Legally, all wines officially designated as Champagne must originate from a specific area in the French province of Champagne-Ardenne. One of the reasons behind this is the particular climate that produces suitable grapes for Champagne, as well as the intricate process behind the wine’s production. The latter factor, known as the methode Champenoise, is what gives Champagne its sparkle. An alternative version of this process is used for non-Champagne sparkling wines.
Basics of the Methode Champenoise: Blending and Fermentation
The Methode Champenoise isn’t one specific step in Champagne production, but rather the sum of several steps that together offer Champagne its unique properties. Other steps in the process, while necessary, are used in the production of other wines, and aren’t unique to Champagne and thus not part of the Method Champenoise.
The first element of the Methode Champenoise in the early stages of Champagne production is the blending of the wine, which has at this point gone through a single fermentation, with as many as 70 other wines. This blending is an essential aspect of Champagne production, in practice since the 17th century.
After blending, the wine is divided into quantities that fit into a single Champagne bottle, for the second fermentation. Bottle fermentation is what causes carbon dioxide cells, or “lees,” to develop in the wine and produce Champagne’s sparkle. Once three months have passed, the bottles are allowed to age, usually for two to three years and sometimes for twice that period.
Riddling: Completion of the Methode Champenoise
The aging period used in Champagne production will leave a great deal of sediment and residue from the yeast deposit that originates during the wine’s fermentation. The process known as riddling forces this yeast out so the wine can be enjoyably consumed. The individual bottles are turned, shaken and placed at angles to to bring sediment to the neck of the bottle.
When this process originated, it had to be done by hand. In traditional Champagne estates, this practice is the norm even as of 2011, and will take two to three months. Many Champagne producers now allow riddling to be mechanically performed, which allows the process to be done in about eight days.
Alternatives to Methode Champenoise in Other Sparkling Wines
Other sparkling wines aside from Champagne often employ different methods to bring about carbonation. The Charmat method, for example, involves wine placed in pressurized stainless steel vats, where yeast and sugar are added to induce carbonation. This method is used in Prosecco, Asti Spumante and other Italian sparkling wines. Cheaper sparkling wines, created with ignorance for the tradition and etiquette for Champagne, involve the direct injection of carbon dioxide gas to artificially create carbonation.