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Dom Pérignon famously said upon first tasting champagne, “Come quickly, I am tasting stars”.
Champagne is a light, sparkling wine, which comes exclusively from the Champagne region of North-eastern France. It is differentiated from all other sparkling wines for three major reasons:
1. A wine can only be labelled as "champagne" if it is made in the Champagne region of France.
2. Champagne can only be made from a list of ‘suitable’ grape varieties, most commonly a blend of up to three; Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, although others are allowed. The grapes must be grown in the Champagne region.
3. The bubbles must be achieved in champagne through a fermentation process, which occurs twice; once in barrels and again in bottles, known as the traditional method (methode traditionelle).
There are also a number of other rules set out by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) including pruning, less time on yeast and yield size, however the three rules listen above are considered the most important.
To explain better, using the traditional method, the bubbles in the wine are formed during the second fermentation, which takes place in the bottle. Put simply, after the initial fermentation is complete, the still wine is bottled and a liqueur de tirage (a solution of sugar, yeast, and nutrients) is added. A crown cap is placed on the bottle and the yeast proceeds to devour the sugar, creating alcohol, heat, and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide cannot escape from the sealed bottle, so it is dissolved in the wine until the bottle is opened.
To produce sparkling wine, there are actually four methods, one of which is the traditional method, used with most top end sparklings. Other methods include:
• Injecting carbon dioxide, as with soft drinks.
• The ‘Charmat method’, where the wine undergoes secondary fermentation in bulk tanks, rather than in the bottle to produce light, delicate sparkling wines such as Prosecco (from Italy).
• The transfer method, which follows the first steps of "traditional method", although after secondary fermentation is complete, the individual bottles are transferred into a larger tank, which allows scope for blending.
Sparkling wines and Champagnes can be categorised as having the following taste profiles:
• Extra Brut – extra dry
• Brut – dry
• Extra dry – middle of the road dry
• Demi-sec – sweet
Champagne and sparkling wines are also categorized as "vintage" or "non-vintage", meaning they either come from a single year or are a blend of several different years. The "vintage" Champagnes are typically pricier, as the non-vintage Champagne and sparkling wines make up the majority of the market.
Although Champagne exclusively comes from the Champagne region, internationally, Spain, Australia, New Zealand and the US are producing competitive sparkling wines using both the traditional method and transfer method.
Worth a look (these all use the traditional method):
Clover Hill Vintage Brut 2008 $49.99
Tempus Two Pewter Pinot Noir Chardonnay 2010 $32
Deutz Marlborough Cuvee Brut $20
Last blog: How to choose wine for Christmas
Alex Trescowthick has been winemaker at Nepenthe in South Australia since 2011. Alex is passionate about wine-making and relishes the opportunity that each new vintage brings to produce even better wines.