There are three main methods of sparkling wine production. The first is simple injection of carbon dioxide (CO2), the process used in soft drinks, but this produces big bubbles that dissipate quickly in the glass.
The second is the Metodo Italiano - Charmat process, in which the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in bulk tanks, and is bottled under pressure. This method is used for Prosecco and Asti in particular, and produces smaller, longer-lasting bubbles.
The third method is the traditional method or méthode champenoise. With this method the bubbles for more complex wines are produced by secondary fermentation in the bottle. As the name suggests, this is used for the production of champagne and other quality sparkling wines, but is slightly more expensive than the Charmat process.
The traditional method is the process used in the Champagne region of France to produce the sparkling wine known as Champagne. It used to be known as the méthode Champenoise but the Champagne producers have successfully lobbied the European Union to restrict that term to wines from their region. Thus wines from elsewhere may not use méthode Champenoise when sold in the EU, and instead traditional method, méthode traditionnelle or the local language equivalent can be seen. Consumers outside the EU may still see méthode Champenoise on labels, but it is becoming less common.
After primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle. This second fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast (usually Saccharomyces cerevisiae although each brand has its own secret recipe) and several grams of rock sugar.
At this time the champagne bottle is capped with a crown cap. The bottle is then riddled (see below), so that the lees settles in the neck of the wine bottle. The neck is then frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution.
Grapes used for Champagne are generally picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels higher. Except for pink or rosé Champagnes, the juice of harvested grapes is pressed off quickly, to keep the wine white.
After aging (a minimum from one and a half to three years), the sediment (lees) must be consolidated for removal. The bottles undergo a process known as riddling (remuage in French). In this stage the bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres. This places the bottles at a 45º with the cork pointed down. Every few days the bottles are given a slight shake and turn and dropped back into the pupitres (eventually the angle is increased). The drop back into the rack causes a slight tap, pushing sediments toward the neck of the bottle. In about 6 to 8 weeks the position of the bottle is pointed straight down with sediment in the neck of the bottle.
This manual way of riddling sparkling wine is still used for Prestige Cuvées in Champagne, but has otherwise been largely abandoned because of the high labour costs. Mechanised riddling equipment called gyropalettes are used instead.
Many stores now sell riddling racks simply for decorative storage of wine.
The grapes to produce vintage Champagne must be 100% from the year indicated (some other wines in the EU need only be 85% to be called vintage, depending on their type and appellation). To maintain the quality of non-vintage champagne a maximum of half the grapes harvested in one year can be used in the production of vintage Champagne ensuring at least 50%, though usually more, is reserved for non-vintage wines. Vintage Champagnes are the product of a single high-quality year, and bottles from prestigious makers can be rare and expensive.
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