Sparkling wine is the hardest working wine in the business. Your average bottle of bubbly is expected to be fun, elegant, luxurious, mysterious, playful, and food-friendly all at once. Pop the cork on your favorite bottle of fizzy wine and you’re likely to find all of those things along with a healthy dosage of confusion.
You probably know that only sparkling wine from the region of Champagne, France can (and should) be called Champagne, but what if a wine is made the exact same way as Champagne only it’s made somewhere else? That’s where things can get confusing. Sparkling wine can be made using four distinct methods and the most labor-intensive, traditional, and expensive way to make sparkling wine is employing the method used by producers in Champagne. This is, fittingly, called the méthode champenoise, but EU rules have begun to restrict the use of that name for wines sold in Europe, so more and more producers are using the term méthode traditionnelle as a synonym. Méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle wines are made by creating a still wine (this is the first fermentation) then bottling that still wine and adding yeast and sugar to the bottle before it’s closed off with a beer cap. The added yeast and sugar affect a second fermentation, a by-product of which is carbon dioxide and since the bottle is closed off, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and dissolves into the wine. The wine is aged thus for a minimum of a year and a half, after which time the bottles are riddled (either manually or mechanically), meaning the yeast and other sediment in the bottle is slowly worked into the neck over the course of several days or weeks.
During the riddling process the bottles are inverted over time, positioning them so that the yeast and sediment can be easily removed in a process called disgorging. Called dégorgement in French, this process was invented by Madame Clicquot in 1816 and involves freezing the wine in the neck of the bottle (containing the yeast and sediment) and then using the inherent pressure of the wine to expel this frozen plug from the bottle. Before this process was invented all Champagne was cloudy, a style sometimes seen today under the designation méthode ancestral.
Immediately after disgorging, the bottle is topped off with some wine and a little extra sugar in a practice called dosage (pronounce this in a very French way: doh-sahzh). If no sugar at all is added during doage the wine can be designated with the terms nature or zéro dosage.
This, my friends, is the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle. All sparkling wine from Champagne is made in this way and any wines from other regions with either one of these terms on the label are made in this way too. But that’s not all. Sparkling wines made in other regions in France but using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle are called Crémant. All Cava, from Spain, is made using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle as are the Italian sparkling wines Franciacorta and Trento, even though they may not indicate so on their labels. Sekt from Austria is generally made using the méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle. Though Sekt from Germany usually is not.
If you’re serious about your Champagne but want to venture outside that tiny region, just look for méthode champenoise/méthode traditionnelle on the label or ask one of our knowledgeable staff about the production method of the sparklers we carry and you’ll be assured that your high standards won’t be compromised.
By Elyas Beria – Chelsea Wine Vault