While enjoying a glass of their favorite bubbly, some people ask themselves, "What makes Champagne bubble?"
What Makes Champagne Bubble?
Champagne - it's the stuff of dreams and a symbol of the "good life." It's the "Coronation Wine" for royalty. It's caviar's best friend. Marilyn Monroe reportedly took a bath with it. It celebrates birthdays, anniversaries and special holidays. You can spend $5,000+ on a bottle, or $30 - and every price point in between. There is nothing else like it. Those tiny bubbles are magical - but what makes Champagne bubble?
Before we delve into what makes Champagne a Champagne (bubbles and all), we should talk about what's not Champagne. First of all, there is sparkling wine and there is Champagne. Without getting too technical, sparkling wines are basically any type of wine that has bubbles in it that is not made from the Champagne region of France (about one hour east of Paris). There is much more to it than that, so check out the many informative Champagne articles here on LoveToKnow for more details. Suffice to say, it's like buying a Gucci watch from a guy on the street corner for $20. It may look like Gucci from a distance, but upon closer inspection it's everything but. Something like that.
When you drink Champagne, you're drinking something that has very strict rules to its production - from the vineyard, to the winery, to the bottle and ultimately your glass. Champagne is made from a process called "Methode Champenoise". This is what makes Champagne bubble. So let's explore this process.
Step one to understanding Champagne is to know what grapes are used. There are only three that are allowed: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - that's it. You can have all Chardonnay (Blanc de Blancs) or all Pinot Noir (Blanc de Noirs), but anything else and you're not talking Champagne anymore.
So, when it comes time to harvest, the winemaker will pick these grapes a little under-ripe (this will be explained, we promise). Champagne producers (called "houses") will always be the first to pick during harvest. After the grapes are picked, they are taken to the winery for processing.
At the winery, these grapes are slowly and painstakingly crushed, and the juice taken. They don't crush too much or tannin or other harsh characteristics from the grapes would come through in the wine, so most Champagne houses will use what is termed "free-flow" juice - the stuff that comes out with little pressure on the grape. Employees then put this juice into a tank or barrel to ferment.
Review - What is Fermentation?
Before we move on to the next step, we should review very quickly what fermentation is. Anything can ferment, really. Fermentation is the process of transformation - yeast eats sugar, and the by product is carbon dioxide, heat and alcohol. Most tanks have open tops, which means the CO2 (carbon dioxide) can blow off and not get trapped. The heat can be controlled a bit in the winery as well (ever see the outside of tanks get icy? Those are the glycol jackets around the tank that can be turned up or down).
So this juice has now become wine, and since we know that yeast eats sugar until the sugar is gone, this wine has very little alcohol (not much sugar when picked under-ripe) and LOTS of acidity. This stuff is like drinking lemon juice … it's pretty puckering. The winemaker then comes up with a blend of how much Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from which vineyard or batch is going into the final blend (called assemblage). Now the wine is ready for bottling.
In the Bottle
Winemakers add a little extra shot of sugar and yeast and then capped, so the CO2 can't escape when bottling Champagne. The wine sits like this for at least three and a half years by law (and in many cases much longer). The wine is called "en triage" or basically on its side with the yeast and sugar in the bottle. The yeast is busily chomping away at the sugar, continuing to produce CO2 and alcohol. This time, however, the CO2 can't escape so it becomes part of the wine. The alcohol brings the level up to about 12.5-13 percent after all is said and done.
Now it's time for the bottle to get its cork and ready to be go to market. Problem is the yeast that was in there is now dormant and sludgy on the side of the bottle. We have to get the sludge from the side of the bottle where it has been resting for years into the neck of the bottle. So, we need to turn the bottles slowly and angle them downward. You can use a big machine to do this automatically (gyro-palette) or by hand with a big rack called a riddling rack. This process of turning and angling is thusly known as "riddling" - originally invented by Widow (Veuve in French) Clicquot.
Now that the sludge is in the neck of the bottle, we need to get it out. Makers ice down the necks of these bottles in another machine where it rests in a very cold glycol solution that freezes the neck of the bottle. They spin around upright, get the crown cap taken off and the natural pressure from within the bottle pushes the yeast out in a frozen plug (this process is called disgorging). To add just a little sweetness back into the wine, a little mixture of sugar and wine (called dosage) is added back in to fill the bottle back up. The cork is put in, the wine rests and voila! You have Champagne.
Worth the Wait
You can see by this process that it's not quick or easy. It's time consuming from start to finish - and the final product is fermented twice! This is an involved process to say the least, and part of the reason Champagne can be a little pricey. But in the end, it's worth it. Next time you raise a glass of Champagne you will know how those little bubbles got there. Salut!