Steeped in history and regional pride, the renowned Méthode Champenoise is an art form that’s been perfected over the last four centuries. This traditional champagne production method is used to create high-quality sparkling wine—or champagne. However, there’s some important context to consider before assuming that every bottle of bubbly has been made using the Méthode Champenoise. Not every bottle of bubbly is champagne.
Join us as we take a journey through global wine history to learn about the Méthode Champenoise, how it came to be, and what makes it unique.
The Méthode Champenoise’s Controversial History
Historically, the debate about the Méthode Champenoise’s origins has been fraught with tension between the English and the French. The French feel very proprietary over it, especially considering the word champagne has had a protected designation of origin since June 29, 1936.
Vintners in the world-famous Champagne region in France have long attributed the genesis and refinement of sparkling winemaking to their forerunners several centuries ago. However, this isn’t quite correct. It was the English who created the method for making the bubbles in the 17th century.
Although France was producing and exporting fine still wines at the time, the early innovations that led to sparkling wine’s rise in popularity are attributed to native Londoner, Christopher Merret. Historical records point to Merret being the first person to deliberately use sugar and molasses to cause the second fermentation, which is the hallmark of the process used to make sparkling wine.
Still, thanks to the protected designation of origin, winemakers in Champagne now reserve the sole right to refer to their process as “Méthode Champenoise.” All other sparkling wines are produced using the “Méthode Traditionnelle,” or the traditional method.
What Sets the Méthode Champenoise Apart?
When using the Méthode Champenoise, wines undergo two separate fermentation processes to create the signature frothy, mousse-like mouthfeel. During the first fermentation, a select blend of grapes undergoes a primary fermentation process to produce a still wine. Once this wine is bottled, the Champenoise alchemy begins.
In the second round, winemakers add “liqueur de tirage,” a proprietary mixture of sugars and yeast, to each bottle. This initiates the second fermentation. It’s during this period that a chemical reaction takes place, and carbon dioxide forms within the bottle to give the wine its characteristic bubbliness. In scientific terms, the yeast cells consume the sugar, producing carbon dioxide as the bubbly byproduct.
Aging For Extra Flavor
After the double fermentation process has occurred, the bottles are sealed with metallic crown caps. The final corking and sealing comes much later on, so this is a temporary measure for the aging process called “aging on lees” or sur lees in French. The sediments leftover from the secondary fermentation process are called the “lees” and comprise of spent yeast cells and other residual particles. During the aging process, the wine rests and gains complexity on top of this sediment —hence the name.
This unique aging process is responsible for more than just carbonating the wine. As the inactive yeast cells break down, compounds, proteins, and particles emerge from the cells, enhancing the natural flavors and aromas of the fermented grapes. The breakdown of these cells gives the sparkling wine more body and taste than a still wine and improves its mouthfeel.
To encourage the wine’s development, winemakers develop their own unique ways of manipulating the lees to create their signature taste. Gradual rotation and stirring are two common techniques, although every vintner does it a little bit differently, taking their time to get the desired results. Too much or too little intervention can cause the wine to deviate from the intended aging process and this may spoil the finished product.
The Importance Of Disgorgement
After aging on lees, the process of disgorgement occurs, and this plays a crucial role in the quality of the final drinkable product. During the disgorgement process, the bottles get stored upside down at a mild temperature to allow all the sediment to gather near the neck. Once the vinter is happy with the sediment accumulation, the neck of the bottle gets immersed in freezing liquid, causing the leftover dead yeast to solidify into a single piece resembling a cork.
To complete disgorgement, the metal crown cap is removed from the bottle, which, due to fermentation, has become pressurized. The buildup of immense pressure in the bottle causes the solidified sediment to “pop” from the bottle, leaving behind pure sparkling wine. This step must be done quickly as too much oxygen exposure is bad for the wine and can diminish its quality.
After disgorgement, the space where the sediment was is replaced by air and a unique mixture of wine and sugar called the “liqueur d’expédition” is added. The sugar levels in this mixture contribute to the overall sweetness of the final product, which is now ready to be corked, labelled, and distributed.
A Question Of Price
Regardless of whether you’re buying from a boutique winery, a wine club, or a liquor store, there are a myriad of factors contributing to the price that you pay per bottle. The price tag attached to a bottle of sparkling wine will always vary depending on the prestige of the winemaker, the expertise of their employees, the quality of the ingredients, and the type of equipment used in production.
Using the Méthode Champenoise is resource-intensive, and the costs of labor, ingredients, and equipment, as well as the time to create the perfect bottle of bubbly, all add up. If you’ve ever wondered why some champagnes are so expensive, this is why!
Strictly speaking, apart from regional preferences in terminology and subtle proprietary differences in production, there’s no real difference between Méthode Champenoise and Méthode Traditionnelle. However, all sparkling wines produced using either method will always be better quality than cheaper sparkling wines. More affordable sparkling wines are artificially carbonated, and they don’t undergo the double fermentation process that makes the Méthode Champenoise and Méthode Traditionnelle so unique.
Time to Pop the Cork!
The Méthode Champenoise is a winemaking tradition that’s rich in history, passion, and culture. This centuries-old method of winemaking is painstakingly precise, making every pop of the cork even more of a celebration. It’s fitting that we enjoy such a lovingly produced sparkling wine on special occasions, as making it is an occasion, too.
Next time you sip on a bottle of champagne, think about the labor and expertise of the vintners who’ve been inspired by those that came centuries before them. Hopefully, every mouthful will taste even better!