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Glossary of Champagne Terms

by Richard G. Peterson, PhD

Acidity: The sour or tart taste in wine and other food. The primary natural acid in grapes and wine is Tartaric acid; the second most abundant is Malic acid. Sometimes referred to as the "backbone" of a wine, acidity contributes to a wine's aging ability. The sour taste of acidity in wine is often pleasantly counterbalanced by sweetness (from sugar or alcohol). Sparkling wines usually contain higher acidities than white still wines, which themselves usually contain higher acidities than red still wines. It is the acidity which gives fine sparkling wines their crispness.

Aftertaste: The "shadow taste" remaining in your mouth just after swallowing a sip of wine. Aftertaste is important in wine tasting because it can reveal an extra attribute or fault. Some desirable aftertastes in still wines can last up to 7 or 8 seconds. However, the best sparkling wines do not have aftertastes lasting longer than 2 or 3 seconds. Sparkling wines strive for a special delicacy in the taste; a taste which quickly "melts away" after swallowing, leaving your mouth fresh and clean.

Aging en Tirage: Aging a sparkling wine during production "on the yeast," i.e., to delay the disgorging for many months (even years for the finest sparkling wines or champagnes). Aging en Tirage allows the superb flavor of autolyzed yeast to develop in the wine. The French call this highly prized flavor "goût de champagne." Although this is an expensive process, there isn't any other way to achieve that flavor. Richard G. Wrotham Pinot is aged en tirage for at least three years.

Aperitif Wine: Any wine served before a meal. Traditionally, aperitifs were vermouths and other similar wines flavored with herbs and spices. Today, sparkling wines are more often served as aperitifs to lead into a special meal or a tasting of other wines.

Appearance: A term used in sensory evaluation of wine to describe whether a wine is crystal clear (brilliant), cloudy, or contains sediment. In this context, it has nothing to do with color. In sparkling wines, appearance usually refers to the "bead."

Appley Nose: A tasting term to describe an aroma in wine that is reminiscent of fresh apples. Most often this term applies to sparkling wine and some of the best Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc still wines.

Aroma: Smell or fragrance from wine that has its origin in the grape -- as opposed to "bouquet," which has its origin in the processing or aging methods.

Atmosphere: Unit of measure for pressure inside a bottle of sparking wine or champagne. 1 Atmosphere equals 14.7 pounds per square inch (the standard atmospheric pressure at sea level in the world). Commercial sparkling wines commonly contain 4 to 6 atmospheres of CO2 pressure when measured at room temperature. A well-chilled sparkling wine contains the same amount of CO2, but because more of the CO2 remains dissolved in the wine at colder temperatures, the measured pressure is lower. And, the bubbles last longer in the glass.

Bead: A colloquial term referring to the bubbles that float in groups on top of a fermenting wine or champagne/sparkling wine in the glass.

Binning: Storage of newly bottled sparkling wine or champagne in large bins rather than in wine cases -- for bottle aging "en Tirage" prior to disgorging, labeling and shipping to market.

Blanc de Blancs: A champagne or sparkling wine term referring to white wine made from only white (usually Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc) grapes.

Blanc de Noir: A champagne or sparkling wine term referring to white wine made from black (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or, ahem, Wrotham Pinot) grapes.

Bouquet: Smell or fragrance in wine that has its origins in the wine's production or aging methods. This is in contrast to Aroma, which comes not from aging or handling, but from the grapes themselves. The smell and taste of "gout de champagne" in sparkling wine is an example of bouquet, not aroma, because it comes from long aging of the wine in contact with the yeast -- the same yeast which has transformed the wine from "still" to "sparkling."

Brilliant: A sensory evaluation term to describe a wine that is crystal clear and absolutely free from sediment or cloudiness.

Brut: French term referring to the driest (least sweet) Champagne. You should pronounce Brut to rhyme with foot. Brut is always drier (less sweet) than "extra dry." See Extra Dry. Wouldn't you think that anybody smart enough to figure out how to use density as a substitute for sugar analysis would avoid stubbing his toe by using the term "Extra Dry" to mean very sweet? Well, I warned you these are French terms. See Extra Dry.

Carbon dioxide (CO2): A heavy gas that occurs naturally in air. It gives carbonated drinks their bubbles and, as dry ice (frozen CO2), it is used to keep things very cold. Vine leaves produce sugar from CO2 (out of the air) and water, using sunlight as their source of energy. This sugar is the ultimate source of energy used by the vine for growth and grape production. CO2 is also the gas that makes sparkling wine "sparkle." Think of it: without CO2 you have only still wine; with CO2, you have Pizzaz!

Champagne: The sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. By treaty, other European countries may not use the name "Champagne" for their sparkling wines. However, in the United States, the name is not proscribed and some producers still use it. The practice is changing, especially among American producers of higher priced sparkling wines and, today, most are simply called "sparkling wine."

Chardonnay: This is clearly the world's greatest white wine grape variety. Chardonnay produces many of the finest white wines, both still and sparkling, all around the globe.

Charmat Process: A process for producing sparkling wine or champagne cheaply and in large quantities by conducting the secondary fermentation in large tanks rather than individual bottles. Eugene Charmat, a Frenchman, developed the process in 1910. It is widely used all over the world for making every day, lower priced sparkling wines. Also referred to as the Charmat "Bulk process."

CO2: The chemical symbol for carbon dioxide. "See-Oh-Two" is commonly used in conversations among wine people (not just Chemists) to mean carbon dioxide. How lazy we've become! It's easier to learn a little (ugh) chemistry than use a pair of long words to name a simple molecule that we exhale from our lungs and ingest into our stomachs in soft drinks, beer and sparkling wine.

Clone: The descriptor name used for a group of vines all descended from the same individual vine. One single vine, if found to have especially desirable characteristics, may be propagated by grafting or budding to produce a whole vineyard that is identical to the original vine. The offspring vines from such a unique source are collectively referred to as "a clone" of the mother variety. Wrotham Pinot is a "clone" of Pinot Noir and I grow it exclusively for making Richard G. Peterson Blanc de Noir sparkling wine. In our immodest opinion, it ranks among the world's fine Blanc de Noir sparkling wines.

Crémant: A category of champagne or sparkling wine that contains less carbonation than standard champagnes or sparkling wines. Crémant champagnes are usually quite light and fruity but not often very bubbly.

Crisp: Tasting term to describe good acidity and pleasant taste without excessive sweetness. This is an especially desirable trait in a sparkling wine.

Cutting: (Noun) A piece of grape vine, usually 10 to 20 inches long, cut from a dormant vine in wintertime for use in propagating new vines in spring. Cuttings are taken only from last year's growth (never two-year old wood) and are a convenient way to store and handle the vine buds. It is the buds on the cutting that have the ability to begin new vine growth next year. Grafted or budded properly, each bud can become a new vine that is genetically identical to all the other vines from the original vine. See Clone, Wrotham Pinot.

Cuvée: A given lot or batch of wine usually held in a single tank or large cask. Cuvée often refers to a specific blend of still wines that was blended purposely for later champagne making in France.

Demi-sec: A French Champagne term signifying that the product is medium-sweet. Not used in the U.S. See Extra-Dry.

Disgorging (degorgement): In Champagne processing, disgorging is the act of removing the frozen plug of ice (containing spent yeast) from a bottle of Champagne or Sparkling Wine, after riddling. Disgorging takes place on a bottling line just prior to adding dosage and the final corking of the finished bottle of Champagne. See Dosage.

Dom Perignon: The person who is usually credited for producing the world's first "sparkling wine," or "Champagne." Maybe he was -- and maybe he wasn't first. See English Champagne, below. In 1668, Dom Perignon was appointed head cellarer at the Abbey of Hautvillers near Reims in the French district called Champagne. His experiments are credited with producing the first deliberate sparkling wine in the world. This was a wine so unique and dramatic that it assumed the name of the whole district, Champagne, for its own identity.

Dom Perignon was one of the first to use natural corks to seal wine bottles. Then, as now, corks were carved from the thick bark of old "cork oak" trees that continue to grow all around the Mediterranean Sea. Before Dom's use of cork, it had been a common practice to close bottles with a piece of wood wrapped in hemp previously dipped in olive oil. His cork did a much better job of sealing wine bottles and protecting the contents from exposure to air. Also, it avoided contaminating the wine with small amounts of olive oil.

Dom Perignon and others had noticed previously that new wines came to life in the spring after winter temperatures warmed. The Champagne region is cold, making the grape harvest late in the season. Yeast couldn't always complete its fermentation before winter cold slowed the action to a stop, leaving a residue of unfermented sugar in the wine over the winter. Later, when warmer days returned in spring, the yeast resumed fermentation -- giving rise to CO2 bubbling out of the new wine. Malo-lactic fermentations probably occurred at the same time, but the effect was the same: carbon dioxide gas gave new life to the wine. At some point, probably a bottle or two had been closed tightly enough to prevent loss of CO2 before all the sugar could be fermented. Upon opening the bottle, who knows? Perhaps Dom Perignon really did utter those words attributed to him: "Holy smoke Pierre! Come quickly! I'm drinking stars." Or, somethin' like that.

Dosage: (dose-ahhj) The few ounces of wine, sometimes sweetened, which is added to each bottle of champagne after disgorging to make up for the liquid volume lost by disgorging.

Drain Hopper: A crush tank fitted with a screen to make free-run juice separate quickly from the skins and stems in freshly crushed must. By opening or closing the drain valve, a winemaker can hold the juice in contact with the skins for a precise number of minutes -- varying the amount of color and flavor he extracts from freshly crushed Pinot Noir grapes.

In this way he can produce anything from a delicately colored pink to a full red color in the juice. After fermentation of this juice into wine, the wine retains whatever color and flavor he extracted. In the case of Wrotham Pinot, we usually extract color for about six hours in order to achieve the desired delicacy of color and taste that we like in this Sparkling Wine.

Dry: In the wine world, dry is never the opposite of wet. Whether in a fermentation tank or in a wine glass, dry means the complete absence of sugar in the wine. That's what it means and that's all it means.

English Champagne: Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who made wine at Hautvillers Abbey in the Champagne region of France, is commonly given full credit for inventing the sparkling wine we know as Champagne. But, in truth and fairness, the English may have been producing sparkling wine for a full decade before Dom Perignon did! They certainly had been producing strong glass bottles by that time. They also used corks (the only other necessity for Champagne) long before the Champenoise did. English wine merchants were receiving new wine in casks from Champagne each winter. It is likely that they bottled some of it before all the original sugar had fermented. When the remaining fermentation took place in spring, they had unique, carbonated "Champagne" to enjoy.

The English even understood that adding sugar to wine prior to bottling would increase the eventual sparkle. Six years before Dom Perignon took the job at Hautvillers Abbey, it was reported that English wine coopers had used sugar molasses in all sorts of wines to make them drink "brisk and sparkling." Wherever and whatever it was that happened to create the first sparkling wine, the wine world hasn't been the same since. For my own taste, sparkling wine, including Champagne, is my favorite of all wine types. Oh sure, I love a great Cabernet Sauvignon all right. But sparkling wine, well, great sparkling wine has, you know, Pizzazz!

Épernay: City on the Marne River in the Champagne region of northeastern France. The city is located very near the center of all the vineyards in the whole Champagne region. Partly because of this, Èpernay is a major center for the business of Champagne production and sales.

Extra Dry: In Champagne, France this term usually means "extra sweet." You knew that already if you've checked the Brut entry. Only in Sherry can you rely on the term to mean that the wine is really dry. This is one of the confusions that surround wine for no good reason other than to keep you on your toes. See Demi-sec.

Fermentation: Originally, "to boil without heat." The process, carried on by yeast growth in grape juice or other sugar solutions, by which sugar is transformed into ethyl alcohol and CO2. The CO2 bubbles out of solution, giving the appearance of boiling without heat. In making sparkling wine, the CO2 cannot escape and is trapped inside the sealed bottle. There, much of it dissolves and becomes a major feature of the finished sparkling wine.

Hautvillers: Small town very close to, and just north of, Epernay in the Champagne region of France. It was here, at the Benedictine Abbey of Hautvillers, that a monk named Dom Perignon was cellermaster for nearly fifty years in the late 1600s and early 1700s. He is given credit for much of the experimentation and processes leading to the development of today's Champagnes and sparkling wines. The truth is, we don't know exactly what happened or when. Undoubtedly the development of Champagne was a result of the work of many people over several years, and not necessarily Frenchmen, either. We might owe more than we know about champagne to English wine merchants. See: The story of Champagne on this website.

Jeroboam: Oversize wine bottle; however, the exact size is not standardized. It may be equivalent to 4, 5 or 6 standard (750 ml) bottles, depending upon the wine producer. In Champagne, France and in California, it is often 3 liters in size; in Bordeaux, 3.75 liters; in England, as much as 4.5 liters.

Maceration: The act of soaking grape solids in their juice for certain time periods prior to fermentation of the juice. Often used for Chardonnay production and for making pink wines from black, blue or red grapes. The pink color of Wrotham Pinot Sparkling Wine comes from maceration for a few hours to allow just enough flavor and red pigment to dissolve into the juice prior to fermentation of the juice.

Méthode Champenoise: (Pronounced "met-toad champ en waaz" with accent on the waaz).The traditional bottle-fermented method for producing sparkling wines, including fermenting, aging en Tirage, riddling and disgorging - all in the same bottle that will eventually reach the consumer. There are several cheaper and faster methods for making sparkling wine and champagnes. But méthode champenoise is still the only method used for the very highest quality sparkling wines of the world.

Natural: Term used on the label to designate a champagne or sparkling wine that is absolutely dry.

Petillant: Term describing a wine which is noticeably sparkling or bubbly with CO2 - but which is less carbonated than champagne/sparkling wine.

Pinot: One of the world's most important family names among the world's wine grape varieties. The most famous member is Pinot Noir, although its white-fruited variant, Pinot Blanc, deserves special recognition as well. Chardonnay was incorrectly called "Pinot" for many decades in France and America, but that has changed in recent years. The Chardonnay grape has never been a member of the Pinot family. This web site is partial to a very special clone of Pinot Noir called Wrotham Pinot, which developed naturally over 2000 years in Southeastern England. Cuttings from the one surviving 200 year-old vine in England have been imported into Napa Valley, where Wrotham Pinot vines now produce very small amounts of well-aged Richard G. Peterson Sparkling Wine. See Wrotham Pinot.

Punt: The concave indentation in the bottom of certain wine bottles, especially those containing sparkling wine. Several reasons for it may be found in literature: to collect crystals or sediment (this only works if the bottle is standing upright) so that the wine may be decanted easily; to add "apparent size" to a bottle which contains exactly the same measure as a bottle which lacks the punt; to facilitate snobbiness by allowing the sommelier to pour a wine flamboyantly, with his thumb in the punt and the bottle cradled in his other four fingers; etc, etc. Reason # 1 is more correct than the others.

Pupitre: (pup-éé-ter) French name for the hinged, wooden "A-Frame" rack used for hand-riddling champagne bottles prior to disgorging. (Riddling settles the yeast sediment into the neck so that it can be easily removed by the disgorging step.)

Rosé: French word for pink wine, the word is in common use all over the world.

Sec: French term meaning "dry," or lacking sugar. However, on French Champagne labels it means that the wine is sweet. Dammit! This is just one of the many pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting initiate to the world of fine wines. See Brut, Extra Dry. Better yet, don't buy French Champagne - buy Richard Wrotham Pinot Sparkling Wine instead.

Secondary Fermentation: Any fermentation that happens after the primary (yeast) fermentation has been completed. Malo-lactic is a secondary fermentation that occurs in most red, and some white, still wines. Another secondary is the yeast fermentation that is used to change still wine into sparkling wine.

Sekt: German word for sparkling wine. (The word "Champagne" is not used on German labels, even for export.)

Shot Berries: Small, (BB sized) grape berries on a cluster that are not fully developed and contain no seeds. These are often caused by adverse weather at bloom time but may be caused by some aberration in the clone of grapes you are using. Since shot berries make lousy wine or champagne, clones found to produce excessive shot berries are weeded out in favor of better clones.

Spumante: The Italian word for sparkling wine. Equivalent to Sekt in German.

Still wine: Wine that is not sparkling, i.e., does not contain significant carbon dioxide in solution.

Sur lies: French term (and recent, snobbish American term) meaning that the [white, usually Chardonnay] table wine was held in contact with yeast lees in barrels longer than usual in aging and processing. The result is often a white wine with a pleasant yeastiness and more complexity than ordinary wines. If done improperly, the result can be oxidized flavors and bacterial spoilage. In sparkling wines, sur lies can turn a good wine into a superb one because the yeast contact takes place inside a sealed bottle where oxidation is impossible. Generally, a longer time on yeast lees means a higher quality sparkling wine. Richard Wrotham Pinot, for example, remains on the yeast for a minimum of three years prior to disgorging. Precious few other Sparkling wines hold to this strict standard of quality.

Tart: Acidic (used as a pleasant descriptor in wine tasting).

Tirage: (Tier-âhh-j) Production term that describes the first bottling step, which turns a new wine into champagne or sparkling wine. After the tirage, the new sparkling wine is aged on the yeast, then riddled, disgorged and, finally, labeled for sale.

Vintage: In short, the "year" or season of winegrowing. But vintage wine, by U.S. rules, is defined differently depending upon whether the wine label shows a lowly political appellation (like a state or county) or a stronger one (like a Viticultural Area). For wines with a Viticultural Area, the rule is 95%; for lesser appellations, the rule is only 85%: i.e., either 95% or 85% of the wine in the bottle has to have been harvested in the stated calendar year.

In most other wine producing countries, the rule is simpler and less strict: A wine qualifies as vintage if at least 85% of the wine in the bottle was produced in the year stated on the label. Somehow bureaucrats think it's desireable to protect the consumer a little better for smaller appellations than for the larger ones. Bless their hearts. Winemakers know that, very often, blended wines have higher quality than unblended ones, but there is no consistency on that, either. Occasionally, a single vineyard might have a higher quality than a comparable blended wine, but not very often.

Wrotham Pinot: In the early 1950s an unusual wild grapevine was noticed growing against a stone wall near the village of Wrotham [pronounced Root-um] in Kent, southeastern England. None of the village residents knew where the vine had come from. It had been there as far back as anyone could remember and its origin was shrouded in mystery. It was estimated to be about two hundred years old. The grapevine leaves were distinctly blue-green and each had an unusual "hairy" appearance. Close inspection revealed many tiny white hairs growing on the upper surfaces of all the leaves, especially the youngest leaves. From a distance the new leaves looked as if a light coating of white dust or flour covered them!

This vine appeared to be unlike anything grown commercially in continental Europe then or, indeed, today. Although its leaf color and appearance were unlike the Pinot Noir vines of France or Italy, the fruit clusters looked remarkably similar to the great Pinot Noir grapes of those famous regions! It most resembles the Pinot Meunier of Champagne in France, which itself is a natural mutation of Pinot Noir. However, Wrotham Pinot differs from Pinot Meunier in that Wrotham has somehow developed a considerable immunity to the powdery mildew disease that affects all other Vitis vinifera vines now cultivated in the world.

English winemakers took cuttings from this wild Wrotham vine to propagate a small vineyard as a test for commercial winemaking in England. Because today's cooler English climate cannot develop full fruit color and flavor in most red wine grapes, the Wrotham fruit was used only for sparkling "Blanc de Noir" wines. These exceptional sparkling wines did not go unnoticed. California winemaker Dr. Richard G. Peterson liked the sparkling wine so much he brought Wrotham cuttings back to California in the 1980s. Working with the University of California, he began to propagate new vines from this antique bud wood. The DNA of these vines was analyzed at the University and the report came back that Wrotham Pinot DNA is identical to that of Pinot Noir! Evidently, Wrotham Pinot vines are the final offspring of many successive generations of wild seedling formation from the original Roman Pinot Noir vines grown in England two thousand years ago!

The village of Wrotham has a long history of Roman influence. The Wrotham Historical Society has records and artifacts that show the area was populated for many centuries by Romans and their descendants. Indeed, occasional Roman coins dating from the third century have been found there while digging in gardens or in construction projects. Apparently, the Wrotham grape vine and its ancestors had considerable time in which to acclimatize themselves to the wet weather conditions in Great Britain. That was a great discovery for Richard as none of our Wrotham vines in the Napa Valley has ever needed to be dusted with sulfur to protect against Powdery mildew -- as happens routinely with all the other commercial vines in California and most of the world. Indeed, Wrotham Pinot vines remain healthy without the use of any chemical sprays at all.

Yeast: Unicellular microorganisms which occur naturally in the air, on the ground and making a thin coating on everything else you can see around you. This is especially true in areas where fruits are grown. Whether "wild" or "cultured," yeast can quickly metabolize natural sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide through a process called fermentation. When all, or most, of the natural sugar in grape juice has been transformed into alcohol, the juice is legally "changed into wine."

Yeast lees: Solid sludge-like sediment, primarily spent yeast, which settles to the bottom of a fermentation tank after the fermentation has been completed. Yeast lees from primary fermentations should not be allowed to remain in contact with the new wine any longer than is necessary. This is because spent and decomposing yeast is the primary source of H2S (the odor of rotten eggs) in wine. This can be confusing: the world's best Sparkling Wines and Champagnes are produced by deliberately leaving the wine in intimate contact with spent yeast in sealed bottles for years during the secondary fermentation. The answer is in the strains of yeast used for champenization and the strict oxygen-free conditions inside a Champagne bottle compared to a large tank.