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Champagnes: Champers, Bubbles!

History:

All Champagne is sparkling wine but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. The reason for the distinction is that champagne has Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) which means it is from a specific region and goes through rigorous standardised method of creation. Due to this Champagne is distinct from sparkling wine as it comes from the eponymous region in France which is 45 minutes train ride from Paris. The region is typically cold throughout the year providing the conditions ripe for champagne. 

Champagne was a product created by chance. Previously people in the region made pale pink and still wines known as Champagne wine. In wine making there was always effervescence in wine which people could not explain. In the 1600s two people came to invent champagne as we know it. Although who originally came up with the technique is disputed. The two people were French monk Dom Perignon and English scientist Christopher Merret. The technique for making champagne involved bottling wine when fermentation was halted by low temperatures in the region and then when the temperatures rose a secondary fermentation took place in the bottles giving rise to bubbles. In following this method, the trapped carbon dioxide created very high pressure in the bottles and caused some of the bottles to burst. This led to sparkling wine to be called ‘the devil’s wine.’ 

In 1805, Madame Barbe-Nicole Clicqout, a 27-year-old widow assumed control of her husband’s champagne house. She was also known as ‘veuve’ which means widow developed a process called riddling (remuage-in French). During the process wines are moved to bring dead yeast cells from the second fermentation into the bottles neck to be extracted. This technique led to wines having small fresh bubbles known as a mousse and no sediment. Previously sparkling wines were cloudy with large bubbles.

Since the 19th century the name Champagne has been exclusively reserved for wines harvested in the area. However precise limits were never defined. Due to this, unscrupulous producers began passing off wines from other regions as Champagne. In 1904 the Federation of Champagne Unions called for the demarcation of the champagne vineyard. In July 1927 a law was passed defining the zone of champagne production. Delimitation covered 34300 ha and introduced new quality rules. Only vine stocks traditionally grown in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, plus two historic vine stocks, Arbane and Petit Meslier could pass as Champagne. 

Between 1931 and 1935 a period of massive over production led to slump in sales and by extension the price of grapes fell. Thereafter a special decree was passed on 30 September 1935 specifying quality measures relating to:

  • Yield
  • Minimum alchohol content
  • Press yields
  • Aging

 

The Châlons Commission was set up to monitor enforcement. This later led to the principles of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée(AOC) and the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO).

The INAO and AOC regulations encompass everything involved in the product such as geography, pedology, climate technique and human in-put. 

The main rules of the Champagne AOC are
the following and are given by Champagne.fr:

 

  • Strict delimitation
  • Approved grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier
  • Method of pruning: Royat, Chablis, Guyot, Vallée de la Marne
  • Maximum permitted yields per hectare
  • Maximum permitted press yield
  • Minimum potential alcohol content of newly harvested grapes
  • Secondary fermentation in the bottle, and minimum periods of maturation on lees: 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne.
Furthermore, according to Champagne.fr these rules are
revised and updated some examples from their
website are the following:
  • 1978: Regulations governing the training and pruning of vines, their height, spacing and planting density. The aim is to optimize fruit quality through high-density (8,000 plants per hectare) low-yield vineyards
  • 1984: Rules forbidding the bottling of wines until the second day of January following the harvest
  • 1991: Mandatory approval for all press centres
  • 1993: Press yields set at 102 litres of must per 160kg grapes (up from 150 kilos)
The 34000 ha that are delimited span across 319
villages (Crus) in five departments: The Marne (66% of plantings),
Aube (23%), Aisne (10%), Haute-Marne and Seine-et-Marne.
In these departments there are five main growing areas:
  • The Montagne de Reims
  • The Vallée de la Marne
  • The Côte des Blancs and Côte De Sézanne
  • The Côte des Bars.

These growing areas encompass 280,000 plots of vines, each measuring 12 ares (100 sqm). From this Seventeen villages have a traditional entitlement to Grand Cru ranking and 42 to Premier Cru ranking.

Distinguishing factors about the region: Climate, Subsoil, Slopes and Personality 

Climate: The location of Champagne provides it with two major distinguishing features. A northly latitude and dual climate that is subject to oceanic and continental influences.

The northerly location ascribes a cold climate and harsh weather conditions which affect the vines. The oceanic influence brings steady rainfall, with no significant variations in seasonal temperature. The continental influence ensures the ideal levels of sunlight in summer- but also brings devastating winter frost. Given the characteristics of this region, as explained above, growing grapes difficult hence the uniqueness of Champagne.

Soil: the subsoil is predominantly limestone. As a result, so too are the outcrops of sedimentary rock (75% limestone), composed of chalk, marl and limestone proper. The subsoil provides good drainage and imparts the mineral flavour found in champagne.

Champagne chalk is highly porous as a result it acts as a reservoir as it stores 300-400 litres per m3 that provides the vines with a steady supply of water even in the driest summers.

The chalk gives the vines enough water stress in the growing season to achieve the delicate balance of ripeness, acidity and berry aroma potential.

Slopes: the slopes are so evident in champagne that in the 17th century it was known as ‘vin de coteaux’-wines of the slopes. The slipes help to provide good drainage and excellent exposure to sunlight. Fun fact, the average gradient in Champagne is 12% but some can be as steep as 59%.

Personality: three major features-climate, subsoil and relief combine to create a mosaic of micro-terroirs. As a result, each plot has its own specific profile. Currently there is a zoning program underway to understand the terrain to aid the wine growers in growing the grapes. Aspects such as soil texture, frost zones and risk of erosion are analysed to provide the best choice of grape for planting, vineyard cover cropping and treatment.  

How is Champagne made?

Champagne is simply a white or rosé sparkling wine made primarily from the grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.

Méthode Champenoise: This process can be broken down into the following steps:

Pressing: Juice from the first press (cuvée) is considered the highest quality, while juice from the second press (taille) contains more pigments and tannins.

Primary Fermentation: in this process the aim is to make an uncarbonated, highly acidic, low alcohol wine. The grapes in the region tend to match this description. They make the wine by converting grape sugars into alcohol via the addition of yeast.  The grapes tend to come from wine growers and are fermented by Champagne houses.

Assemblage: At this stage the cellarmaster blends together various wines from different regions to make a blend consistent with the house style. Typically, this is for a non-vintage champagne- meaning the wine is a mixture of vintages (years of production).

Tirage and Secondary fermentation: the blended wine is put in bottles with a little sugar and yeast (a solution called liqueur de tirage) and the bottle is left horizontally to ferment. This process can take up to eight weeks. This fermentation increases the wine’s alcohol content by 1.5% and traps carbon dioxide in the wine. The bubbles are thus created as by product of the carbon dioxide.

Aging: Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the wine ages with dead yeast cells called lees. Contact with less enhances the now sparkling wine’s flavour profile. The process takes 15 months for a non-vintage expression and three years for a vintage wine.

Riddling: Bottles are placed on special racks at an inverted 45-degree angle. The bottles are turned slightly, quite frequently, allowing the lees to settle towards the neck of the bottle. Traditionally this was done by hand taking several months, now it is mechanised and takes only a week. 

Disgorgement: When the lees is removed from the neck of the bottle so the finished wine will be clear and free of sediment. To make this easy the neck of the bottle is usually frozen.

Dosage: This is when the lost liquid from removing the lees is replaced by a mixture of still wine and sugar (dosage), which determines the wine’s final sweetness level.

Recorking and Aging: The final cork and wire are placed in the bottle before the wine ages. This is where non-vintage is distinguished from vintage as the prior must age for 15 months while the latter ages for 36 months. 

Grapes used to make Champagne

the three types of grapes used in Champagne production are chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. Small amounts of arbanse, petit meslier, pinot blanc, and pinot gris are planted in the region but rarely found in a champagne blend. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are red wine grapes while Chardonnay is a white wine grape.  

Pinot Noir is found in Montagne de Reims and Aube. The Vallée de la Marne is known for Pinot Meunier. The Côte de Blancs and Côte se Sézanne is predominantly filled with chardonnay.

Of the five champagne growing areas there are two quality classifications that are based on the quality of grapes grown in each village. There is Grand Cru and Premier Cru. There are 17 Grand Cru villages and 43 with Premier Cru ranking. Premier Cru champagnes are made from grapes from the 43 Premier Cru vineyards. Typically, they are seen as lower quality than Grand Cru. The Grand Cru Champagne is made exclusively from grapes in the 17 Crus. 

Styles of Champagne:
  • Brut: the most common style. A non-vintage dry house blend made formthe three most common champagne varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
  • Rose: A pink champagne that can be made one of two ways

Saignée method: clear juice from red varieties macreates with the skins, this results in a light-coloured wine.  D’assemblage method: a small amount for still red wine is blended into the still base white wine.

  • Blanc de Noirs: a white sparkling wine produced from the region’s permitted black grapes, usually Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier
  • Blanc de Blancs: a white sparkling wine produced using permitted white grapes, usually Chardonnay or Pinot Blanc
  • Prestige Curvee: A blended sparkler made from the finest grapes collected from the best vineyards.
The two letter codes on Champagne labels:

The Champagne region has 19000 grape growers and more than 100 champagne wine houses. Most grape growers sell to winemakers. Below is what the two letter code tells you about the producer.

NM: Producers who buy grapes to make champagne

CM: Co-operatives that make wine from the grapes of winegrowers who are aprt of co-operative

RM: A grower who makes wine from his or her own grapes

SR: A non-cooperative association of growers who make wine from a shared pool of grapes

RC: A co-op member selling Champagne under the name of the co-operative

MA: A winemaker who produces wine under a different brand name

ND: A Wine distributor selling under his own name

Scale of Sweetness:

Each Champagne house has a flagship wine which is usually brut or extra brut in style and refers to the wine’s sweetness.  Traditionally sweet Champagnes were popular, however there are also ‘no-dosage champagnes which are bone dry.

  • Brut nature (no dosage)
  • Extra brut (up to 6 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Brut (6-12 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Extra sec or extra dry (12-17 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Sec or dry (17-32 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Demi-sec (32-50 grams of sugar per litre)
  • Doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per litre) 

Vintage Champagne: Majority of champagne is non-vintage, meaning it is made from a blend of multiple vintages. This allows for consistency of taste. The more expensive prestige curvée comes from the best grapes of the year. In years of exceptional vintages, wines made from best grapes will be released as limited, vintage dated Champagnes. These can age in the bottle for years longer than non-vintage Champagne.  

Different types of sparkling wine:

As established above Champagne is a sparkling wine made in a specific region and with a specific method. Sparkling on the other end is broad and has many different types from the name, region and methodology.

Champagne vs Cava: Cava originates from Catalonia in Spain. The production method is the same as Champagne but since it is not made in Champagne the method is known as méthode traditionelle wine. It is made from local grapes called macabeu,parellada and xarel-lo. Good cava has citrus and stone fruit aromas but lacks the toasty nuttiness of champagne and it is generally cheaper. 

Champagne vs Prosecco: Prosecco is made in Northern Italy from the glera grape. It is sweeter and fruitier than champagne. It is also carbonated or produced using the charmat method. This reduces cost as it uses a tank for the second fermentation rather than bottles. 

FAQs:

How to pair and serve Champagne:

The important part is to look for the sweetness indication and pick a style that suits your occasion. Generally, champagne goes well with any dish and is great for palate cleansing. As an appetizer try champagne with soft baked French cheese such as baked, triple cream brie with toasted pecans. For entrees anything salty or fried balances the acidity of the wine. For example, fried oysters or salmon or crispy fried chicken. For vegans try stuffed mushrooms with Champagne. For dessert avoid sweet dishes as they compete with the dryness of the champagne. A good idea is to pair like for like if you want dessert. If you go for sweet items, try a Demi Sec or Doux bottle.

The taste of champagne:

This depends on the ratio of different grape varieties used. Pinot Noir makes the Champagne darker and has more decadent aromas. Pinot Meunier adds acidity and bright aromas while Chardonnay exudes elegant flavours of ripe stone fruits and a rich creamy texture.  

General Alcohol Percentage:

Usually, 12.2% ABV. 

Amount of Calories?

120ml is 75-95 calories and 150ml is 90-150 calories

Should it be served chilled?

Serve it slightly chilled at around 7-9 degrees celcius. You can cool down the bottle in a bucket with ice water for half an hour before popping the cork (this helps with bubble retention)

How do you open the bottle?

Contrary to the depiction on movies or celebration you are meant to not spill it. You are mean to tilt the bottle at an angle and start rotating the cork while holding it. By doing this it is less likely to pop open.

Which glass should you serve Champagne in?

Never store an unopened bottle in the fridge. Store in a cool dark place. When you intent to drink it place it in the fridge for 45 minutes then serve slightly chilled.

Does champagne go bad?

An unopened bottle in the fridge will rot in a few days. An opened bottle will last five days once be refrigerated. If it is kept in a dark, cool and dry place you it does not expire.

Which Champagne is good for mimosas?

It is actually not ideal. For best mimosa use sparkling wine that mixes well with juice such as Cava or Prosecco.

Champagne as an investment:

It is a great investment as production for vintage Champagne is usually scarce while demand is high. It can be said to be recession proof. Typically, the value of a Champagne increases as it ages. For example, a Louis Roederer Cristal 2005 wine appreciated by 30% in 12 months. Other Champagnes that rose in value are 1928 Krug sold for $21200 in 2009, during the great recession.

Below is a list of expensive Champagnes sold in auctions from the Vinobet website.

  1. Dom Pérignon Rose Gold 1996 ($56628)
  2. NV Moet & Chandon Esprti du Siècle Brut ($6072)
  3. Louis Roederer Cristal Gold Medalion’ Orfevres Limited Edition Brut Millesime 2002 ($4627)
  4. Krug Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs Brut 1995 ($3819)
  5. Bollinger R.D. Extra Brut ‘Spectre’ James Bond 007 Edition 1988 ($2925)