While Champagne can only come from la Champagne, elsewhere in France, traditional method sparklers are called Crémants, followed by the name of the region—such as Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant de Loire. Beyond France, producers use the traditional method to make Spanish Cava, Italian Franciacorta, South African Cap Classique and Australian sparkling Shiraz. Keep an eye out for these traditionally produced, non-Champagne sparklers as they can offer an incredible value for the price.
What is the traditional method? Champagne and other bubblies made this way start out as a cuvée—a blend of still wines that have undergone a primary fermentation in tank or barrel. The blended wine is then transferred to bottles, where a mixture of wine, yeasts and sugar (liqueur de tirage) is added to kickstart a second fermentation.
The bottle is temporarily sealed with a crown cap, trapping in the CO2 that is created when the yeast eats the sugar. At this point, the magic happens. Still wine transforms into sparkling in what is aptly called la prise de mousse, or the “capturing of the sparkle.”
Eventually, the yeasts decompose and form a deposit in the bottle, known as the lees. The now sparkling wine is aged on the lees (sur lie), anywhere from 15 months to decades for the best Champagnes, during which time the lees impart wonderful, fresh-baked bread notes and a creamy texture to the wine. Note that the aging requirements for non-Champagne sparkling wines are much shorter—one reason these wines are less expensive than Champagne.
During the sur lie aging period, the bottles are suspended upside down and occasionally rotated or “riddled” to force the lees into the bottle neck. While automated riddling is much more common today, some Champagne houses still rely on professional riddlers, who defy carpal tunnel syndrome by turning up to 40,000 bottles a day!
Once the lees have settled into the neck, the bottles are dipped into a refrigerated solution to freeze the sediment, which shoots out of the bottle when the crown cap is removed—a step called dégorgement. As the final step, the winemaker adds a mixture of sugar and wine (dosage or liqueur d’expédition), which will determine the wine’s final sweetness. The bottle is then sealed with a cork and wire cage and returned to the cellar for additional aging.
Traditional method bubblies can exhibit a surprising range of aromas and flavors, from fresh fruit and flowers to pastry, toast, nuts and dried fruit. The key factors at play here are the wines chosen for the base cuvée and whether malolactic fermentation is used—the process of converting sharp, malic acids (think apple) into soft, lactic acids (think butter and cream). The longer the wine is aged on the lees, the more complex its flavor will also be.