Making Sparkling Wines

Ancestral or rural method, Champagne or traditional method, natural sparkling: the art of sparkling or sparkling wine takes various paths.

The release of carbon dioxide in the grape juice during vinification and the ability to foam is a natural phenomenon related to the fermentation process. Before the modern development of oenological science, this fermentation process often knew an uncontrolled interruption during the cold of winter then a resumption at the return of spring : wines bottled before the end of fermentation thus experienced a new start in activity empirically and the release of carbon dioxide gave them an effervescent character. This is the origin of so-called “ancestral” or “rural” method of various historical vineyards (Limoux, Gaillac, Die), which is, more widely and in a more controlled way (cooling operation to interrupt the fermentation in progress, and possibly filtration), that of “natural sparkling”, a type of sparkling wine now widespread in many wine-growing regions of France and elsewhere.

Very different is the story of sparkling wine in Champagne, a fresh northern vineyard which for a long time favored red wines of pinot noir before beginning to recognize, from the 16th-17th centuries, the quality of its white and especially gray wines (whites of pinot noir and/or pinot gris), all “still” wines. For the people of Champagne, the random return of fermentation activity at the end of winter was considered a handicap, but this sparkling or “sparkling” stage in wine nevertheless had followers, particularly in England where amateurs sought early bottling (March moon) from the second half of the 17th century and did not hesitate to restore vigor to wine and its foam by adding sugar. A nascent fashion that soon spread to France during the 18th century, the practice of adding sugars developing in Champagne in the 19th century, supported by various major discoveries on the fermentation process: the discovery by Chaptal of the role of sugar then by Pasteur of the function of yeasts. The scientific bases are thus established to cause in a controlled way - and no longer undergo - the phenomenon of foam and ensure the “prise de mousse” by adding “still” wine in the bottle to a “tirage liqueur” (sugar + yeast): the “Champagne method” was born. This same method will be the one, under the distinctive name of “traditional way”, sparkling wines from regions other than Champagne and named cremants (Crémant de Loire, Crémant du Jura, etc.) as well as sparkling wines from other countries (“Italian metodo classico”, German “sekt”, etc.). In these traditional method sparkling wines, some producers prefer the addition of fresh must with its natural sugars and yeasts to the liqueur detirage.

For stabilize the champagnisation and avoid the long catastrophic "breakage", it will be necessary to improve the resistance of the glass bottles and to adjust the composition of the liqueur de liqueur, namely 24 g of sugar per liter for a pressure of 5 or 6 atmospheres (which amounts to “chaptalisation” which increases the alcohol content by more than 1°) and, from the beginning of the 20th century, yeasts selected by culture in regional laboratories. And also to develop the final corking with an appropriate cork and held by a muzzle. Gradually, throughout the 19th century, the know-how was refined: “mise sur pointe” and “remuage” bottles to allow the deposit of lees to descend into the neck and then be expelled during the operation of “disgorging” before the final corking, which may be preceded by the addition of a “expedition liqueur”, that is to say of wine or eau-de-vie + “dosage” sugar to rebalance the acidity of the wine and define the different types of champagne currently regulated:

Brut Nature 0 dosage
Extra crude Less than 6 g of sugar per liter
Brut Less than 12 g of sugar per liter
Extra-Dry Between 12 and 17 g per liter
Sec Between 17 and 32 g per liter


Before disgorging, the champagne must legally respect a time of maturation on lees “on slats” for at least 3 months then aging for at least 1 year, and, for vintage champagne, at least 3 years. This maturation – generally prolonged well beyond the legal minimum – brings into play the redox phenomenon (related to the small amount of oxygen present) and the autolysis phenomenon, a process of biochemical degradation of the dead yeasts that make up the lees, releasing many components that nourish the wine in terms of texture (fineness of bubbles, “creamy” mouthfeel) and aromatic and gustatory complexity beyond the fruity and floral nuances (brioche note , dried fruit note, spicy note, discreet rancio).

The Champagne vineyard has been dominated since the 18th century by trading houses, with a status known as trader-handler (code NM), and also, since the beginning of the 20th century, by winegrowers' cooperatives, with a status known as manipulative cooperative (CM code), on the strength of their immense capacity for varied supplies (terroirs, regions, grape varieties) and blending. But champagnes from winegrowers, with a so-called “récoltant-manipulant” status (code RM), which vinify only the production of their vines (often a few hectares) and thus highlight their own terroir, have considerably gained in importance and reputation.