Lesson 12 – Champagne
Ah, Champagne. The jewel of France and all sparkling wine. While almost every country that produces wine also produces a sparkling wine, Champagne is definitely considered the best as a category. What makes it so special? Many things. From the terroir, climate, 300 years of experience, and varietals used.
First things first. While all Champagne is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is Champagne. OK, so they do make a very small amount of still wine in the region, but you and I will most likely never see it unless we travel there. So why is that? Well, at least in Europe, it is against the law to even put the word “Champagne” or even the phrase “méthode champenoise” cannot be use. Instead they normally use the phrase “méthode traditionnelle.” There are other phrases used in other countries, and even within France, to denote a sparkling wine. In France crémant is used in various places such as Burgundy and Alsace. In Spain it’s cava. In Italy they use spumante which should sound familiar – Asti Spumante from the Asti region. In Germany it is known as sekt.
So what about here in the U.S.? I’m sure you may have seen bottles with the word Champagne on them. The U.S. didn’t adhere to this agreement until recently. As of 2006, the term is banned except for those producers that had been approved to use it prior to 2006. Even with that exception, it is now rare to see the word Champagne on a U.S. sparkling wine.
So Dom Pérignon invented this stuff, right? Unfortunately for the French, this is not entirely correct. As a matter of fact, he initially tried to prevent the bubbles from being created back then. The English were the ones that really discovered how to create the bubbles consistently. Prior to that, bubbles were considered a flaw in wine and no one was intending to create bubbles. In 1662 an English scientist and physician named Christopher Merret wrote a paper detailing this method and presented it to the Royal Society well before Dom Pérignon even arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers. This is the Abbey where he eventually made several contributions to improving the quality of wine from the region.
With all that out of the way, let’s get into the details of the region. Champagne is in the northeastern part of the country. About an hour and a half northeast of Paris. This area is the northernmost wine growing region in France. The climate here is definitely influenced by the Atlantic. Cold winters and mild summers compared to the rest of the country. This climate greatly affects the ability of the grapes to ripen. Harvests are normally in mid-October, however in some years the harvest can be much earlier or later depending on the weather.
The soil throughout the area is chalky. It is the same bed of chalk that makes up the White Cliffs of Dover. The chalk is what gives the still wines their acidity and a high amount of nitrogen which yeast loves. The chalk drains well, but also retains enough water in case of drought. The soil also works as an excellent cellar. The cellars are cool and damp.
There are 3 grapes to remember for this region – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Muenier. Technically there are other varietals allowed by law, but they are almost never used or planted. These varietals are typically blended together to create the wine. There are some wines made exclusively from Chardonnay and they are called blanc de blancs or white from whites. There is also blanc de noirs, or white from blacks, which can be made from either Pinot exclusively or both. Most Champagnes are from a blend however.
The method used to create these wonderful wines uses a technique that creates a second fermentation in the bottle. Like mentioned earlier, this is normally avoided. Wine is normally fully fermented prior to bottling. Even when fermented wine is aged in oak barrels there is still a small amount of CO2 that is created. This CO2 is released to prevent a sparkling or semi-sparkling wine. For Champagne, it is encouraged.
Here are the steps to making Champagne. First, the grapes are harvested very much anywhere else. One harvested, the grapes are pressed gently. This is to ensure as clear a juice as possible even from the Pinot grapes. After pressing the juice is allowed to ferment as any normal still wine. This produces a base wine.
Next is the blend. Unless the winemaker is going to make a blanc de blancs or a single varietal blanc de noirs, each winemaker will create a blend. This blend can use upwards of 70 different base wines from prior years (aka reserve wines). Similar to blended scotch or whisky. The goal here is to stay true to a “House Style.” This can be tricky as you are not only blending wines from different parts of the region, but wines from different years. The proportions can change from year to year. The blender has to predict how the wine will come out after the process is done. This is considered the most important style of wine for most producers as consumers expect a consistency in a house style.
Once the blend is created, then comes the bottling. The wine is put into the bottles along with the liqueur de triage. This is a combination of yeast and sugar. This blend of yeast and sugar is what initiates a second fermentation. The second fermentation takes anywhere from a couple weeks to three months. During this process, CO2 is trapped in the wine.
After the second fermentation is done, comes the next part – aging. the dead yeast cells create a sediment called lees. For a non-vintage Champagne, the wine needs to “rest on its lees” for at least 15 months. Most producers age for 18 – 24 months for non-vintage. For a vintage Champagne, the minimum is 36 months. However, most producers age for much longer. I will get into non-vintage versus vintage a little later.
After aging comes what is called remuage or riddling. This a process where the bottles are slightly turned and the neck of the bottle angled more towards the ground each day. The purpose is to gently release the lees and cause them to collect in the next of the bottle. Normally this is done mechanically and only takes about week, however for the better Champagnes this is done by hand and can take 6 – 8 weeks.
Next the necks of the bottles are put into a brine solution to freeze the sediment collected. The temporary cap (similar to a bottle cap) is removed and the pressure in the bottle causes this frozen sediment to pop out. This is called dégorgement or disgorgement. Immediately after disgorgment the dosage is added to the wine. This dosage is a mixture of base wine and sugar. This is what determines how dry or sweet a Champagne will be. Finally the bottle is re-corked.
As you can see, this is a time consuming and laborious process just to get some carbonation into a wine. Outside of Champagne, other regions of the world can also use this method or various other methods. One is to do the second fermentation is stainless steel tanks. Once the process is done, then the wine is bottled.
I mentioned there was a non-vintage and a vintage version of Champagne. This is related to the quality of the harvest in a particular year. Each producer decides whether to have a vintage or not for a particular years. Typically on three to four vintages happen per decade. Hence the importance given to them when they do happen. Only the best years should be declared a vintage for a particular producer. Some producers have been known to have a vintage Champagne when they maybe shouldn’t. And it is possible for some of the top producers to differ on vintage.
In the case of a vintage Champagne, at least 85% of the wine must come from that year. And like mentioned above, the wine must age for at least 36 months. So declaring a vintage is no small feat. It means more work for the producer. Also, for producers that make both vintage and non-vintage, they can only use up to 80% of their base wine in a vintage. This means that at least 20% of the remaining wine will be used for future blending. A producer can also elect to not declare a vintage but still only use wines from a particular year if the vintage isn’t top notch, but they don’t want to blend it later.
Besides a vintage Champagne, there is also a prestige cuvée. This is the best of the best of Champagne. For the most part, these are also vintage Champagnes, however non-vintage versions can be made. The grapes come from the highest-rated villages (grand cru). They also only use the first pressing of the grapes.
Now, I’ve only mentioned one pressing so far, however, up to three pressings are done for Champagne. By law, there can be only up to three pressings. The amount of grapes for each pressing is regulated to 4,000kg. From that pressing there is a maximum yield of 2,000L. This is known as the cuvée. The remaining pressing can yield a maximum of 333L. For the prestige cuvée only the first part of that first pressing is normally used. Typically the first third.
In addition to this, these Champagnes are aged much longer in the bottle. And such a small quantity is made which demands higher prices. The most famous examples are Louis Roederer Cristal and Moët & Chandon Dom Pérignon.
Remember the dosage part of the process? This is where the style or sweetness is created. There are several levels of sweetness:
- Brut Nature (Natural), Brut Zéro or Brut Savage – Bone dry (less than 3g/l of residual sugar)
- Extra Brut – Very dry (less than 6g/l of residual sugar)
- Brut – Dry (less than 15g/l)
- Extra Dry or Extra Sec- a misleading term that actually means Medium Dry (12 – 20 g/l)
- Sec – Slightly sweet (17 – 35 g/l)
- Demi-sec – Fairly sweet ( 33-50 g/l)
- Doux – Sweet (more than 50 g/l)
Of these Doux is never used anymore. Brut is the most popular. Most of the time you will see Brut – Demi-sec in the market. And up until about 1850 all Champagne was sweet.
There are 5 major areas wine-growing areas of Champagne:
- Montagne de Reims – mostly Pinot Noir
- Côte des Blancs – almost exclusively Chardonnay grown here.
- Aube – mostly Pinot Noir
- Vallée de la Marne – the valley along the Marne river – mostly Pinot Meunier
- Côte de Sézanne – mostly Chardonnay
Description : Wine-growing areas and wine villages of the Champagne region
Within these areas there are classifications of the vineyards. These are ranked by village using a percentage system called Échelle des Crus. Effectively a 100-point scale that really only translates to a 20-point scale now. The top échelle is 100% and those are the grand crus. 90-99% are the premiers crus. The bottom rating is 80%. This rating system also determines grape prices. The maximum price is 100%. From that villages with lower percentages get a corresponding percentage of the maximum price.
Finally I’ll cover glassware, opening a bottle and serving temperature. The current accepted glassware is the flute. While you might see what is known as a coupe (the wide-brimmed, shallow glass), a flute or tulip-shaped glass is considered the proper glass. The coupe causes the bubbles to dissipate quickly and you lose the bouquet too easily. The flute accentuates both of these aspects and that’s part of the enjoyment of drinking Champagne.
Opening a bottle of Champagne is definitely different than other wine. First of all, the pressure inside the bottle can be up to 6 atmospheres. That’s more than three times the pressure of your car tire. The “you could poke out an eye” phrase is literally true here. First you want to cut the foil off. Next remove the wire cage that covers the cork. A little bit of trivia. It takes 6 half-turns to fully unscrew the wire. Not sure if that is significant, but every bottle of any sparkling wine I’ve opened is the same with this. Next you want to get a napkin to cover the cork. This is to catch the cork in case it pops out unexpectedly. Grab the cork with one hand and the bottom of the bottle with the other. Begin slowly twisting the cork with one hand while twisting the bottle in the opposite direction with the other hand. You will slowly feel the cork coming out. The classic “pop” is not what you are going for here. When that happens, you risk spilling much of that precious Champagne and letting out much of the CO2 that gives it its bubbles. You are looking for a soft “kiss” when the cork comes out.
Serving temperature. If you watch my podcast you’ll note that I taste almost every wine at room temperature for evaluation. Even when drinking I will drink many whites at room temperature or very slightly chilled. For Champagne you do want to serve it between 45 – 52 degrees Fahrenheit. Putting it in the fridge for about 30 – 45mins prior to serving should be sufficient. After opening you will want to keep the bottle in an ice bucket to keep it cool. This will help with the bubbles too. As the wine warms up in the glass, the CO2 is being released.
Champagne is a fun wine to drink. Many people would pick it as the only wine they would drink if stranded on a deserted island. While we normally drink it only at celebrations, it can be enjoyed anytime. Especially as an aperitif or with light foods. It doesn’t have to be just for New Year’s Eve and weddings.
I hope this was very informative for you. As we move on to other countries, I will also mention their sparkling wines, but most are not as revered as Champagne. And be sure to tune in to the show on Monday 10/5/09 – Episode #72. I will be reviewing a Champagne for a special occasion. Yeah, I just said you don’t have to reserve if for special occasions, but nothing is better to celebrate with. I will be making an announcement on that show. Don’t miss it. Timing is everything. Next week is the start of Italy!
Mark V. Fusco
Aspiring Sommelier in Training