The Kleenex of sparkling wine, so to speak, champagne is so closely tied to the identity of the entire category that we use the word to refer to products that aren’t necessarily true champagne.
Authentic champagne isn’t just made from the three specific grape varietals grown within France’s champagne region; it also must be prepared in the traditional méthode champenoise, which sees the wine undergo a second fermentation after the addition of sugar and yeast to the bubbly brew.
Although we associate champagne with the French for good reason, the product (and entire industry) would never have been made possible without the contributions of the English.
It was the English scientist Christopher Merret who pioneered the production techniques that are today known as méthode champenoise, and it was English glassmakers who successfully created the first glass bottles that were strong enough to stand up to the enormous pressures of the contents within.
And for Cava:
Although cava production is technically identical to the méthode champenoise, that protected term only refers to winemaking activity within Champagne itself. In Spain, where cava is dreamt up by winemakers, the methodology is instead called traditionnelle. Like champagne, cava undergoes in-bottle fermentation, though the wine within is stored at lesser pressures.
Cava may not have been the first European sparkling wine developed, but cava makers left their mark on the industry just the same with the invention of the gyropalette, a device that automates the removal of fermented yeast from bottles toward the end of the winemaking process.
And some prosecco facts:
While champagne and cava align quite closely, despite their differing countries of origin, prosecco deviates a bit from the formula. Italy’s chief sparkling wine is created using the Martinotti method, in which fermentation of the grapes takes place in stainless steel tanks instead of glass bottles.
This ultimately makes prosecco a less costly sparkling wine to produce than cava and champagne, and makes for lighter, frothier bubbles when corked. A good quality bottle of prosecco will often cost less than half that of a comparable champagne.
And espumante: The country, Portugal, that brought us delicious green-tinged vinho verde has its own take on sparkling wine, espumante. Though much of the small country produces sparkling wines, the very best of the best espumantes hail from the winemaking region of DOC Bairrada, to the south of Vinho Verde.
As much as 90% of the grapes used in Sekt-making come from those three countries, though in the homegrown all-German iteration of the sparkling wine called Deutscher sekt, the familiar German riesling grape takes center stage.
And for my good buddy, Barry the V is South Africa: South Afric
an sparkling winemaking closely mirrors that of champagne, but the results of those efforts are quite different. The dramatically warmer winemaking region of South Africa, compared at least to the more temperate zones of Europe’s top spots, makes for exceptionally fruit-forward, candy-like sparkling wines.
Saving the best for last:
U.S. sparkling wine may not have a fancy name unto itself a la champagne or prosecco, but the country produces plenty of the stuff just the same. Production generally falls into two groups: expensive champagne rivals hailing from California and the Pacific Northwest made using the méthode champenoise, and inexpensive “mixing” sparkling wines like André and Cook’s that are made via the Charmat method.
The jumpoff for American quality sparkling wine occurred way back in 1892, when the Korbel brothers (yes, those Korbel brothers) began experimenting with the méthode champenoise after immigrating to California from Bohemia.
As U.S. sparkling wine’s reputation ascended, some of France’s top champagne producers invested heavily in California. Moët et Chandon created Domaine Chandon, Louis Roederer set up Roederer Estate, and Taittinger begat Domaine Carneros (my favorite here in Napa Valley).
And a word about this year’s harvest:
While the official start for the champagne harvest hasn’t been set at time of publishing this post (it is expected to be 20 August 2020), harvest technically started on August 13 setting a new record for the earliest start to champagne harvest ever.
The Comité Champagne sets the start date for the entire region, but there is a special process known as derogation when growers can ask to start earlier than the date set for their village because their grapes are already ripe. Under derogation, harvest technically began on the 13th of August for Noël Leblond-Lenoir, a grower with 13 hectares of vineyard mainly planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and some Pinot Blanc, in the Côte des Bars village of Buxeuil. (Source: Champagne Guru)
Every year harvest start date is slightly different as a lot depends on what the weather has been like that year. The previous earliest starts to a champagne harvest on record were 2003 and 2011 when the harvest started on the 18th and 19th respectively or in 2018 when it began on the 17th in Ambonnay. While 2003 and 2011 were notoriously poor vintages, 2018 was an exceptional vintage.
To perform the harvest, all the grapes in Champagne MUST be picked by hand! Because the champagne method is based on grape pulp alone (skins are the enemy!), preserving the grapes during picking is critical to avoid damaging the grape skins, or having any contact between the skins and juices (even during pressing). Damaging the grapes during harvesting deems the grapes useless for champagne making… so it remains a delicate, manual process.
Around 120,000 pickers work in teams of 4 per hectare during a tiny three-week window to pick the grapes at their peak.
Every year, the Comité must set a maximum yield, which has to be agreed upon by the growers and the houses. This year (2020), an agreement is yet to be reached, with a bit of tension between the needs of the houses and of the growers.