A Quick Guide to Champagne & Sparkling Wine
When looking at bottles of sparkling wines or champagnes, you may notice some fancy looking words on the front of the bottle. Words like cuvee, crémant, brut and spumante.
What does all this stuff mean and why does it look so complicated?
This is the definitive guide to explain these terms, so next time you’re holding a bottle of bubbly you will know exactly what type you're drinking. In short, champagnes and sparkling wines are basically exactly like regular wines... except that they have bubbles added! Any production of bubbly wine, starts with the base wine.
This base wine is complete; meaning it has gone through the stages that other wines have, up to the end of the first fermentation. How the bubbles get in the wine is done in a variety of ways which we will explore when we understand the meaning of some key words first. Why not open a nice bottle of wine, and take some time to read through the below?
The Sweetness of Champagne
There are a number of terms that are used to describe the sugar contents of bubbly. Although their terms are French in origin, sparkling wines from other world regions also describe their wines this way.
- Brut is French for dry or ‘non sweet’
- Sec is French, for us it will mean, ‘noticeably sweet’
- Doux is French for ‘very sweet’
How much sugar are we talking exactly? Well, sparkling wines hold specific rating according to the European Commission. It dictates exactly what a wine is rated by how many grams of sugar the product contains per liter.
The Ratings of Brut
- 0-3 grams is Brut Nature or Brut Zéro
- 0-6 grams is Extra Brut
- 0-12 grams is Brut
The Ratings of Sec
- 12-17 grams is Extra Sec, Extra Dry or Extra Seco
- 17-32 grams is Sec, Seco or Dry
- 32-50 grams is Demi-Sec or Semi-Seco
The Ratings of Doux
- 50+ grams is Doux, Sweet or Dulce
Bubbles with Many Names
To make matters more confusing, each country has their own way of describing sparkling wine - some examples of which I have listed below.
Italian sparkling wines have two distinct categories
- Lightly sparkling is called frizzante
- Fully sparkling is called spumante
The German and Austrian region calls all its sparkling wines Sekt, cheaper wines made by the injection of carbon dioxide are called Schaumwein and its lightly sparkling wines are called Perlwein.
Spanish sparkling wines are called Cava's. They are made in a specific region and the levels of sweetness range from brut nature to dulce.
- Champagne is sparkling wine that comes ONLY from the region with the same name.
- Crémant is only lightly sparkling and is made under a specific method called ‘méthode champenoise’
- Mousseux is the term for ‘sparkling’ in French.
How Do the Bubbles Get in There?
So, now that we the names of bubbly and how they are classified, we can have a look at the four main ways in which the bubbles get in there. You may see these names on the wine label.
Method 1: Méthode Champenoise
In the Champagne region, the method is called “méthode champenoise”. All Champagne is made this way, no exceptions. To the rest of the world, who cannot use this term (because they are not in the Champagne region) we call this “méthode traditionnelle”. This ‘Traditional method’ is the same as ‘Champagne method’.
Step 1: Fermentation
The way the bubbles get into the wine occurs in each individual bottle. Each bottle is fermented alone and sealed. They are then left in storage, tilted so the yeast left overs will float to the top of the bottle. Since the reaction is in an enclosed bottle, there is nowhere for the carbon dioxide to escape.
Step 2: Removal of Dead Yeast Cells
Once the second fermentation is completed, all the dead yeast cells in the wine bottle (called "lees") must be removed. The process of moving this left over sediment is called ‘remuage’ in French or Riddling. The wine bottles are gradually tilted downwards and shaken and over time to get all the sediment into its position at the neck of the bottle which is upside down.
Once the sediment reaches the neck of the bottle. The wine bottle neck is dipped into an ice bath to freeze the sediment, then the bottle cap is removed, and the pressure inside the bottle ejects the frozen sediment. This leaves a clear wine inside.
This takes time and is labor intensive, this is why méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle are more expensive than the alternative method of getting carbon dioxide inside the wine.
This process of removing the ‘plug’ of dead yeast is called "disgorgement". The bottle ends up a little emptier through this process, so it is topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar. This final topping up is "liqeuer d' expedition". It is then finished with a cork, cage and is labelled.
Method 2: The Transfer Method
This method is similar to méthode champenoise, except when the bubbles have been made in the wine bottles, the bottles are all opened and emptied into a large vat or pressure tank. The yeasty sediment is then separated from there by using a filter.
When the separation is complete, the clear wine is racked off and wine is bottled under pressure so that they can be put for sale.
Method 3: The Charmat Method
In the Charmat method is also known as the ‘Tank’ Method. This is different because both the first and second fermentations are performed in a pressurized tank.
This can taste different to the first two methods (transfer and champenoise) because the yeasty sediment does not have much contact with the rest of the wine, because of the sheer volume.
This process is easy, cheap and required little effort. This process is good for sparkling wines that have more fruity finishes, like Asti and Moscato d'Asti from Italy and Prosecco.
Method 4: Injection
This is similar to how your soda and pop gets its bubbles.
There is no secondary fermentation with these sparkling wines, instead they are injected directly with carbon dioxide. The bubbles that appear in the wine are very large and the wine goes ‘flat’ very quickly. It is also the easiest and cheapest way to get carbonated wine.
What Grapes Are Typically Used?
The most expensive and ‘premium’ sparkling wines are made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Normally with these wines, only the juice from the grapes is used.
Very rarely, like in the production of rosé wines, is the skin to come into contact with the juice. Because most of sparkling wines are a blend of different vintages called ‘non-vintage’, the final blend is called a cuvee.
That's It for Today...
I hope you enjoyed this quick insight into the world of Champagnes and sparkling wines and that you were able to learn something. If you have any comments, be sure to drop them below.