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How Champagne Works, Part I

Veuve Clicquot champagne How it Works

{I wrote this back in 2009 for ‘How Stuff Works’. It was finally published sometime last year. Funny how the internets work. I accidentally came across it while Googling “good Champagne.” So, I’m so thrilled to share that it was a huge article I composed, taking one entire month to research, interview, and do more research. I learned so much about making Champagne, that I now deem myself a bona fide connoisseur and even would dare make some! The article is quite long so I’m going to split in two posts. I hope you find it as informative and entertaining as I did while researching and writing. B-}

Are you a social creature? If so, you know that at just about every dinner party or major celebration, you’re likely to be offered some kind of wine — red or white (maybe both), depending on the cuisine. And then there are other soirees that take things up a notch by serving the bubbling wine known as Champagne.

Those bubbles, in addition to the distinct look and taste, are what set Champagne apart from other wines. For centuries, the world has been intrigued by its mystique, its cost in comparison to still wines, and a curiosity about what makes it bubble.

A sparkling wine at its finest, Champagne just isn’t Champagne if it doesn’t come from its namesake region of France. Situated just 90 minutes northeast of Paris, the region is one of France’s most revered. The cool temperatures and moisture in the soil contribute to the character and caliber of the grapes chosen for winemaking. Ironically, although it’s home to the expansive vineyards that arguably produce the best wine in the world, it’s also one of the least-visited regions of France.

The high regard for the use of the word Champagne has caused international legal battles. As a result, sparking wines produced in other parts of the world can’t use the name, despite their similarities to Champagne. For example, sparkling wines from the Catalonia region of Spain are labeled Cava.

The traditional Champagne region includes the area around Rheims and Epernay. In the early years of Champagne production, grapes were only planted in an area covering 84,000 acres around those cities. Today, cities as far north as Burgundy have been authorized to plant the fine grapes that make the famous French wine and call it Champagne.


Of all the grapes that make up common wines, there are only three that are used to make Champagne. Each one bears its own characteristics:

  • Pinot Noir: strong body
  • Pinot Meunier: mildly spicy flavor
  • Chardonnay: delicate aroma, fruity flavor

Chardonnay is the only all-white grape of the three. If you’re a Champagne drinker, you may have noticed that most of them are white. That’s because the pulp of dark or black grapes is actually white. These grapes are pressed gently to extract the juice before they’ve matured enough to produce darker juice. This gently pressed juice, coupled with the naturally white chardonnay, results in a white wine called Blanc de Blancs (white of whites).

Although most Champagnes are white, there are also rosé or pink wines. Winemakers use more of the skin from the black grapes to give the wine a pinker hue. Depending on the producer, a fully matured red wine may also be added to the blend before the second fermentation to make rosé. Its colors range from pale pink to a rusty yellow.

Take any of these three grapes, mix them with other grapes, and you end up with some type of wine. However, the exact use of the grapes listed above is strictly enforced and governed by a federal organization. And that’s what makes Champagne more than just another sparkling wine.


La Méthod Champenoise

Champagne at Vegas Ceasar's Palace (sm)

When you pop open a bottle of Champagne, the first thing you look for are the bubbles. They have an interesting appeal to our senses, and without them, the experience of drinking Champagne just wouldn’t be the same. There’s a scientifically intricate method to making the bubbles. It’s known as the “la Méthode Champenoise,” or the Champagne Method. This process involves fermenting, blending and refermenting, bottling, riddling and dosage.

All wines are fermented. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of the sugars in the grape juice, creating alcohol and turning it into wine. In the case of making Champagne, it all starts with picking grapes by hand from a well-manicured and maintained vineyard. After the best grapes have been individually selected, they’re pressed by barefoot grape-crushers to extract all the juice. Machines can’t be used to press grapes producing Champagne.

Once all the juice is collected, it’s placed in stainless steel vats, where it rests until it becomes a still wine. This is the first of two fermentation periods. The next step is blending, which winemakers consider to be the most integral part of the Méthode Champenoise.

Choosing red wines from Champagne villages, and adding them to the fermented batch falls on the hands of cellar masters. Cellar masters are professional wine handlers who have studied and worked with grapes and wines, and understand the process of making wine and Champagne. The art of blending, or selecting the cuvée — a blend of different wines that will result in the final Champagne — requires the ability to taste and determine the appropriate color, smell and taste. Every cellar master and village produces a unique and novel wine based on specific blending practices and recipes.

The bubbles are created during the second fermentation process. Sugar and yeast are added to the wine, which is then stored in a cooler setting, about 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (10to 15 degrees Celsius). This process — which can take up to a few months — can take place in stainless-steel tanks or in the bottles themselves. The wine ferments slowly, allowing it to mature through the aging of the fruity aromas of the grapes and release of yeast. This additional activity in the bottle produces alcohol and carbon dioxide.

During the fermenting process, sediment will settle out of the wine. Champagne fermented in bottles is slowly turned upside down; workers remove the cork and the carbon dioxide pressure blows out the sediment. Then the wine manufacturer may sweeten the wine by adding a little syrup that has been mixed with an older Champagne.


{READ: How Champagne Works, Part II}

**NEXT UP: The really fun elements of the process like the Riddler, AOC, the big Champagne Houses, and why the bubbly became the beverage of choice for 5* celebrations. 

** Make sure to read my new magazine B! Inspired, a lifestyle magazine for the person looking to live the best life! Our preview/soft launch issue now online and available for download.



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