian sparkling wine), cava (Spanish sparkling wine), and other sparkling wines from the United States and elsewhere.
Here are some of the core Champagne production rules:
- Champagne can only be called Champagne if it comes from the region of Champagne, France, which is just outside of Paris.
- Champagne can only be made using the specific grapes we covered above.
- Champagne must be made using the complex méthode champenoise, or Champagne method, a strict set of guidelines developed in France. This method involves creating the bubbles people know and love inside the bottle, when it undergoes secondary fermentation.
For more information and history on Champagne production rules, check out this page by Comité Champagne, a trade association that represents the interests of independent Champagne producers.
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How to make Champagne
While any sparkling wine made outside of the Champagne wine region of France cannot be called Champagne, the same production techniques can be used to make your own. Here are the steps involved.
Step 1: Grape harvest and pressing
At the start, the process of making Champagne is very similar to the process of making still wine. Grapes are harvested and then carefully pressed to keep the juice clear.
Step 2: First fermentation
Once the grapes are pressed, the resulting juice is put into a tank where the first fermentation takes place. What first fermentation does is push all of the natural sugar of the grapes out of the wine, resulting in an acidic still wine that's been fermented completely dry.
Step 3: Assemblage
Assemblage, also known as blending, is one of the most important steps in making Champagne. In this step, the still wine from first fermentation is blended with other still wines and reserve wines to create the Champagne base.
Some Champagne producers will combine as many different base wines as possible to achieve a unique style and flavor.
Step 4: Second fermentation
Second fermentation is the most essential step when making Champagne, giving the wine its special effervescence.
Once the wine is blended, it's combined with the liqueur de tirage, a liquid solution of yeast, wine, and sugar. This combination is then put into a glass bottle and topped with a bottle cap.
The bottle is then stored horizontally, typically stacked on its side, and best stored in a cool place. From here, the second fermentation process begins, with the yeast slowly converting the sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.
With the bottle capped, the carbon dioxide can't leave the bottle and settles in, forming the bubbles Champagne is known for.
Step 5: Aging
As the fermentation process carries on, the yeast cells die in the bottle. These dead yeast cells are also known as lees, which is the sediment you'll see as a result of wine production.
After the yeast cells die, you'll continue to let the wine age for some time before the fermentation process is complete. According to Champagne production rules, all non-vintage Champagne wines must spend at least fifteen months in the bottle before release. The minimum for vintage Champagne wines is three years. But more expensive Champagnes spend five years, and sometimes decades, aging.
Step 6: Riddling
Once the fermentation and aging processes are complete, it's time to start removing the dead yeast cells through a process called riddling, also known as remuage.
During this process, the bottle is placed on a rack upside down at an angle. Every day or few days, a person will then give the bottle a small turn and shake while keeping the bottle faced upside down. This moves the dead yeast cells and sediment into the bottleneck where they can easily be removed.
Step 7: Disgorgement
With the dead yeast cells and sediment captured in the bottleneck, it's time to get rid of them through a process called disgorgement.
During this process, the neck of the bottle is submerged in a freezing brine solution, causing the sediment to freeze together and solidify. The bottle is then turned upright and the cap is removed, with the internal pressure of the carbon dioxide forcing the frozen wine sediment out of the bottle, along with a small amount of the wine itself.
Step 8: Dosage
The small amount of wine lost through the disgorgement process is then replaced with a dosage, also known as liqueur d’expedition. This mixture can consist of still white wine, brandy, and/or sugar and is added to adjust the sweetness of the Champagne.
This step decides how the Champagne will be labelled, whether it be Extra Brut, Brut, Sec, Demi-Sec, or Doux.
Step 9: Corking
After adding the dosage, it's time to cork the bottle, wiring it down to help it stay in the bottle despite the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide in the Champagne. From here, the Champagne can be consumed immediately, or the bottle can continue to rest until it's time to pop it open and enjoy.
Making Champagne isn't easy, but the complex process and additional steps required to produce it and its unique flavors are worth it in the end.
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