What is going on behind the world’s most famous bubbly? Why is Champagne way more expensive than a Prosecco or a Cava?
Let’s start by setting clear the difference between these sparkling wines.
Many will say it’s the grapes they use in the making.. many others that it is the country they are made in.. both are correct but lets not forget the procedure of how it is made!
Lets start with the regions. Indeed the fastest answer to say is that Cava comes from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and Champagne from France but it is important to mention also that the grape varieties must be respected in order to gain these names.
Prosecco is made with the Charmat method which is much more easy than the champenoise method (that both champagnes and cavas use) explained later on.
Now let’s go more into depth about the bubbly queen of them all: Champagne!
In order for a sparkling wine to be called champagne first of all it must be made with grapes from Champagne-Ardenne, a region located in north-east France.
There are three main types of champagne: blanc de blancs which means “white of whites” is made purely from chardonnay and occasionally pinot blanc. Blanc de noirs or “white of black” as opposite to the first one described is made with the only two accepted grapes by AOC: pinot noir, pinot meunier or a blend of both. Rosé champagne or “pink champagne” is when a cuvée (or white champagne) is colored either by adding some pinot noir wine or by a “bloody” method or saignée which consist in leaving the skin of black grapes to allow the juice to color.
Adding of pinot noir wine into cuvée
Finally but mostly comes the prestige cuvée which holds the most special blend in house and thus it is the top product in the producers range, some examples are Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, Laurent-Perrier‘s Grand Siècle and of course Louis Roederer Cristal.
As far as the bottles, I still remember when I had to learn by heart each name given to the all existing sizes of bottles.. Not all the large sizes are a magnum! Learn more here.
The sweetness of champagne has several categories:
- Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre)
- Brut (less than 12 grams)
- Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
- Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
- Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
- Doux (50 grams)
Now we are getting serious, this is where the magic happens..
Basically not to make things complicated (as far as champagne goes) a wine is made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (each grape separately) with a regular wine making method of pressing and fermenting. Then come the blending, when the experts decide how much of each wine will be added to have a “house blend” that is unique. Later on comes the tirage which is when some sugar and yeast is added to the house blend and it is left to have a second fermentation already in the champagne bottles which are closed with a cap.
After this the champagne is put in a 26° position and it will be turned daily so that the dead yeast (once the co2 is produced) starts to fall slowly to the neck of the bottle until it reaches 60° (this can be a matter of years according to each producer).
The turning was originally done by hand! There were people in charge of observing how the yeast fell slowly and turning every day lifting a few degrees until ready. There are a few producers that still use this manual method but certainly considering the world’s champagne consumption it is impossible to continue this tradition.
Nowadays there is a machine that automatically turns the bottles daily with precise movements and inclinations.
Once the bottle has reached the upright position (upside down) it is time to pop the bottle and say bye bye to dead yeast and crystallization such step is called degorgement. There are two ways of getting rid of residuals, in the old times the expert would open the bottle holding it upside down not to let it mix and immediately after some of the liquid escaped he would place the finger and turn it upside down.
With time a machine was invented that allowed producers to skip this step which involved wasting a lot of good product. Such machine freezes the neck content of the bottle (liquid with residuals) to then proceed to open it and only take out the ice block without having to sacrifice more product.
Once the residuals are out it is time to sweeten and cork baby! And well the most important part.. to transport so we can have it ice-cold on a warm summer afternoon.
Did you think it was all this hassle to make champagne? I bet you will think twice the next time you want to pretend you are a nascar driver and want to splash it away!
For some great reviews and graphics go here.
Champenoise method in 2min:
Happy bubbly drinking!