How champagne and sparkling wine is made

Last week I persuaded a friend to join me at a wine tasting organised by Stella magazine, where we learnt the difference between and how to make the different types of sparkling wine, including champagne. Our teacher was the knowledgeable and incredibly charming sommelier Ingvild Tennfjord.
Hailing from Bergen, she made us all laugh as she in very funny and memorable terms explained how prosecco, cava and champagne are made. As I love all types of sparkling wine so much, especially drier proseccos and champagne, I bought her book and have used this, Wikipedia and my memories from the event as resources for this article.
In the production of wine, yeast is eating away at the sugar that is naturally present in the grapes in order to produce the flavour and sweetness of the wine. When all the sugar has been consumed, a regular wine would be nearing completing – the bubbles that have developed will be released in a controlled fashion and the wine will be bottled and ready for aging or sale.
A sparkling wine, however, needs lots of bubbles, and these are made by tapping the base wine into bottles and adding sugar and yeast to each bottle. This second fermentation process makes new bubbles which are then trapped within the wine. It normally takes years, but a minimum of 15 months, for the yeast to work its way through the wine and simultaneously age the wine – the yeast disintegrates and its flavour is integrated into the wine in a process called autolysis.
Once the sparkling wine is deemed age appropriate, the yeast is removed in a time-consuming process called riddling: The bottles are placed neck down at a 45 degree angle in a rack called pupitres and each day the bottles are turned 1/8 of a turn.


This work was traditionally carried out by a riddler but is today done by a machine (inspired by the Spanish’s cava production, as explained further below). Done over a period of 8-10 weeks, this process, originally engineered by the widow Mrs Clicquot, and the gradual straightening of the bottle until is it upside down, causes the yeast to move towards the neck of the bottle.

Next, the bottle neck is frozen so the yeast and sediments form a frozen plug. Once the bottle is opened, the plug shoots out of the bottle, and dosage is added before the bottle is recorked. Dosage consists of sugar and some wine, added to fill the bottle up again and also make the final flavour of the champagne. The bottles will then be stored until desired flavour has been achieved, sometimes years.
Typically, a champagne will be brut – dry – and contain under 12 grams of sugar per litre. In Norway we like our champanges particularly dry, so some champagnes are made especially for our market and only contain six grams of sugar. Since the final flavour of the champagne is determined by the dosage in the final production process, it is simple to create different flavours for different markets.
The above process is called the traditional method of making sparkling wine, and the bottle is labelled “metodo classico” eller “methode traditionele”.
It used to be known as the champagne method, but in order to protect the brand name champagne, which is only allowed to be used for sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France in the traditional method, the name was changed to the traditional method.
While champagne has traditionally been people’s bubbles of choice, prosecco has increased dramatically in popularity in the last few years. Prosecco is made from a grape called grela – it used to be called prosecco, but to prevent vineyards in Chile and other countries from printing Prosecco on their labels, the grape’s name was changed and prosecco is now regionally protected. The second fermentation process in prosecco takes place in huge steel vats where the yeast is only present in the wine for a short time. Since the complex flavour is not allowed to develop, prosecco has a less sophisticated taste of green apples and lemons. Its short-cuts also makes it the cheapest sparkling wine to produce, but clever marketing and image building allow it to sell for more than cava!
In Spain, cava is the native sparkling wine. Made from grapes that are much cheaper than in France and with a highly automated production process, cava is basically made using the traditional method, but at a huge scale and in a much, much shorter time. A whopping 80 % of all cava is produced by one of two manufacturers in Sant Sadurni d’Anoia, just half an hour’s drive outside Barcelona. Freixenet is the largest, completing the first fermentation process in tanks that take 600.000 litres! The riddling process was first automated by the Spanish and they have got it down to under an hour, from champagne’s eight weeks. Cava tends to taste of peaches and yellow plums as opposed to prosecco’s pears and lemon, as the grapes have grown at a higher temperature. 
It’s no denying that the French’s time and effort pay off, as champagne is at least three times as expensive as cava and prosecco, but I reckon about ten times more tasty. Due to its traditional production method, it can also be stored for years and improve in the process. A bottle of cava or prosecco needs to be consumed within about three years, but their lower price point make them ideal for everyday celebrations. Champagne I reserve for those special occasions where I really want to treat myself and my companion(s) to something special.
I hadn’t really thought much about the difference in taste between the different types of sparkling wines and champagne, except that the cheaper options tend to be sweeter. From the tasting it was clear that prosecco tastes and smells of lemons and pears, no matter how good and expensive the bottle is. This explains why I choose proseccos that are drier and more lemony – I’m not very keen on the pear flavour! Though cava tastes less of lemon and more of apples and plums, both have quite large bubbles that rise really fast to the top. Champagne is much drier, tastes more of blackcurrant and oak, and has really tiny bubbles that rise elegantly to the top.
If you can read Norwegian, run out and buy Ingvild’s book, Bobler! It explains the production of sparkling wines in plain and entertaining words that anyone can understand, and also contains all her personal favourites within each sparkling wine category, with SKU numbers, photos and all. Basically, she has made you a shopping list for every occasion, from a nice pick-me-up on a week night to what to serve when you make your wedding toast.
In addition to learning a heck of a lot about the production of sparkling wines and champagnes, drinking four delicious wines – including an incredibly flavourful Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV – we also went home with a goodie bag full of products from L’Occitane, Burt’s Bees and Kerastase that Stella kindly had put together for us:
A fun fact: Veuve Clicquot is frequently refered to as “Yellow widow”, as the winemaker was a widow and used yellow labels on her bottles of champagne. At the time, yellow was the most expensive colour to print, so the label indicated a product of luxury and class. She was a true marketing wizard!
The winery photographs in this post are from Pommery Winery in Rouen, Champagne, which I visited in September 2013. Champagne and Rouen is located about three hours by train from Paris, so it makes for a mouth-watering overnight visit while you are in the city of love.
  • I love champagne (to be fair, I also enjoy prosecco and cava). Sparkling wines are such a great accompaniment to so many foods. I could really go for a glass of Veuve right about now but am at the halfway point with the Whole 30 challenge so it will have to wait…

    • Hi Shannon! Yes, four weeks is a long time with any sparkling beverages in your glass, but you’ll feel so good because of it. Be strong! 😉

      – Anett