By Jen Pfeiffer
At Christmas time more than any other time of the year, we hear the pop of the Champagne or sparkling wine cork. Most of us use the term Champagne for all forms of sparkling wine, but did you know that by law, the term "Champagne", is reserved only for wines produced in the Champagne region in the north east of France?
Champagne was originally produced in 1531, and first gained world recognition as it was used in the anointment of French kings. The Champagne region has been very successful at marketing itself as the ultimate beverage of luxury, festivities and celebrations.
Australian sparkling wine comes in all shapes and sizes – white, red, rose, dry, off-dry and sweet.
While the majority of sparkling wines produced are white, one of the most important grape varieties used in the production of sparkling wine is the red grape, Pinot Noir, most usually blended with Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir grapes are removed from their skins immediately, which does not allow colour pick up from the skins. This leaves the juice either white or with a faint, pink blush.
The first stage of making a sparkling wine is to produce a base wine (no bubbles). Following the first alcoholic fermentation, various base wines can be blended together to create a desirable wine. This process generally takes place in stainless steel tanks. The wine is then clarified and prepared for bottling, using the same techniques employed for white wine bottling preparation.
So, how do the bubbles form in sparkling wine?
There are several methods that can be used, but the traditional method (or Methode Champenoise) is preferred for premium sparkling wines. A mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the clarified, bottle-ready base wine and a secondary alcoholic fermentation begins. Whilst the wine is fermenting, it is transferred into sparkling bottles. The secondary fermentation is completed in the bottle, which is sealed with a crown seal. The fermentation process generates carbon dioxide which dissolves into the wine under pressure and creates the all important bubbles!!!!
Following this secondary fermentation, the wine is matured in bottle on the yeast solids (lees), which adds character to the sparkling wine. To remove the lees from the bottle, the bottle needs to be riddled – a process that involves shaking the sticky lees to the neck of the inverted bottle (either done by hand or mechanically).
The removal of the lees is known as disgorgement. The cap of the inverted bottle is snap frozen, the crown seal removed and the lees ejected. A small dose of wine with a final adjustment of sweetness is added (called the dosage liqueur) and either another, new crown seal or a cork is used to seal the bottle.
The wine is now ready for shipping in the same bottle that was used for the secondary fermentation, right to your table for your special celebrations!!!