It’s getting cooler out (at least at night), and the holiday season will soon be upon us. What better way to celebrate than with a nice bottle of bubbly? If you think of Champagne and holidays as synonymous, you’re not the only one: 50 percent of all Champagne is sold between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve!
I am frequently asked the difference between Champagne and sparkling wine. The difference has nothing to do with taste; it is simply regional. Champagne must be made in the Champagne region of France. Anywhere else in the world — including other parts of France — and it must be called sparkling white wine. It’s just like how Bordeaux must come from those regions of France, but many producers using the same grapes in Napa may say “Bordeaux-style blend.”
Have you ever wondered how sparkling wine producers get those little bubbles in the bottle? Like all other wine, it starts with grapes. Although other varietals are sometimes used, most common are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. In Champagne, France, only these three varietals are allowed.
Grapes are pressed and juice is fermented, just as in making still (not sparkling) white wine. Instead of bottling and selling, the wine is bottled with extra sugar and yeast to begin a second fermentation. Instead of a cork, which is volatile during the creation of extra carbon dioxide, a crown cap is placed on the bottle, just like you’d find on a bottle of Budweiser!
The yeast eats up all the sugar and produces carbon dioxide and alcohol. Once all the sugar has been consumed, the yeast goes dormant inside the bottle. In order to get that yeast out, the bottles are riddled, which is a process of turning the bottle and gradually tilting it on its axis until all the yeast is in the neck of the bottle. It somewhat resembles Hefeweizen.
Next, the neck of the bottle is frozen, trapping the yeasty sludge inside. The crown cap is popped off, and the built-up carbon dioxide inside the bottle forces out the extra yeast. A small amount of wine is added to make up for the lost volume, and the bottle is topped off, this time with a traditional “Champagne” cork and wire cage. The cage holds the cork in place because all of the carbon dioxide is still left in the bottle. Once the bottle is opened, the CO2 is let out in the form of bubbles — just like when you pour a can of Coke.
The entire process is called Méthode Champenoise in French or Traditional Champagne Method in English. Bottles not made in Champagne may just use the phrase Méthode Traditionnelle.
For those of you who are thinking that the French make the best Champagne, I’ll leave you with this: With the exception of Krug and a few small producers, California sparkling wine producers are owned by French Champagne houses, and the French winemaker travels to California to produce the wine.
• Robert Morris is owner and manager at East Valley restaurants Cork, BLD and Stax Burger Bistro. Reach him at (480) 883-3773 or CorkRestaurant.net