What is Champagne?
Updated: May 1, 2019
A Brief History, How it’s Made and What is Sweet & Dry
In this article, I will discuss how to use the terms Dry, Sweet, Wet and Bitteras it pertains to wine, as well as provide a little background on what Champagne is, how it’s made, and where it comes from. Champagne comes from a wine region just a short distance due east of Paris, France. If it is not from this region, then it is not technically Champagne. Producers of a similar style sparkling wine from other regions have at times stolen the name for their own labels, however, this goes against French law and tradition. Contrary to popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne, nor was he the creator of the méthode champenoise, the process used to create Champagne and Champagne-style sparkling wine. Dom Pérignon did, however, figure out how not to break bottles from the pressure of carbon dioxide, and he also greatly contributed to the overall quality of Champagne wine. If not for Dom Pérignon, Champagne certainly wouldn’t have the luxury status that it does today, but it was actually several nameless Benedictine Monks from Carcassonne in the south of France that are credited with making the first sparkling wine, and it was probably terrible. The monks of Carcassonne bottled white wine before fermentation was complete, therefore trapping the carbon dioxide gas from the yeast inside the bottle and creating sparkling wine. We can assume this wasn’t much different than the worst hard lemonade you’ve ever had with not enough vodka. Christopher Merret, an English physician and scientist, is actually the one who figured out that a better way to produce sparkling wine was to let it finish fermenting, then add sugar and yeast to start a second fermentation that created the bubbles.
Many people think Champagne is a white wine when in truth it is usually a blend of several red and white wine grapes. Champagne wine is made by blending the juices from the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes, and then fermenting them together. This blend is known as the cuvée, and it tastes like a green bell pepper that’s been dipped in concentrated lemon juice. After the first fermentation, the blended wine is put into bottles along with the liqueur de tirage, which is a mixture of sugar, yeast and some additional cuvée. The bottle is then stopped up with a temporary plug and stored horizontally for a second fermentation that lasts at least 15 months. If the harvest that year is exceptional, then the wine must mature for a minimum of 3 years, in order to capture the highest quality Champagne wine that can be produced.
Because the secondary fermentation occurs in the bottle, the carbon dioxide is trapped in the wine, and that’s what gives us bubbles in Champagne. At this point, the wine looks like fizzy sewer water with chunks of mud floating around, and this is since the yeast is still inside the wine bottle and very visible. To fix this, producers of Champagne use a process called dégorgement, where they blast the yeast out of the bottle. To accomplish this they first do what is known as riddling, where they place the bottle at a 45-degree angle and slowly tilt it until it is completely upside down. How slow? For Champagne, it takes between 8–10 weeks to get the bottle from tilt to being fully vertical. As the riddling process is happening, the yeast is gathering in the neck of the bottle, until all the yeast is huddled up by the temporary cap of the bottle. What happens when you open a bottle of Champagne quickly?
And that is exactly what happens when the temporary cap is removed; the yeast is expelled from the bottle in a similar fashion to a wet fart. Dégorgement is an acquired skill that requires fast action and fancy finger work since it is very possible to lose valuable wine by performing dégorgement, as well as inflict personal injury. Many modern producers have opted to flash freeze just the neck of the bottle using Nitrogen Dioxide and instead remove the yeast as a chunk of ice, which isn’t as sexy but is more efficient and definitely safer.
So now that we basically understand how Champagne is made, let’s talk about what we mean when we say dry, wet, sweet and bitter. Wet is not a wine term. Wine is a liquid that is comprised primarily of water, the source of all wetness, but liquids cannot be wet, they make things wet. Wet does not mean the opposite of dry in wine speak, wet means you spilled something on yourself, which is what you basically do every time you use the word wet to describe wine. Dry is an actual wine term that refers to the level of residual sugar in the wine if it is low or non-existent. Residual Sugar (RS) is the sugar left over in the wine after fermentation. For those chemistry buffs out there, you know that yeast consumes sugar in the absence of oxygen, and converts sugar into two things:
1. Carbon Dioxide, the gas that makes bubbles in Champagne.
2. Alcohol, the stuff makes people either very happy, very very sad, or both.
You may be wondering, “do all wines have bubbles then?” The answer is yes! All wine starts out bubbling, but the majority of wine is fermented in large vats (tanks) and so the gas escapes quickly into the air. For this reason, winemaking can be a very deadly activity, since the air inside of wine production facilities can fill up with lethal levels of Carbon Dioxide! More than a few unfortunate winery workers have in fact perished as a result of this. When it comes to Champagne, it is essential to trap the Carbon Dioxide gas inside the bottle, because that is the only way to keep the bubbles in the wine (without using artificial methods which is a major faux pas).
To reiterate, wet is not a proper wine term and dry refers to a wine with little or no RS. Dry wine is what happens when there is enough yeast to consume all the sugar and enough time for the yeast to do so, therefore dry wines tend to be higher in alcohol. This also depends on the grape varietal and several other factors, but in general, the dryer the wine, the hotter it is also, meaning more alcohol. The term sweet then simply refers to a wine with RS (see chart below). So what about bitter and fruity? Bitter is a term that is commonly misunderstood as people don’t know how to describe the astringent qualities of the wine that they are tasting, and so they use a flavor type that most closely resembles it.
The correct term is tannic, which is the description for experiencing the astringent qualities of tannins in a wine, and many people mistake the puckery feeling as a flavor, however it is in fact astringency that causes the sensation. Tannins are molecules that come primarily from wood and seeds, and they bind to and precipitate proteins and various other organic compounds including amino acids and alkaloids. Anyway, the reason they are important is that they greatly affect the flavor profile and tactile sensation of wine, and also determine how a wine will age. Tannins are a complex topic, however, just know this:
It’s not bitter, it’s tannic.
A really bitter, “puckery” wine is probably a wine with a strong tannic structure. If you want to sound smart, try saying, “the tannins are well rounded,” which means the wine has a good body and is not overly tannic. You can’t be wrong when you say this because it’s entirely subjective. If you insist on using the word bitter, it’s not entirely wrong as long as you use it properly, but I always assume that someone who calls a wine bitter is a Pinot Grigio drinker, and you should never drink Pinot Grigio unless you’re in Italy.
Fruity is the last one on this list, and yes, fruity is, in fact, a wine term, but not a good one. When describing a wine as fruity, you are basically saying the most obvious thing about it. Wine is made from fermented fruit, so it is definitely fruity, the trick is to determine what fruits. As wine grapes (vitis vinifera) undergo fermentation, the chemical compounds that cause us to experience other flavors are created. When you think you taste strawberries in wine, you are! It’s not from strawberries however, but it is the same chemical compound that exists in strawberries, and here is one of the reasons why wine is so interesting. Okay, so it’s best not to say that a wine is fruity, instead try to say what fruits in particular you smell and taste, and also see if you can identify other flavors such as cracked pepper, clove, fresh green pepper, vanilla, dry autumn leaves, flowers or white button mushrooms. A wine that has more fruit smells and flavors than non-fruit is known as a fruit-forward wine. The opposite wine, one with more non-fruit, is usually known as an earthy wine.
Champagne uses a totally different system than most wines to describe the sweetness level, and this topic could be an article unto itself. I have however as a bonus included a chart below to help further navigate the Champagne sweetness concept. You are now armed with the knowledge to properly use wine tasting terms, and forever abandon the terms wet and fruity.