How Well Do You Know Your Bubbly?

10/February/2017
Jess Spiro

Oscar Wilde once said, “Pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial” and we’re inclined to agree. Be it Champagne, MCC, sparkling wine, bubbly there is something about the sparkly drink that we just can’t get enough of. Whatever you call it, if you’re celebrating something then you’re most likely going to be drinking it. There really is nothing like that cold crisp sip of something effervescent that makes whatever you’re celebrating that much more enjoyable.

The story of champagne goes back a long way, to as early as the 5th Century where King Clovis, the first monarch to unite all of the French tribes, decided to convert to Catholicism at the request of his wife, Clotilde. His baptism took place in Reims, in the Champagne region, and the bishop used local Champagne to baptise him. Back then, though, the wine would have been still as bubbles were seen as a flaw. And while the Champagne itself wouldn’t have had any of the remarkable sparkles that we know and love today, the use of it in a religious ceremony gave it a kind of holy significance that put it on the radar. Similarly, following King Clovis’ baptism, it became tradition for French Kings to be anointed in Reims. The Champagne of those days remained flat until nearly a millennium later when English scientist Christopher Merret began to experiment with adding sugar to the wine in the bottle to encourage second fermentation. His findings were presented formally in 1662 as ‘methode champenoise’. Despite this finding, however, the method wasn’t actually used to create sparkling wine until nearly 200 years later in the 19th century. Up until this point in time, Champagne had been made by the méthode rurale, where the wine was bottled before the initial fermentation had finished.

So, what is this revered method?

Well, as with all wines it starts with the grapes, which are harvested in Autumn. The varietals mostly used in Champagnes are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris. Champagne can be made up of a blend of all these, or sometimes, a single grape variety, such as Chardonnay. These grapes are pressed and the juice is stored in large stainless steel tanks and left to undergo its first ferment. This can take anywhere from 3 weeks to 5 months because the winemaker is looking for all the natural sugar to be fermented out of the wine’s base.

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From there these bases are blended together to create a formal ‘house style’ of wine. This base is then placed in the familiar thick glass bottles, along with the liqueur de tirage, which is simply sugar, yeast and wine, and is then fixed with a crown cap. The liqueur de tirage is what sets off the second fermentation, required by law in Champagne production. The bottles are stacked on their sides between thin pieces of wood and are left to ferment, which takes about eight weeks. Once that process is over, the wines are then aged on the dead yeast cells (a technique called sur lees) for a minimum of 15 months and a maximum of 3 years. This allows for an enhanced flavour in the final product.

After the winemaker is happy with the lees ageing, the wine will be moved on to the riddling stage (remuage in French). Here the bottles are stored in special racks called pupitres where they are held at a 45º angle, the crown cap pointing down. Every few days, they are riddled – slightly turned and shaken – by hand to encourage the dead yeast cells and other sediment to move down towards the neck of the bottle. After each riddling, the angle of the bottle is gradually increased so that it is eventually fully upside down. When this process is done by hand, it takes around three weeks, when done by a computerised palette, it takes eight days.

A fun fact about this part of the method is that the famed Madame Clicquot (yes, that Clicquot), the first woman to be in control of a Champagne house, invented the riddling technique, thereby allowing more of a mass production of bottles.

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Once the sediment has been moved to the bottle neck it’s time for disgorging. This means that tip of the bottle is dipped into a freezing brine solution, which freezes the sediment. Once the bottle is placed upright again, the frozen sediment – along with a little bit of the wine – is expelled due to the internal pressure of the bottle. The wine is then topped up with a little extra brut, called a dosage, and is then corked and covered with the iconic wire cap. Most Champagnes at this stage are ready be drunk, although many vintages can be aged for a couple of years. In a nutshell, protected Champagne varietals + Methode Champenoise = Champagne.

Now that we understand Champagne…

So what does that mean for South Africa, where we are gifted with one of the world’s longest, and oldest, wine routes, with many wineries producing amazing sparkling wines? Why is that not allowed to be called Champagne? In short, it all comes down to an appellation, which is a term that applies to a legally defined and protected geographical indicator used to identify where grapes for a wine were grown. Many foods across the world are also protected by an appellation and simply ensures that the product is always recognised for where it was originally grown or made. Tequila, Stilton cheese, Tennessee whiskey and Colombian coffee are all examples of appellations, and their protected names tell us where they come from.

When it comes to Champagne, these rules and regulations make sure the traditional Champagne style stays native to Champagne. These guidelines are set out by the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) and the Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité (the national institute of origin and quality). These two committees work together to protect the name Champagne and have set out a number of rules to ensure this. These rules enforce those terms of appellation, which includes laws that say the grapes used for the wine can only come from Champagne. The rest of the rules all relate to viticulture, the growing and harvesting systems related to the vineyard itself. Naturally, the last piece of the Champagne legislation is that the wine goes through the ‘methode champenoise’. 

So, in South Africa, where we don’t make champagnes, we call certain sparkling wines MCCs. This term refers to Methode Cap Classique, which means that the sparkling wine has been made in the traditional Champagne method. Aside from the grapes used, everything else in the MCC process is identical to that of the French Champagne. South Africa has come into its own in terms of winemaking, and our producers have never been more knowledgeable. The combination of the country’s best grapes, experienced winemakers and a classic technique means that some MCCs can rival some super Champagnes. Our world class MCCs prove that you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money on a Champagne-style drink when we have so many amazing, high-quality bubblies produced in our backyard that are as good.

Now onto the fun stuff. What is the best way to enjoy a glass of something bubbly? Well, chilled for a start. 8 – 10ºC is the ideal temperature, and never drink it colder than that. Too cold and your taste buds will be slightly numbed and don’t even think of pre-chilling the glasses – you’ll lose precious fizz. Secondly, if you’re serious about tasting your champers properly, then don’t serve it in a traditional flute. The flute was designed to show off the bubbly nature of the drink but doesn’t really allow for the aromas and flavours to shine. Show that you know your stuff by serving your bubbly in a white wine glass. However you choose to enjoy your bubbles, we hope you’re raising a glass this Valentine’s Day, in the name of love and celebration. 

Did you know?The iconic saucer-shaped coupe is rumoured to be modelled on Marie Antoinette’s breast. Louis XVI reportedly surprised her with a set of crockery and glassware for one of their summer homes in Rambouillet, which included the coupes. Ooh la la!

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