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Champagne vs. Sparkling Wine

December 10, 2019

‘Tis the season for celebration, which often includes Champagne or sparkling wines. In this article, I share the differences and similarities between Champagne and sparkling wines. The wines in reference are from two of my favorite importers, Kermit Lynch and Jorge Ordonez. As a sommelier and owner of 15 Degrees C Wine Shop & Bar,  I have personally traveled with both of these importers overseas to bring back incredible bubbles from all over the world. You can view a list of their portfolio and technical information on any of the wines mentioned at: jorgeordonezselections.com and kermitlynch.com.

How is Sparkling Wine/Champagne Made?

There are many types of sparkling wine in the world but only three ways to get those bubbles in the bottle. The first is by carbonation. This is the most inexpensive and easiest way. With price comes a cost, as this is likely the reason one associates bubbles with headaches. Carbonated wine is on par with your favorite soft drink by which the bubbles are the biggest giveaway. If you pour it into a glass, there are many different sized bubbles coming from all different directions. This is not considered quality sparkling wine.

The second method of production is the Charmat or tank method.  Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a byproduct of fermentation and when done in a large tank under pressure, the CO2 is absorbed in the liquid. When bottled under pressure, the bubbles come out once that bottle is opened.  This style of sparkling wine makes a very consistent type of bubbles found in such quality wines as Proseccos and Asti.

The third, most complicated and highest quality method is called the traditional, bottle-fermented or Champenois method. It begins with a bottled still wine which is the very same bottle that it will eventually be served out of. A “liquor de tirage”, which is a small amount of sugar and yeast, is added to kick off a secondary fermentation that takes place in the bottle. The second step is the aging process, which is how long the wine spends on the lees (dead yeast cells). This is where the wine gains its rich, creamy, nutty flavors. In regions like Cava and Champagne there are specific time requirements. During the aging process, the wine is riddled (turned and tipped) to get the sediment into the neck of the bottle. When the wine is ready, it undergoes a process called disgorgement. This gets the sediment (dead yeast cells and more) out of the bottle by submerging the bottle in a freezing brine solution. Once disgorged, the cork and cage go on the bottle and then it’s ready for the broad market. These types of wines are Champagne, Cremant, Cava, and some new world producers who have no legal terms to designate the production method.

What is Champagne?

Champagne is its own thing.  It can only come from that region in France, otherwise, nothing else can be referred to as “Champagne”.  The most important part of making a Champagne is the blending process, this is where the “house style” comes from. One of my favorite quotes by Lilly Bollinger is:

 

“i drink champagne when i'm happy and when i'm sad. sometimes i drink it when i'm alone. when i have company, i consider it obligatory.”

What Makes Champagne Special?

Champagne is unlike any other wine! It is a consistent house style that makes it so unique. About ninety percent of Champagne is Non-Vintage.  This means that various lots of still wine from different vineyards, varietals, and vintages are blended so that each “batch” of Champagne is consistent with the house style. This is the most important part of making Champagne. Once the blend is decided upon, then the bottle fermentation and aging process begins. For Champagne, Non-Vintage is a minimum of 15-months aging on the lees and for vintage, it’s a minimum of three years. Champagne is like a designer wine; people stick to their favorite producers as a sort of prestige. For example, when you go to Costco and buy that yellow label Veuve Cliquot, it’s the same every time. Often these big houses like Cliquot blend hundreds of different lots of wine together to create consistency. Most producers are Négociants, meaning that they purchase fruit and existing still wine to create the consistency and volume that the market demands. Vintage Champagne is rare and quite expensive because Champagne houses can only produce vintage Champagne in a declared vintage year. They also must keep at least twenty percent of the harvest back for the Non-Vintage programs. 

There is a pronounced movement in Champagne to support grower-producers which account for less than two percent of all Champagne.  On each bottle of Champagne there are two letters followed by a series of numbers. As stated above most of them are NM (negotiant manipulant) or CM (cooperative manipulant). Grower producers are designated on the label as RM (rocolte manipulant). Below is a great quote from importer Terry Theiss about grower-producers.

“Why should you drink grower Champagne?

Because you may have forgotten that Champagne is wine

Because it’s made by a family of farmers and vintners not by a factory

Because you believe wine should be an expression of a place and of a point of view

Because its price is an honest reflection of what it costs to produce, not to advertise

Because in drinking it you help protect diversity and density leads to vitality.”

Food Pairings

The great thing about sparkling wines is that they go with pretty much anything, of course, the classic holiday festive food pairings include oysters and caviar. Some lighter-bodied, leaner crisper styles like a Blanc de Blanc go best with lighter dishes where the bigger bolder wines like the roses will hold up to more protein-based dishes.

In conclusion, I leave you with a footnote to get the most out of your Champagne and sparkling wine enjoyment. Good quality sparkling wines are made in either the Charmat or bottle fermented methods. Remember, you can tell by the tiny bubbles that are long-lasting and come from the bottom of the glass. The bottle-fermented wines with age requirements are going to be the richer creamier style, where Charmat sparkling wines are going to be brighter, fresher, and crisper.

Below is a list of my recommendations based on style, or better yet come by 15 Degrees C and we will help you select the perfect bottle!

Charmat: Traditional:
Sommariva Prosecco J Lassalle Champagne
Tintero Moscato Veuve Fourny Champagne
Meyer Fonne Cremant
Marques de Gelida Cavs
Muga Conde de Haro Cava