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Wine tour operator, wine writer and lapsed physiotherapist. "Nature abhors a vacuum. I personally hate dusting."

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Champagne and Sparkling Wine - FAQ





Sparkling wines, especially Champagne, are associated with celebration, sophistication and Grand Prix winners acting like complete tossers.



I have never really liked Champagne. I've always found it acidic and and unbalanced - and never really understood the fascination with it. Weeell ... until I got to try the most expensive label on the planet - Louis Roederer's Cristal.



But anyway, wine is all about personal taste. Some like fizz - some don't.


There are four methods of producing a fizzy wine.
Those wine lovers, the French again got in on ground level by popularising their sparkling wines from the Champagne region. Champagne is the most northern wine region in France and lies north-east of Paris.



There is a bit of debate as to who was responsible for making the first naturally sparkling French wines. Generally, the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon (1639-1715) gets the credit. French widow - Veuve Clicquot, discovered in the mid-1800s the best method of removing accumulated yeast from the bottle. Nowadays the word Champagne is copyrighted and fiercely protected by the French. Only wines made by the traditional method and produced in the Champagne district may carry the name.

Method 1. The Traditional Champagne Method. A dry, low alcohol base wine is made, sometimes blended from finished wines (as above) and even from different vintages. Just before sealing, yeast and sugar are added to the bottle. Then the bottle is capped, often with a beer bottle type crown seal, and the yeast mix begins a secondary fermentation, trapping CO2 – which gives the wine its famous finely beaded bubbles.
Depending on the quality of the wine, the wine and its yeast residue may be left undisturbed for one to ten years. The classic yeasty/bready flavour is derived from disintegrating yeast cells. The longer the wine sits, the more the desired yeast flavour is extracted.

The next bit is the good widow Clicquot’s method of gradually tipping the bottle from horizontal to vertical (this takes about two weeks), where the accumulated yeast sits in the neck of the bottle allowing for removal. The neck of the bottle is frozen and the yeast plug ejects under its own pressure. Finally, the bubbly wine is topped up with the dosage - a dash of wine and sugar to balance acidity, before sealing with a cork and securely wiring the cork in place.



Method 2. The Transfer Method. Basically exactly the same as above, but once bottle fermentation has finished, all the bottles are emptied into a large vat under pressure; the wine is filtered, then rebottled. This method still gives the wine the ‘rested on yeast’ character.



Method 3. The Tank Method. This is a bulk method where huge amounts of inexpensive sparklers can be made. Basically, the secondary ferment takes place in a sealed tank – where the base wine has been poured in and yeast and sugar added to kick off the whole bubbly process thing. The downside is that the yeast flavours don’t transfer to the same extent and the bubbles are coarser and don’t last as long. Still, it is a way to make affordable bubbly wines such as Prosecco, and Asti style Muscato.



Method 4. Carbonation. No brainer. Take wine – inject industrial CO2 gas. Bubbly wine. Exactly the same process for making fizzy lemonade, cola etc. You get what you pay for.


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