2.10 Making Sparkling Wine (Methode Champenoise)

Over the past few decades the production of Sparkling Wine in Australia has made a quantum leap, and to be fair, much of the increased quality is because of the presence of French know-how. 

The most prestigious and expensive technique for Sparkling wine production by which any serious Australian sparkling wine is made has  become known as 'Methode Champenoise' (fermentation in the bottle). While the technique of Methode Champenoise is arguably still being refined, the fundamental principles behind bottle fermented sparkling wine were born at the end of the seventeenth century in slightly mysterious circumstances in the depths of the cellars of a Benedictine Abbey, Hautvillers in Épernay.

Monasteries were of course places of prayer, but they were also centres of learning and of wealth, designed to retain light in a world made gloomy by misfortune and misery. Those who entered, far from being excluded from the world, were often involved with cutting edge research while living within a society ordered by piety and ruled over by a patriarchal power. The ingenious monk or monks to whom the credit for the first sparkling wine production is traditionally given must have known how to handle the unpredictable grapes that grow on the slopes of Épernay and Reims in northern France. The autumn weather is very variable in the Champagne region, and the grapes were harvested just as they began to mature, probably in the cool of the morning. The resulting wines were light and slightly sparkling. It was as if the wine had retained some of the greenness and freshness of the grape juice and was continuing with the alchemy of the maturing process in the bottle. This natural fizziness, whilst unusual, did occur in several other regions of France, but the inhabitants of Champagne must have been particularly taken with it. The extremely skillful winemakers of the monastic communities in the Valley of the Marne, where both pleasure and wine had a well-defined place, managed to tame this wonder of nature and succeeded, before others it would seem, in creating a bottle of lightly foaming wine; and this was the birth of champagne. It had a long way to grow up.


On Guy Fawkes Day, 1956, a wine was launched that was to forge a place in Australia's social history. The highly innovative wine company, Orlando, had been working on a sparkling wine of mass appeal produced by the "Charmat process", so named after its inventor. In this process, the still wine is run into a sealed tank, given its dose of yeasts and yeast food, and when fermentation is partly complete, the wine is run into strong bottles under pressure. (The so called pearl wines, a German creation, are made on similar lines). Colin Gramp, of the founding family, sought expert help and secured the services of Guenter Prass, who became renowned, both as winemaker and Managing Director of Orlando. He also maintained the earliest tradition, migrating from Germany and bringing with him a wine background and extensive experience with innovative new wine making equipment. After various samples had been tested "Barossa Pearl", (a now  forgotten Australian legend) was released on November 5, 1956. What very soon became apparent was that many people who had never thought of themselves as sparkling wine drinkers, or any kind of wine drinkers for that matter, were ready for Barossa Pearl and its subsequent cousins, 'Pink Barossa Pearl' and 'Sparkling Star Wine'. Barossa Pearl first sold in the millions and then in the tens of millions until finally being superseded by changes in public tastes that the product itself had generated. The great legacy of Barossa Pearl to the Australian wine industry, was that it introduced a hitherto untapped mass market to the pleasures of civilised wine drinking, at the same time cultivating a new wine and food culture.
The Pearl wines as a group were the precursors of other budget priced sparklings in this country. Today, these mass produced wines are made by quickstep methods, apart from the Charmat process,  including the 'transfer system' or simply via carbonation. These techniques are discernable in their end products with the wines usually possessing larger, less long lasting bead (bubbles) than Méthode Champenoise wines, and lack complexity and the flavours of yeast autolysis that can only be achieved via the more costly and lengthy process. 

In the Transfer System, (invented in Germany), wine is fermented in a bottle, then emptied into a tank under pressure and run through a filter to remove the yeast lees. (This filtering process replaces the time consuming and expensive rémuage, riddling and dégorgement steps of Methode Champenoise production). Finally, a dosage is added and the wine is re-bottled, still under pressure and shipped off to market.   

Carbonation is the least sophisticated technique. There is no secondary fermentation; carbon dioxide gas is injected into the wine in a pressure tank. The wine is sweetened and mixed and is usually produced from machine harvested, 'lesser' sparkling wine varieties or even from the juice of black grape varieties. Historically, Seppelt produced a very respectable sparkling wine from Ondenc, whilst Sultana was the basis of many early bulk bubblies. There were and still are other varieties used in Australian Sparkling wine, such as  Muscat Gordo Blanco, Riesling, Chenin blanc, Semillon, Colombard, Trebbiano & Muscadelle. But wines approximating to anything near Champagne  in style and quality only started to appear in Australia when Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier - the traditional grape varieties of Champagne, France were adopted as the staple sparkling wine varieties.
Why are drinks like Sparkling wine far more appealing than the same liquid once it has gone flat? Bubbles are generally created from C02, (though presurised air also lends some non-commercial spring waters a certain liveliness).  Carbon dioxide dissolves readily at atmospheric pressure, but  high pressure allows more to be dissolved. lt forms carbonic acid in the drink and it is this which gives drinks like sparkling wine or soft drink their appealing "fizzy" taste, rather than the bubbles, as many people believe (although bubbles contribute to mouth feel). Dissolved CO2 actually has a distinct taste of its own, which is slightly sharp.  When the drink goes flat, most of the dissolved CO2, has been released back into the atmosphere, so the amount of carbonic acid is also reduced. Flat beverages have lost this 'bite' without which they tend to taste insipid and overly sweet. 

The names of Dom Pierre Pérignon and then Frère Jean Oudart have been recorded by history, however these Benedictine monks were probably not alone, and the credit should quite possibly be shared amongst others, but very little information about their lives and their art penetrated the walls of the monastery's cellars. It is believed that Perignon had the idea to harvest selectively, over a period of days rather than all at once, so that only the ripest fruit was taken with each pass. He is also generally credited with inventing the Coquard or "basket" wine press and using it to make the first "Blanc de Noir". Another of his major developments was to blend wines of different vineyards and varieties to achieve better balance between their individual characteristics. He was an excellent taster and his cuvée system is still followed closely to this day by the house of Moèt & Chandon to produce their finest Champagne. Although corks had already been used by the Romans as closures for wine bottles, and the seagoing and trading English had corks, and made sparkling wine several decades earlier than in the landlocked Champagne area. It is Dom Perignon who has been credited with the idea of using string to secure these stoppers in the bottles, thus retaining the sparkle for long periods of time. 

Whatever the case, these contemplative wine-makers were no doubt as attached to their ideas as they were appreciative of fine wine, and one can imagine them taking the best part of their accumulated knowledge with them to the grave. Their burial by their brothers - by the rules of the monastery - would certainly have been a very quiet occasion, and a particularly sad one on account of such a loss; although the severity of the mourning may have been somewhat relieved by the cellar's reserves of sparkling wine. 

Methode Champenoise Today
Despite our limited knowledge of this golden monastic period, we do know that the famous 'secret' consisted partly of extremely skillful blending of wines that could vary if the vines were only a stone's throw apart and, partly too, of endless complicated rotations and manipulations of the wine after it had been bottled. 
Today, centuries of experience have enabled us to refine the art of bottle-fermented sparkling winemaking to the system known as Méthode Champenoise. This system, however, is not a rigid one. Certain steps are prescribed by law in France, while few are required in the New World and there is considerable variation in production philosophy and technique. What is immediately consistent and clear, as we have all learnt to our joy, is that wine produced by Methode Champenoise, as opposed to other sparkling wine production techniques, invariably results in a superior drink. But it is a very difficult wine to make - costly, time consuming, protracted and potentially beset by trouble, as this detailed account of the art of Methode Champenoise illustrates. Compounding the difficulties are a vast array of stylistic decisions, including viticultural practices, cultivars, pressing vs. crushing, types of press and press pressures, phenol levels, use of SO2 and the oxidative condition of the base wine, yeast for primary and secondary fermentation, barrel fermentation and aging, fermentation temperatures, lees contact, blending and the nature of the dosage. The following attempts to account for these in as concise a manner as is possible. But before we proceed, it will be helpful to become familiarised with some terms commonly used in Méthode Champenoise production:
Assemblage     A preliminary combining and blending of wines from different vineyards after the first racking.
Bead     A bubble forming in or on a beverage; used to mean CO2 bubbles in general or sometimes to the ring of bubbles around the edge of the liquid.
Blanc de blanc     Champagne made from white grapes.
Blanc de noir    Champagne made from the juice of Pinot noir; may impart a light salmon colour to the wine.
Crémant     A very lightly sparkling, creamy, and frothy wine.
Cuvée     Literally tubful or vatful, this refers to a particular blend to be used for sparkling wine.
Dégorgement     The disgorging or removal of the plug of sediment which collected on the cork during riddling.
Dosage     Same as dosage in English: an amount of sweetener added back to the bottle after dégorgement.
Le goût champenois     Describes a special bouquet and flavouring high quality sparkling wine; said to arise from the time spent in the bottle on yeast.
Liqueur de expedition (The shipping liqueur) - the mixture added in the dosage process; sometimes consists of a small amount of sugar, some vin de reserve, and touch of brandy (approx. amounts may be 60 grams per 100 ml base wine; brandy may be up to 10% of this).
Liqueur de tirage     The mixture of sugar added to the cuvée for the second fermentation.
Méthode champenoise     Traditional champagne production method that promotes a second fermentation in the bottle.
Mise sur point     Placing of the bottles upside down in the pupitres.
Mousse     Froth, foam; frothy or sparkling; used as a synonym with crémant. (Avin non mousseux means a still wine.)
Petillant     Means sparkling and refers to the fizz or bubbling of a wine; used as a synonym with crémant.
Pupitres     The hinged sloping racks used to hold bottles during the riddling process.
Remuage     The riddling or turning of the bottles to dislodge yeast sediment and allow it to collect on the cork.
Remueur     The person who riddles the bottles.
Tirage     Drawing off the base wine combined with sugar and yeast for second fermentation in the bottle or a tank.
Vin de cru     A wine coming from a single town.
Vin de cuvée     Usually used to refer to a top quality wine (tête de cuvée).
Vin de reserve     Some of the base wine held in reserve in which the sugar for the dosage is dissolved. 
Note: For readers looking for a more light-hearted introduction to this wonderful drink, 
there is an entertaining introductory article on this site - "Champagne - The Inside Story."
1. Viticultural Considerations
The array of viticultural & environmental parameters affecting méthode champenoise palatability are broad and include mesoclimate (site climate), canopy climate, soil moisture, temperature, berry size, rootstock, asynchronous development, fruit maturity and leaf area/fruit weight or fruit weight/pruning weight. 
Among the viticultural options affecting grape components either directly or indirectly, mesoclimate is probably one of the most important.  It is generally accepted that a cool climate which allows the fruit to stay on the vine longer while retaining desirable acidities is important in the production of base wine which will develop the needed complexity during sparkling wine maturation. If the field temperatures and heat summation units were the sole parameters affecting the grapevine climate, then we need only consider the macroclimate in analysing the temperature effects on quality. The real situation, of course, is not that simple. Solar radiation, wind velocity, and to a lesser extent, sky temperature can give ranges of berry temperatures of more than 15°C above to 3°C below the air temperature (Kliewer and Lider, 1968). These variables are further influenced by row orientation, training system, trellis height and vine vigour. In warm regions, great care must be given to harvesting early enough to retain desirable acidities and pH values. A primary challenge in warm climates is the production of a base wine that is not too heavy in body or varietal character, too alcoholic, or too coloured. Warm climate wines, by and large, offer more definitive fruit flavours, less complexity and lower acidity than cooler climates, and they tend to develop more quickly. 
2. Grape Varieties
Once the mesoclimate has been established, it is necessary to identify grape varieties which will be best suited to it. Some of the many cultivars utilized in various growing regions for méthode champenoise are listed in Table 1 below, however Chardonnay, Pinot noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Blanc are among the more popular varieties and almost exclusively used in the Champagne region.  
Cool Regions Warm RegionsHot Regions
 Chardonnay ChardonnayParallada
 Pinot Noir Pinot NoirXarello
Pinot MeunierPinot Meunier Macabeo 
 GamayGamay Pinot Noir
Pinot Blanc Chenin Blanc Chenin Blanc
   Pinot Meunier

Table 1. Source: Dry & Ewart (1985) Regions based on UCD heat summation units.
Chardonnay gives life, acid, freshness and aging potential to méthode champenoise, though care must be taken to avoid excess maturity, particularly in warmer climates, which produces a dominant, aggressively varietal character. Warm climate Chardonnay cuvées may suffer from a narrow flavour profile, high "melony" aroma notes and lack of freshness, liveliness and length. Additionally, rich fertile soils can cause this variety to produce foliage and grassy aromas. When combined with Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay has a greater capacity to age harmoniously and for a longer time (Hardy, 1989). 
Pinot Noir adds depth, complexity, backbone, strength, and fullness (what the French call "carpentry") to méthode champenoise wines but is seldom used by itself, even in Blanc de Noirs. Uneven ripening in Pinot Noir is often a problem for producers trying to minimize excessive colour extraction. 

There are two philosophies about sourcing grapes for methode champenoise production. The first is to obtain grapes from a single vineyard (monopole). The second is to obtain grapes from as many vineyards as possible in order to maximise complexity of the base wines. Remy Australie employs the first method with its Blue Pyrenees methode champenoise by using the grapes from up to 50 different blocks it has within its own vineyard area. Domaine Chandon, on the other hand, goes out of its way to source grapes from literally every cool wine growing region in Australia, including Margaret River, the Yarra Valley and Tasmania.