Champagne – Drinking the Stars

 It is said that Dom Pérignon supposedly said after drinking his first sip of what later became known as Champagne, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” and thus a legend was born.

Interestingly enough, Dom Pérignon neither invented champagne, nor was he the first to make it. In fact he spent a large part of his career actually to trying to prevent a second fermentation in his wine which created bubbles. So his legend as a Champagne maker was accidental but nonetheless appreciated.

This time of year we all look to bubbles to mark our celebrations, but what are the differences and similarities between Champagne and other sparking wines?

It all starts with the production
Grapes to be made into sparkling wine are harvested early when they contain high levels of acids. High sugar levels are in fact not ideal for the production of sparkling wine and the grapes are handled with even more care than those used to make ‘still wine’. This is due to an attempt to minimize any extraction of phenolic compounds (like tannins) that come from the skin. Many sparkling wine producers chose to harvest the grapes by hand rather than using mechanical resources, which stimulate maceration of the skin and the grape’s juices.

Many dark colored grapes, Pinot Noir for example, are used in the production of sparkling wine. Minimal skin exposure is desired and so wine makers go through extra precautions to separate the skins as quickly as possible.

The primary fermentation process of sparkling wine is similar to that of ‘still wine’. What really differentiates the two is the characteristic bubbles of sparkling wine- you know, the ones that mean its time to celebrate and party! These are created in the process of secondary fermentation.

There are several different methods of secondary fermentation. The first method is called the Method Campenoise, or the traditional method, and is used in the production of Champagne. Once the primary fermentation is complete and the wine has been blended, the wine is bottled and sugar and yeast are added. This combination converts into alcohol, and carbon dioxide (the bubbles!). According to the Appelation d’Origine Controlee, there is a minimum requirement of 1.5 years for the wine to age at this point to develop its full flavor. The remaining yeast turns into sediment called lees. The bottle is turned over in a process called remuage wich causes the lees to settle in the neck. The bottle is subsequently chilled, the neck is frozen and when the cap is removed the pressure inside the bottle forces out the frozen lees. The bottle is quickly corked before the loss of any carbon dioxide.

The second, cheaper secondary fermentation process is similar to this, but it takes place in large tanks. The giant vats allow the lees sediment to settle at the bottom and at which point it is removed.

The cheapest way to make a wine “sparkle” is to simply add carbon dioxide to the wine following its primary fermentation. This process is much like the one done in the production of colas. It creates rather large bubbles that are quite short lived. There are five basic sweetness levels of sparkling wine

Extra Brut – extra dry
Brut – dry – the most “food friendly”
Extra dry – still dry but not as dry as Brut and slightly sweet- works great as an aperitif
Demi-sec – pretty sweet with a little dryness – pairs well with fruit and dessert
Doux – quite sweet

Champagne vs sparkling wine

In 1927, the Appelation d’Origine Controlee laid down the guidelines on using the term “Champagne” on sparkling wine.

• they limited the growing regions (to around 78000 acres of land)
• to only 3 grape varietals: pinot noir, pinot meunier, chardonnay
• vine spacing, vine density, vine height, pruning, and grape yields are all limited and standardized
• hand harvesting (rather than mechanical harvesting) is required
• there are minimum amounts of time they must be aged before they are released
• 15 months for non-vintage
• 3 years for vintage

On top of these guidelines, Champagne is to be fermented through the Method Campenoise or the traditional method. These laws are enshrined by the European Union. In other countries, including the US, where the legal structure doesn’t abide by the AOC, they may allow local producers of sparkling wine to label them “Champagne.” Much of the sparkling wine labeled as champagne in the US doesn’t however even use the Method Campenoise, but rather cheaper and faster methods in which mass production is possible.

Dom Pérignon believed Champagne was drinking the stars which we think is a very romantic way to look at the most romantic wine in the world.