Champagne Week Part I – Introduction
December 27, 2010
With New Year’s Eve coming up, I want to talk a little bit this week about making sparkling wine or champagne. How do they get the bubbles in there? There are two basic methods – force carbonation and bottle conditioning.
Force carbonation is a method of adding gas, usually carbon dioxide CO2, to the drink. A kegging system at a bar is an example of this. Also, commercial producers of beer and soda pop have machines that can achieve this affect before bottling.
But for the home beer maker who bottles, the method used is bottle conditioning. When the beer, wine, cider, etc is dry and has little to no remaining sugar left in it, leaving a specific gravity of about 1.005 or lower. From there, the product is dosed with a small amount of sugar, perhaps a teaspoon, and maybe some yeast and immediately bottled in bottles that can handle pressure. The yeast eats the sugar, creating slightly more alcohol and CO2. The CO2 has nowhere to go, so it is absorbed into the beverage, carbonating it. However, this method does create a little bit of lees, so the trick with bottle conditioned drinks is to pour it without pouring the lees, which would make the drink cloudy. Not pouring the lees is fairly easy to do with beer bottles.
You can find bottle conditioned beers in the store, but for champagne, this is unacceptable. First off, nobody wants to drink a cloudy champagne, and secondly, this method only works with dry wines to be carbonated. What do you do if you want a sweet sparkling wine, cider, champagne, etc?
To achieve this, winemakers start out with bottle conditioning, but then take it a few steps further in a manor known as méthode champenoise, which I will be discussing over the next few days.
Meanwhile, a little background history to champagne. Champagne is a grape growing region in northern France that is not as conducive for making wine as other regions. The grapes were growing higher in acid and lower in sugar, and the resulting wines were lower in alcohol and thinner in body. The colder winters would halt the fermentation, only to restart in the spring after the wine had been bottled, causing a CO2 build up in the bottles. This was considered a flaw, one which who we consider the famous champagne founders were trying to remove. It was the British who developed a taste for the bubbles, and its popularity spread to the French nobility, causing people to try and figure out how to get bubbles into the wine.
Technically, the beverage champagne can only come from the Champagne region due to the European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin. Therefore, the term “sparkling wine” should be used, except that I am discussing how champagne is made, a process which can be used on other wines and ciders.
Next Post: Part II – Riddling
- Méthode Champenoise – What is it?
- What is Méthode Champenoise?
- Making a dry bottle conditioned cider