With Valentine’s Day here, people are now thinking about how they will celebrate that special day and that means for many buying and or opening a bottle of Champagne. So we thought that now would be a good time to present a brief overview of Champagne and what is behind that most celebratory of wines.
When we speak of Champagne we are speaking of the sparkling wines made within the Champagne appellation in Northern France, and not sparkling wines generally. The Champenois jealously guard the use of their name; the European Union has recognized the region as a Protected Designation of Origin (“PDO”) which by law means that only wine made from grapes grown within the Champagne region can be labeled as Champagne.
Champagne covers 34,000 hectares and sits roughly 90 miles northeast of Paris, north of the city of Dijon and bounded to the north by the Belgian border. Situated north of the 49th parallel it is one of the most northerly wine growing regions in the world. As such it is a marginal grape growing climate where the grapes struggle to ripen each year. This struggle is a part of what makes the wines of Champagne unique: the resulting wines have high acid levels which helps to preserve the wine and allows the top examples to age for decades.
Still wines had been made in Champagne going as far back as the fifth Century. However, these wines were never held in particularly high esteem as high acidity and under ripe flavours could make for a less than exciting drink. The cold weather of the region often meant that primary fermentations (the conversion of natural sugars into alcohol and CO2) would become “stuck” or not complete as the wine became too cold. The following summer would often trigger the remaining of the fermentation to occur in the enclosed bottle. With nowhere for the CO2 to escape, it remained in the wine creating a bit of a fizz. Originally this was seen as a flaw and winemakers searched for ways to eliminate the fizz. But eventually they came to realize that the bubbles would cut the acidity and make for a more enjoyable tasting experience. It was by accident that this second, in-bottle fermentation was discovered.
Today’s Champagne is made intentionally with bubbles. The “Methode Champenois” begins with fermenting a still wine as other wines around the world are made. Grapes are picked and their juice is pressed. Yeasts are introduced (or may occur naturally in the vineyard) which react with the natural sugars in the grapes causing fermentation which is the conversion of those natural sugars to alcohol and CO2. This primary or alcoholic fermentation takes place in large, open top tanks that allows the CO2 to escape and thus produces a still wine. The still wine is then bottled. The secondary fermentation is then created by adding a solution of natural sugar mixed with wine (called “liqueur de tirage”) and a few grams of yeast to the bottle, which is then capped with a metal cap similar to those used on beer bottles. Once again, the yeast and the sugar reacts creating another fermentation within the bottle. Since the bottle is capped, the CO2 cannot escape and mixes in with the wine creating the bubbles that Champagne is known for. The yeasts over time will impart a flavour to the wine that is reminiscent of toast or bread dough. To encourage this flavour development, the wine is aged for a minimum of 1.5 years.
While it ages, the bottles are turned on specially made racks which point the neck of the bottle down and on an angle. This turning together with gravity forces the spent yeast cells to the neck of the bottle. Schramsberg Vineyards in California uses the “methode champenois” in making their sparkling wine and in this video from a past visit, Jared Engkilterra explains the riddling process:
The final step in the process is to remove the spent yeasts from the neck of the bottle. This is accomplished by freezing the neck of the bottle by placing it in a very cold solution and then opening the bottle causing the plug of frozen yeasts to be ejected. The bottle is then topped up with the liqueur d’expedition which is a mixture of still wine and sugar. The amount of sugar added is known as the dosage and is carefully chosen by the winemaker to create the style of Champagne selected. Finally the large cork is inserted into the bottle and the wire cage placed over the cork to ensure it stays in place. (The pressure inside a Champagne bottle is twice the pressure of your car tire!).
There are three primary varieties of grapes grown in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The Champagne region is all about blending and many Champagnes are a blend of 2 or all three of these grapes. The grapes will frequently be blended from up to 30 different vineyards. About 80% of Champagnes are also a blend of several vintages. The blending of vineyards and vintages allows for the big Champagne houses (sometimes called Grande Marques) to achieve a consistent style which reflects that particular winemakers interpretation of the Champagne region as a whole.
Recently, and increasing in importance, there has been a trend for the growers of the grapes that sell to the Grande Marques to hold back some of their fruit to make their own wine. Known as Grower Champagne, these wines reflect an individual place, rather than the whole region. Sometimes that place will be as broad as one of the five sub regions in Champagne (Vallee de la Marne, Cote des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, Cote de Sezanne and Aube). Sometimes it will be one of the 320 different villages and sometimes it may even be just a single vineyard.
Not every Champagne is a blend of different vintages. In very good years the Champagne houses and the growers may decide to make limited amounts of a special cuvee that only contains grapes harvested from that specific vintage. Referred to as vintage Champagne or in French “Millésime”, these bottlings usually contain the very best grapes and typically will have a much longer aging profile. And not every Champgane is a blend of grapes. Blanc de Blancs refers to a Champagne made solely from Chardonnay while Blanc de Noirs refers to a Champagne made solely from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. Rosé Champagne is a pinkish coloured wine where some skin contact with red grapes is permitted to give it that rose colour.
Champagne comes in different levels of dosage, which will determine how sweet or how dry the wine is. These styles range from zero dosage (no sugar added) called Brut Nature and then, as increments of sugar are added, the styles run from Extra Brut to Brut to Extra Dry to Dry to Demi Sec and finally Doux is the sweetest style.
Nothing makes a special day more special like serving a bottle of Champagne does. There is a Champagne style to please every palate and budget: from basic NV Brut to rare and expensive Prestige Cuvees; from blends to Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs; from Growers to Grande Marques; from pale gold to rose pink and from bone dry to sweet. Tonight we will celebrate our Valentine’s Day with a bottle of Champagne to make it really special!