Do you know what gives champagne its bubbles? Or what grapes it’s made from? Better yet, why is the world’s favorite celebration wine called champagne?

The history of champagne dates back to about 1700 AD. Legend has it that a monk named Dom Pérignon, cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers in the Champagne region of France, bottled and corked several lots of wine in which the fermentation process had not completely finished. The wine rested quietly in the monk’s cellar over the cold winter months. When spring arrived, the contents of the sealed bottles warmed, and fermentation resumed. Carbon dioxide and heat built up, and eventually the bottles began to explode. Puzzled, Pérignon opened an intact bottle and sampled its contents. "Come quickly!” he told his fellow friars. “I am drinking stars!"

Today, only wine produced in the Champagne region of France can rightfully be called champagne. All others must be designated sparkling wine. If made in the traditional French manner, the wine may be labeled with the words Méthode Champenoise or fermented-in-this-bottle.

Champagne is classified according to its sweetness levels, ranging from very dry (brut nature) to very sweet (doux), with brut being the most common.

Making sparkling wine in the traditional way is very labor intensive and includes the following steps:

La Cuvée

The cuvée is the still wine selected to make champagne.

If a champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it is called "Blanc de Blancs," white wine from white grapes. Most champagnes are made from mixed cuvées, which traditionally include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Le Tirage

After the cuvée is selected, a mixture of sugar and yeast, called liqueur de tirage, is added. The wine is then bottled and sealed with a temporary cap, resembling those used for beer or soda.

Prise de Mousse

The key process used in producing champagne is a SECOND fermentation that occurs in the sealed bottle. The bottles are placed in a cool cellar (55-60°F), and the wine is allowed to ferment slowly, over the course of at least three months. This process is often referred to as prise de mousse, or "capturing the sparkle," and is responsible for the formation of the tiny bubbles characteristic of champagne.

Le Remuage (Riddling)

After secondary fermentation, the bottle is placed upside down in a holder at a 75° angle. Through a process known as riddling, the dead yeast cells are forced into the neck of the bottle and are subsequently removed. Each day a riddler comes through the cellar and turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn, while keeping it upside down. The wine can also be riddled automatically, using a machine called a gyropalette.

On completion of remuage, the bottles are neck-down and ready for disgorgement.

Le DéGorgement (Disgorging)

The champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is then removed, and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out, leaving behind clear champagne. At this point the liqueur de dosage, a mixture of wine and sugar, is added to adjust the sweetness level and to top off the bottle. The bottle is then corked, and the cork is wired down to secure the pressure of the carbon dioxide.

Champagne is the wine of celebration. Made in the traditional French way, it is also an unbelievable bargain. So the next time you enjoy a glass of bubbly, remember the words of Dom Perignon: “I am drinking stars!”

If you’d like to learn more about sparkling wine, call Crossing Vineyards and Winery for details on the Bubbly for Beginners event, scheduled for Sunday, February 9, 2020, at 2 p.m. The cost is $35 per person and includes instruction, wine tasting and learning materials.

Christine Carroll is a Certified Specialist of Wine. She is also a columnist for Wines and Vines Magazine in San Rafael, California, and one of the principals of Crossing Vineyards and Winery. You can contact her at: info@crossingvineyards.com

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