There have been two contemporary attempts, both based on science, to count the number of bubbles in a 750-milliliter bottle of champagne.
The first took known science, which included the volume of gas, CO2, in the bottle, and then working backwards on liquid volumes, pressures, temperature and the size of bubbles, came up with the answer of over 49 million bubbles in every bottle of Champagne.
The second methodology had to do with computer camera-work and digital medium observation about the behavior of the bubbles when the cork is extracted. That answer was more than 250 million bubbles in every bottle of champagne.
So much for science being exact. A plus/minus factor of 200 million bubbles is a pretty big range, even by the standards of, say, a government economist. And it’s just one bottle under discussion.
The point is that there are a whole lot of bubbles in every bottle of Champagne and sparkling wine. With that many bubbles, it’s no wonder that opening a bottle of sparkling wine is cause on its own for celebration. Happily here we are in the Holiday Season so reasons to celebrate abound.
For purposes of our discussion today, I will refer to this entire category of wine, including champagne, as “sparkling wine.” A proper bottle of the wine named champagne can only come from the Champagne region in France, about 90 minutes north and east of Paris, where the wines are made under the strict legal definitions of the region’s governing body in specific parts of the region. All champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are champagnes. See? And you thought understanding wine was complicated.
Even sparkling wines that come from other areas of France are noted "sparkling wine," not Champagne. If a sparkling wine comes from Spain, and there are some good ones, those are usually designated “cava.” When the wine comes from northeastern Italy, those are named “prosecco.” The sparklers from northwestern Italy are named for the town in which they are made, Asti. In Germany the wines with bubbles are noted “sekt.”
Champagne uses three grapes, and only three grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Sparkling wines are defined by which grapes are used in their blends and by the amount of sugar added during the manufacturing process.
For instance, a wine marked blanc de blancs is predominantly made from the chardonnay grape. The term refers to the meat of the grape, and it means “white from the whites.”
These wines also carry a sugar designation. Brut is normally the driest when compared to other wines from the same house. Brut is not an absolute term defining the amount of grams of sugar in the liquid, rather it is what a particular house (producer) defines as their style of brut. Usually this wine will have a low addition of sugar added late in the process.
Sparkling wines from places other than Champagne make use of many varietals of grapes. Moscato, pinot grigio, riesling, pinot bianco, pinot nero, shiraz, aligote, macabeu, xarel-lo, chenin blanc and cabernet franc are all used to make sparkling wine in various regions. Italy also does a wine that has some spritz, not as much as a full sparkling wine, and is known as frizzante style.
Making champagne is an expensive process. We won’t go into all the steps, and they are numerous, but the wine is produced by adding yeast after the initial fermentation, causing a second fermentation inside the very bottle that is sold to you. This is the stage where the bubbles are created.
Many wines are made in this champagne method and on the bottle they carry the designation méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle. In both cases, the wine is made from freshly harvested grapes in the regular manner of fermentation, then the second fermentation is done in the bottle, followed by slow rotation of the bottle (riddling) to bring the dead yeast cells into the neck, where they are frozen into a plug of ice. The bottle is then opened and the frozen plug is expelled from the bottle by the pressure of the wine.
At this point, the bottle is refilled with still wine which has been blended with a particular measurement of sugar. It is at this stage where the sweetness level of the sparkling wine is determined. Brut is usually the least sweet of the rating levels (although brut nature means no sugar has been added to the blend), then going up the scale to sweeter levels, there is extra dry, dry or sec (yes, more sugar than extra dry), demi-sec (yes, more sugar than sec), and doux.
There is another method used to make sparkling wine; this is the charmat or "transfer" method. Here the wine is treated in bulk, placed into sealed and pressured containers of considerable size and the second fermentation takes place. This method, while not as refined as the méthode traditionelle, does a decent job and presents at least one big advantage: lower consumer cost.
A few fun facts about champagne and sparkling wines:
- The Champagne region is one of the northernmost fine-grape-growing regions in the world. It’s the reason creating the wines is a process, not just a harvest and a bottling. The cold, wet weather of northern Europe sets in early and that’s the end of fruit ripening. No more development often leaves the fruit with not quite enough sugar to fully complete fermentation on its own.
- Considering that fact, champagnes and sparkling wines that emulate champagnes have great acid levels and low alcohol levels. It’s why this wine goes so well with food. Whenever you are stumped as to what wine to pair with a difficult dish, choose champagne or sparkling wine.
- Champagne bottles are thick, with particularly pronounced and reinforced bottoms (punts) to withstand the pressure of six atmospheres, which is what is inside the bottle. It’s about three times the pressure that is in your car tire. Always keep a thumb, or maybe even a towel, over the cork when you are opening the bottle. And never point a bottle at anyone. That cork can come out of there unexpectedly and with great force.
- Champagne and sparkling wine corks are composite cork material, with the bottom surface of the cork being a pure cut that is affixed to a composite cork made up of cork bits and pieces. Unlike a wine cork, which is solid pure cork, sparkling wine corks have a top and a bottom side.
- Never allow the wine to flow out of the bottle after opening. It’s a terrible waste. Control the process, slowly releasing the cork. The sound of the cork when it leaves the bottle should be a soft “whoosh,” not a loud pop. Slowly twist the bottle away from the cork, controlling the cork with your thumb and fingers. (This is why dogs can’t open bottles of sparkling wine – they don’t have thumbs.)
- Keep sparkling wines well chilled, below 48° Farenheit.
- While flutes are festive glassware, truly the best way to enjoy sparkling wine is a fine-quality stemmed white wine glass. Never use the wide-open, Marie Antoinette bowl style glass (coupe), supposedly designed and named because they were made in the shape of the lady’s breast. I love the idea of the glass and the image it conjures, but it allows too much of the bouquet and effervescence to escape.
- If you cannot finish the sparkling wine in one sitting, do not use a wine cork to reseal the bottle in the refrigerator. It won’t stay there as the pressure will build and a regular cork is not designed to contain the pressure. Use a champagne stopper that actually grips the bottle with two prongs while tightly sealing the opening. Or you can call me to come over and we’ll finish the bottle in one sitting so you will never face this problem.
- Many of the names for the larger bottles in Champagne are different from the names of large-format bottles from Burgundy and Bordeaux. For instance, a jeroboam in Champagne is 3 liters of wine. In Bordeaux, a jeroboam is 4.5 liters of wine.
- The monk Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne. About 1675, he was ordered by his superior to find a way to get the bubbles out of the wine because so many bottles were exploding in the monastery’s cellar. Very dangerous. Along the way, he perfected the process. He may never have said, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars.” That quote first appeared in advertising in the late 19th century and there is no reference to the quote in any of the materials or journals while he was cellar master of the Abbey at Hautvillers in the Champagne region.
Recommendations for your consideration:
Poema Brut, under $10
Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad Brut, under $10
Rustico, under $15
Mionetto di Valdobbiadene, under $12
Zardetto Brut, under $12
Sparkling Wine (France)
Marquis de la Tour Brut Rosé, under $10
Bouvet Brut, under $15
Sparkling Wine (California)
Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, under $18
Domaine Carneros Brut, under $20
Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, under $32
Perrier Jouet Grand Brut, under $37
Henriot Souverain Brut, under $31
(Prices will vary, maybe greatly, from retailer to retailer. These wines are suggested to you as good examples of what the styles represent and the regions produce.)