How Champagne Works


Champagne has a place at many fancy events. But why is it so popular? See more champagne pictures.
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Are you a social creature? If so, you know that at just about every dinner party or major celebration, you're likely to be offered some kind of wine -- red or white (maybe both), depending on the cuisine. And then there are other soirees that take things up a notch by serving the bubbling wine known as champagne.

Those bubbles, in addition to the distinct look and taste, are what set champagne apart from other wines. For centuries, the world has been intrigued by its mystique, its cost in comparison to still wines, and a curiosity about what makes it bubble.

A sparkling wine at its finest, champagne just isn't champagne if it doesn't come from its namesake region of France. Situated just 90 minutes northeast of Paris, the region is one of France's most revered. The cool temperatures and moisture in the soil contribute to the character and caliber of the grapes chosen for winemaking. Ironically, although it's home to the expansive vineyards that arguably produce the best wine in the world, it's also one of the least-visited regions of France.

The high regard for the use of the word champagne has caused international legal battles. As a result, sparking wines produced in other parts of the world can't use the name, despite their similarities to champagne. For example, sparkling wines from the Catalonia region of Spain are labeled cava.

The traditional Champagne region includes the area around Rheims and Epernay. In the early years of champagne production, grapes were only planted in an area covering 84,000 acres around those cities. Today, cities as far north as Burgundy have been authorized to plant the fine grapes that make the famous French wine and call it champagne.

The Mighty Three Grapes

Pinot noir grapes are one of the three types of grapes that are used to make champagne.
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Of all the grapes that make up common wines, there are only three that are used to make champagne. Each one bears its own characteristics:

  • Pinot noir: strong body
  • Pinot Meunier: mildly spicy flavor
  • Chardonnay: delicate aroma, fruity flavor

Chardonnay is the only all-white grape of the three. If you're a champagne drinker, you may have noticed that most of them are white. That's because the pulp of dark or black grapes is actually white. These grapes are pressed gently to extract the juice before they've matured enough to produce darker juice. This gently pressed juice, coupled with the naturally white chardonnay, results in a white wine called Blanc de Blancs (white of whites).

Although most champagnes are white, there are also rosé or pink wines. Winemakers use more of the skin from the black grapes to give the wine a pinker hue. Depending on the producer, a fully matured red wine may also be added to the blend before the second fermentation to make rosé. Its colors range from pale pink to a rusty yellow.

Take any of these three grapes, mix them with other grapes, and you end up with some type of wine. However, the exact use of the grapes listed above is strictly enforced and governed by a federal organization. And that's what makes champagne more than just another sparkling wine.

How Champagne Ferments: La Méthod Champenoise

When you pop open a bottle of champagne, the first thing you look for are the bubbles. They have an interesting appeal to our senses, and without them, the experience of drinking champagne just wouldn't be the same. There's a scientifically intricate method to making the bubbles. It's known as the "la Méthode Champenoise," or the Champagne Method. This process involves fermenting, blending and refermenting, bottling, riddling and dosage.

All wines are fermented. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of the sugars in the grape juice, creating alcohol and turning it into wine. In the case of making champagne, it all starts with picking grapes by hand from a well-manicured and maintained vineyard. After the best grapes have been individually selected, they're pressed by barefoot grape-crushers to extract all the juice. Machines can't be used to press grapes producing champagne.

Once all the juice is collected, it's placed in stainless steel vats, where it rests until it becomes a still wine. This is the first of two fermentation periods. The next step is blending, which winemakers consider to be the most integral part of the Méthode Champenoise.

Choosing red wines from champagne villages, and adding them to the fermented batch falls on the hands of cellar masters. Cellar masters are professional wine handlers who have studied and worked with grapes and wines, and understand the process of making wine and champagne. The art of blending, or selecting the cuvée -- a blend of different wines that will result in the final champagne -- requires the ability to taste and determine the appropriate color, smell and taste. Every cellar master and village produces a unique and novel wine based on specific blending practices and recipes.

The bubbles are created during the second fermentation process. Sugar and yeast are added to the wine, which is then stored in a cooler setting, about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10 to 15 degrees Celsius). This process -- which can take up to a few months -- can take place in stainless-steel tanks or in the bottles themselves. The wine ferments slowly, allowing it to mature through the aging of the fruity aromas of the grapes and release of yeast. This additional activity in the bottle produces alcohol and carbon dioxide.

During the fermenting process, sediment will settle out of the wine. Champagne fermented in bottles is slowly turned upside down; workers remove the cork and the carbon dioxide pressure blows out the sediment. Then the wine manufacturer may sweeten the wine by adding a little syrup that has been mixed with an older champagne.

Enter the (Champagne) Riddler

Though the process of making champagne is mostly over once the cork goes into the bottle, there are a few other steps that have to happen before the bottle is ready for sale. Yeast continues to grow and split, giving the wine its flavor. However, the yeast has to be removed through a process called riddling. A person called the riddler places wine bottles upside down at a 75-degree angle, and turns them one-eighth of turn every day [source: Pandell]. A little shake and bump helps, too. This can be a mundane task, but it's necessary to allow the yeast to collect at the top for removal.

The yeast leaves the bottle through disgorging. Here's how it works: The bottle rests upside down in an ice-salt bath. A plug containing the dead yeast freezes at the neck of the bottle. The trick is removing that frozen plug without sacrificing the taste and quantity of the carefully crafted champagne.

Once the cork is removed by hand, the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas built up in the bottle forces the plug out. Doing this requires the loss of a controlled amount of champagne. To make up for it, a certain amount of white wine, brandy and sugar are added to the final product, to adjust the alcohol and sugar levels. Finally, the cork is placed back on the bottle and tightened down with wire. This last step raises the pressure again, keeping the bubbles inside until it's time to pop the cork.

This process results in four types of champagnes: A brut champagne is characterized as being very dry and not too sweet. Extra brut is the driest and least popular, according to wine specialist Stacy Slinkard. Sec champagne is dry, but not as dry as brut, and demi-sec or non-brut is the sweetest of them all.

The Houses of Champagne

We mentioned earlier the two cities that make up the Champagne region: Rheims and Epernay. The world's most famous champagne houses reside in one of these two cities.

Wine historians say champagne was invented in the 1700s as an accidental discovery by Dom Pérignon. He was a Benedictine monk who worked with wine and put great passion into chemistry and developing something other than still and red wines. His statement to other monks, "Come quickly, I am drinking stars," ultimately alluded to his misplaced discovery of what we know to be champagne [source: Marshall]. The House of Möet & Chandon, from the Epernay village, takes ownership of his discovery and has named its most popular champagne after him.

Other famous houses of champagne market their champagnes as the best in the world. But what really makes champagne better than any other sparkling wine? Climate, soil quality and the precise locations of the vineyards determine the quality of grapes used to make the still wine. Different houses plant and ferment grapes differently. Additionally, the blending or selecting of the cuvée is probably the most important element in making champagne.

The houses, depending on their specialty and distinct qualities, establish their fermentation times and exercise unique blending techniques. One thing to note is whether the champagne is vintage or non-vintage. Non-vintage champagnes are made up with several different blends from various years of grape harvesting. They only ferment 17 months. In contrast, vintage champagnes spend at least two years working their magic. Vintage champagnes are blended wines from one particular year [source: Johnson and Robinson].

Champagne and the AOC

Because champagne represents and is consumed by the upper echelon, it is understandable why wine producers in other regions make similar sparkling wines. However, in order to protect the quality of wines, French wine producers must adhere to strict guidelines as outlined in the "appellation d'origine controlé," or AOC. These guidelines apply to both wines and champagnes. The Institute National de L'origine et de la Qualité has established certain guidelines as a way to limit poor-quality wines and champagnes that may come from mediocre lands and vineyards, and to establish consistent uniqueness and authentic characteristics from varying regions. If a wine producer or champagne house wants to boast being among the best, it can apply for AOC status, which will be stamped on the label of its bottles. The criteria for being a top producer aren't so easy to come by and include the following: acceptable land usage, proper region climate and soil quality, variety of grapes used, alcohol level of the wine and taste.

Bottles bearing the AOC mark have been scrutinized by a panel of tasters that sample all wines applying for this prestigious accolade. So, when you see a champagne bottle bearing the words "appellation d'origine controlé," you're drinking a bottle that has passed all criteria and quality requirements. This AOC process contributes to the high price tag on champagne, but ultimately ensures that what you're drinking is bona fide extraordinaire.

Although French law dictates that champagne must be produced in the champagne region, other notable European countries have relentlessly dipped into making sparkling wines. Spain produces a variety called cava. England also produces sparking wine. The country's proximity to the sea allows the grapes to ripen during July. This allows the wine to achieve the perfect levels of sugar and acidity, which ultimately create the bubbles. Expanding the boundaries of areas in which Champagne can be made from France to include vineyards in Great Britain is something the French government is entertaining. As of this writing, a final disposition has not been issued.

Celebrity, Wealth and the Pop

Bottles of Beau Joie champagne sit ready for the Warner Music Group GRAMMY celebration on Feb. 12, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Bottles of Beau Joie champagne sit ready for the Warner Music Group GRAMMY celebration on Feb. 12, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Todd Williamson/Getty Images

For many, uncorking a bottle of champagne is the quintessential form of saying "congratulations." All over the world, champagne is shared at major events. New Year's Eve is probably the most notable and televised, but do you wonder why the hype given to the price tag and affluent consumer? Champagne's high price comes from its region, the cost of production and the time it takes to make. As a result, it's developed a reputation as a wine enjoyed by the classy and chic.

That's no surprise if you consider that a regular bottle of Dom Pérignon can cost you $170. A vintage DP Rosé costs as much as $400, and auction houses such as Sotheby sometimes sell bottles for $21,000. Hip-hop culture has also heightened the aura of popping bottles through celebrities like Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and Jay Z. Both frequently mention world-famous champagne houses in their lyrics and make it sound extremely accessible. Obviously, much of the buzz behind drinking champagne is the image it portrays and how much marketing executives feel the market can bear. Of the celebratory events where champagne is a must, NASCAR is known for its "champagne moment" at the end of the race, where bottles are poured over the winner. It's all about the victory, and what better way to enjoy the moment than by sharing champagne?

The most expensive bottle of champagne will break your bank -- but it'll also add to your art collection! According to Los Angeles Times writer Patrick Comiskey, a 1907 Heidsieck bottle sells for $275.000. The exclusive bottles were intended for the imperial family of Russia, but a shipwreck prevented them from reaching their intended owners. Found in 1997, they're now being sold at Ritz-Carlton hotels in Moscow. The mystery behind the lost ship and the length of time being lost single-handedly added to the hefty and unprecedented price tag!

In addition to the monetary cost, the mystery behind the loud pop and the bubbles' ability to remain fizzy make for good sidebar conversation at these bottle-popping events. Of course, the pressure released once the cork is removed from the bottle is the cause of the loud pop. But now that the bottle is open, how long will the wine stay bubbly? A Stanford University study shows that leaving a bottle untreated will leave you with more bubbles after 26 hours than one with alternate methods of preservation [source: Zare]. The myth that a silver spoon will preserve the fizz has been scientifically dispelled.

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Sources

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