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The Skinny on Champagne

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Oh Champagne. We all have a memory, a story, a celebration… and if you’re like me, a passion for all those bubbles. It is a wine that accompanies celebration and so, a little education is in order to make sure that the bubbles aren’t lost on you.

Champagne is actually a region in France (of course the French can lay claim to something as wonderful as Champagne, they are a fabulous people).  Located near Paris, this region sits in the northern part of France; this has a lot to do with why they make sparkling wine.

It is important to distinguish between Champagne and sparkling wine.  In Champagne they have mastered the craft, made the wine incredibly famous and have some of the most recognizable wineries (Champagne Houses is their title en France) in the world.  This wine has infiltrated our culture in remarkable ways. And only in Champagne, can they call sparkling wine, Champagne.  Every other wine region must create a new name for their version of the craft, most simply call it sparkling wine. When you are visiting local wineries or hitting the LCBO in search of a Niagara Champagne, do not be disappointed. You are simply looking for the wrong title – sparkling wine made in the traditional method will be the same style of winemaking with a truly Niagara flavour.

Because Champagne is located so far north in France the grapes never fully ripen. That creates conditions ideal for sparkling wine because the grapes are best when picked slightly before full ripeness, allowing them to maintain high acidity (which is a natural preservative), and withstand the process by which the wine will become sparkling. In Niagara we have many wineries making sparkling wine and even a few cheeky that are saying Au Revoir to the typical closure of cork and Bonjour to the crown cap, typically reserved for beer bottles!.  Other areas in Canada that are making great sparkling wine are Prince Edward County and even Nova Scotia.

There are a few methods used to make sparkling wine.  There is the traditional method, the transfer method, and the tank method (often referred to as the charmat or cuvee close method).  Today I will give you the goods on the traditional method.

Traditionally the grapes used in sparkling wine are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay.  All rules are made to be broken, so don’t count on this to be true of all traditional method sparkling wines, but if they bear the title Champagne you can be positive that it is made of these varieties. A Blanc de Blanc is 100 percent Chardonnay, a Blanc de Noir is 100 percent Pinot Meunier and/or Pinot Noir, and an undistinguished Champagne is a blend of any of the three grapes.

Traditional Method Process:

Pressing – Grapes are brought into the winery and the clear juice is extracted from the skins and seeds.

First Fermentation – The grape juice is vinified into still wine.

Assemblage – The cellar master (or winemaker) must determine the percentage of each variety (kind of wine), and whether or not there will be reserve wine added from previous vintages to add complexity to enhance the flavour profile of the wine.

Bottling – The wine from assemblage is put into bottle (but not yet sealed).

Second Fermentation – The liqueur de tirage (a blend of wine, sugar and yeast) is added to each bottle, then the bottles are closed with a crown cap and a second fermentation is induced in the bottle (this fermentation is what causes the CO2 to develop and make the wine bubbly).

Sur Lattes – The wine will lay on its side sur lie (on its yeast, that is, with the yeast that caused the second fermentation) to add character – in Champagne this process takes a minimum of 15 months.  The breaking down of the yeast is called the yeast autolysis, a process that adds character and complexity to the wine.  If you’ve heard of a Champagne having a bready or yeasty flavour, this is why.

Remuage or Riddling – A very traditional process, this was actually once a job at all Champagne Houses in France (and in some, it still is!).  The Riddling process takes place on Riddling Racks (or Pupitres in French) where the bottle necks are held at a 90 degree angle, and then each day for 10 to 14 days the bottles are given a slight turn and tilt until they are upside down.  This movement will slowly encourage the yeast to move into the neck of the bottle, which is necessary to get the yeast out!  Today, we have Gyropalettes that do the same work in 3 days, but many of the most expensive sparkling wines will still undergo a traditional riddling process.

Degorgement or Disgorgement – This is the process of removing the yeast plug from the bottle, and is mostly done with a complicated line of machinery. The neck of the bottle is frozen, the crown cap is removed, the yeast plug will pop out and quickly the next step of the process occurs.

Niagara Visitors Tip: At Hillebrand in Niagara on the Lake, you can actually tour their sparkling wine cave and see first hand the equipment that is used.

Dosage – Immediately following disgorgement, the vin d’expedition will be added to the bottle before it is resealed.  The vin d’expedition is the winemaker’s last opportunity to adjust the flavour of the finished wine – it is added to fill the space in the bottle once the yeast plug is removed. In some cases the winemaker will want the wine to be very dry and so a dry still wine is added to maintain the flavour, if a sweeter wine is desired, then of course a wine with high residual sugar will be added.

Bottling – The wine bottles are sealed with cork, and this cork is secured by a cage. It is important to note that the cage is essential because of the high pressure contained in the bottle.  Once you have removed the cage, be aware that the cork can fly out at any moment so keep your thumb on top!

Following bottling, the wine is either held back to continue the aging process before release, or sold to the public. This is amongst the more intense styles of wine to produce, and it is a fascinating method to observe, so I encourage you to visit a location that will let you see the machinery that represents each step of the process.

To know what you’re buying the sweetness levels are as follows:

  • Extra Brut – very dry
  • Brut – dry
  • Extra Sec – slightly off dry
  • Sec – off dry
  • Demi-Sec – semi-sweet
  • Doux – sweet

I hope you’ll never look at a bottle of sparkling wine the same way.  It is a very complex process and a dedicated winemaking team is behind each bottle. In Niagara you can find many sparkling wines that are worthy of any celebration!

The Author

Allie Hughes is the wine and culinary contributor to Naturally in Niagara, feasting on the decadent experience that is life in this region. With a fine wine sensibility honed at the International Sommelier Guild, Allie is taking the journey of Niagara by the glass with you with each new taste. Allie is also the creative mind behind the marketing of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute, and owner of Hughes & Co., a boutique social strategy firm.

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