There are few moments more relaxing than the time spent sipping a flute of sparkling wine by the roaring fire on a cold January night. Alongside an assortment of hors d’oeuvres, the bubbles cleanse your palate and awaken your senses with each delectable sip. After a day spent dodging life’s seemingly endless bombardment of curve balls, the wine’s effervescence soothes one’s soul and fades the picture of reality.
Did you ever wonder why sipping a glass of Champagne or sparkling wine is such an uplifting experience? If we turn to science, the intoxicating effect of sparkling wine is enhanced by the tiny alcohol infused bubbles which diffuse more rapidly into the bloodstream compared to the inebriating component of a still wine – so you feel better, for a while anyway.
Setting the euphoria aside, it is the endless trail of bubbles that miraculously appear in each glass, rapidly snaking their way to the surface that creates all the pizzazz. Of interest is that this release of carbon dioxide is caused by minute imperfections and particles on the surface of the glass. This friction results in the release of carbonic acid gas from its liquid solution. In theory, if your glass was flawlessly clean, the bubbles would not form. How the bubbles found their way into the wine in the first place is an interesting story.
The explanation of how bubble-infused wine was created and who is responsible reflects a discovery made centuries ago and used to this day as the underlying concept behind Champagne and better sparkling wine. That discovery was how to contain the gas created during secondary fermentation – a product of nature and the source of ‘better bubbles’. The fizz inside a soft drink on the other hand is the product of modern carbon-dioxide injection which is not the same process used to make a bottle of high quality sparkling wine – though it has been tried. But before we discuss winemaking technique, let us first touch on the history.
The popular belief is that a monk named Dom Perignon invented Champagne. Truth be known, a 17th century English physician named Christopher Merret was the first to document the process of inducing secondary fermentation six years before the Benedictine monk ever set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers. That said, it is widely recognized that the historic monk’s area of expertise was blending wines in the Champagne region. Recognizing that effervescence in the church’s wine was unavoidable, Perignon learned to both accept and contain the unexpected small miracle.
When fermentation is halted with the presence of residual sugar in the grape must (unfermented juice), or if a dosage of sugar is added to the bottle, a secondary stage of fermentation will occur at a certain temperature range. The secondary ferment increases the degree of alcohol which counterbalances the high level of acidity while creating both carbon dioxide and dead yeast cells. The trick is to get the yeast sediment out while retaining the CO2 gas in solution and this is where the history in Champagne becomes invaluable.
In 1818, an employee of the House of Clicquot in Champagne discovered that by progressively angling the bottles toward an inverted position (rémuage) while slowing rotating them (riddling), the sediment would settle in the neck against the stopper. By then freezing the neck of the bottle, the block of sediment was easily removed (disgourgement), the bottle topped-up (dosage), and the cork inserted and secured. The locals in Champagne call this process the méthode Champenoise or ‘méthode classique’.
The French don’t mind if outsiders use the term méthode classique, just don’t call the foreign wines Champagne… they do get a little heated about that. By law, the name Champagne is reserved for use only on bottles crafted in French region of the same name.
Outside of Champagne, there are many terms used to refer to sparkling wine:
- Prosecco or Spumante – Italy
- Cava – Spain
- Sekt – Germany/Austria
- Cremant – French regions outside of Champagne
- Espumante – Portugal
- Pezsgő – Hungary
The production method of these wines can vary widely. Sparklers not created in the traditional way are often crafted by a process known as the Charmat Method. The main difference between Champagne and that which is made by Charmat is that the second fermentation occurs in a tank under pressure rather than in the bottle and results in a crisper, more citrus and mineral driven taste. Though viewed as an alternative style of sparkling wine, the Charmat method is responsible for many excellent sparklers, including Italy’s refreshing Prosecco.
Different again, is the ‘transfer method’, a German creation where the secondary stage of fermentation occurs ‘within a bottle’, just not the bottle that you a buying. This technique produces a very consistent product as the system involves emptying the contents of the individual bottles into one large vat under pressure where it is then filtered, sweetened, and rebottled for distribution. This bypasses the rémuage and dégorgement steps, which saves time and money. By using the transfer method, it is possible to process a wine in under 90 days, though an element of quality is most certainly lost. Incidentally, it takes a minimum of 15 months to make a bottle of non-vintage Champagne. As expected, there is a price to be paid for quality.
Can I suggest that you treat yourself and those near to your heart to a better bottle of bubbly this holiday season? Ask the product consultant at your local wine shop for their advice and recommendations. And as always, enjoy your wine responsibly; this stuff goes right to your head!
All the best in the New Year!