I wrote this back in 2009 for How Stuff Works. It was finally published sometime last year. Funny how the internets work! I came across it by accident while Googling “good champagne.” So, I’m so thrilled to share that it was a huge article I composed, taking one entire month to research. I learned so much about making champagne, that I now deem myself a bona fide connoisseur and even would dare make some! The article is part II. Part I was published last week. I hope you find it as informative and entertaining as I did while researching and writing. B-
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. Secchampagne is dry, but not as dry as brut, and demi-sec or non-brut is the sweetest of them all.
We mentioned earlier the two cities that make up theChampagne 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].
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.