Very few wines are as universally known as Champagne. While a wine lover may certainly know the names of Napa, Bordeaux, Burgundy, or even Chianti, even the most ardent teetotaler surely recognizes the name Champagne. Champagne is a wine that is intertwined with history and at least the last 300 years of civilization.
Champagne has a long history of making wine although it was not always the sparkling white wine we think of today. It lies at the cross roads of Western and Central Europe and thus, has seen many different peoples traverse its lands.
Like most of France, the Romans introduced the grape into this area by at least the fifth century. In the ensuing centuries thru the twentieth, various armies have crossed the region wreaking havoc and destruction. The main cities of Epernay and Reims have continually been destroyed and rebuilt. During medieval times, Churches owned the vineyards and monks produced the wines.
World War I saw some of its fiercest fighting in the region. Many vineyard workers were killed trying to harvest grapes. The vast caves under the wineries served as makeshift bunkers and hospitals during World War II. Invading armies continually confiscated mass quantities of the wine as spoils of war while the locals went to great lengths to hide their finished wines from invading armies. Throughout it all, Champagne has endured and eventually thrived.
Perhaps the most famous person in the history of Champagne is the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon who was a member of the Abbey of Hautvillers.
Many legends have sprung up about his monk, some based on truth and others pure fiction. There is no doubt, however, that he was an influential and important person in the history of Champagne. One legend has it, that Dom Perignon invented sparkling wine and was so enthralled he said he was drinking the stars. In fact, Dom Perignon did not invent sparkling wine.
The bubbles in Champagne are a naturally occurring by-product that comes from making wine in such a cold climate. In times before heating and air conditioning, the wine did not finish fermenting when winter cold temperatures set in. The yeast in the wine went into a slumber and the wine seemed to be still. The following spring, when temperatures warmed, the yeasts revived and began consuming the remaining sugars in the wine. That left trapped CO2 in the wine which when exposed to air, reemerged in the form of bubbles.
Dom Perignon, like many during his age, was not a fan of the bubbles and preferred the still wine. The trapped CO2 presented many other issues, including the problem of exploding bottles. The cellar workers were forced to wear protective masks to avoid injuries. In addition, the exploding glass often started a chain reaction which led to more exploding bottles and less wine available. This is why today Champagne has thick glass bottles and the large punt on the underside of the bottles. Both are designed to prevent breakage.
Dom Perignon did contribute many advances to the winemaking process. Perhaps his most notable contribution came in the area of blending. He was meticulous in documenting the different attributes of vineyards. He used that knowledge to make blends of each vineyard that maximized the best part of all of them. Today, blending is a key component of Champagne but in Dom Perignon’s time it was not. Another innovation of Dom Perignon was the mushroom shaped cork that is used today along with the cage to hold it in place.
It is worth mentioning and repeating that Champagne is a region of France and not a generic style of wine. Some people use it as a term for any generic sparkling wine and that is incorrect. Historically, this is because as Champagne established its reputation for quality, other wine marketers in the world tried to cash in on this reputation. Thankfully now, in most of the world, the term Champagne is protected by law and treaty.
Unfortunately, in the United States that protection has only existed since 2006 and some wines have been grandfathered in and may continue to use the name Champagne. This difference is great and the savvy consumer should not be misled.
The region of Champagne lies ninety miles northeast of Paris and is the most northern Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France. It is one of the most northern wine growing regions in the world. As such, grapes struggle to get fully ripe in this climate often producing wines that are quite acidic. Historically, the still wine made here was problematic. Often it was mixed or adulterated with other wine or fruit juice to build body in the wine.
The most defining element creating Champagne is its geography. Champagne is a rich and fertile region of flat land and rolling hills. The hills are a bit higher in the north and south with the central area an important source of grains, vegetables and sugar beets. It has been famous for its agricultural productiveness since at least the reign of Charlemagne. The most famous vineyard sites are in the hills south west of Reims and surrounding the town of Epernay where the soils are famous for their chalk content. The combination of the climate and the soil is not the only reason the grapes produce one of the world’s most famous wines.
What makes Champagne unique is, of course, the bubbles. There are different ways to get bubbles into wine. In Champagne it is done thru what is now known all over the world as Mèthode Champenoise. In this method, first a dry wine is produced using the same methods as in all other areas of the world. As was said earlier, the wines of Champagne are highly acidic because the grapes don’t get fully ripe. The wine is then placed in bottles with a dose of yeast and added sugar, so a second fermentation can occur in the bottle.
The bottles are capped and placed in racks in the cool cellars of the Champagne house (in Champagne, wineries are referred to as “houses”). While in bottle the yeast consumes the sugar and creates CO2. Since the bottle are capped (with a closure similar to a beer bottle), there is nowhere for the CO2 to go, so it dissolves into the liquid waiting for a chance to escape. Once there is no more sugar to consume, the yeast cells die and float to the bottom of the bottle.
In order to remove these dead yeast cells (what are called lees), the bottles are placed upside down at an angle in racks. The bottles are slowly rotated allowing the lees to collect in the neck of the bottle. This process is called Remuage. Traditionally this was done by hand and a skilled Remueur could do 40,000 bottles a day. Today, more often it is done by machine.
Once ready, the necks of the bottles are dipped into a freezing brine solution which freezes the lees into a solid plug. The crown cap is removed and the pressure of the CO2 emerging from the liquid forces the plug out of the bottle. The bottles are then topped off with a a bit of sweetened wine called “dosage”, which allows for a bit more fermentation in the bottle. It is the corked with the traditional cork and wire cage and allowed to rest. A very few Champagne wines are made using no dosage, allowing for a drier finished wine.
The wine will rest in bottle for a minimum of 18 months Sur Lie, meaning on its lees (dead yeast cells). This gives the wine a bit more weight and complexity. The pressure that builds up in this bottle is about 80 to 90 p.s.i. There have been attempts to determine the number of bubbles in a bottle of Champagne. The answer is probably somewhere between 50 million and 250 million bubbles per bottle.
As an AOC, Champagne wines must conform to AOC standards of permitted grape varietals. It is most often a blend a grapes, usually from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. There are other grape varietals still in existence but they are not of much consequence including Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot de Juliet, Pinot Rosé, and Fromenteau (Pinot Gris) and Pinot Blanc.
Interestingly, it is one of the only high tier wines that include both white and red grapes. The red grapes are pressed gently and the contact with skins is limited. Since the color comes from skin contact the resulting wine is white. The darker grapes tend to add more structure to the wine. The Chardonnay adds more body and that brioche quality. Some Champagne is labeled Blanc de Blanc which indicates that it is 100% Chardonnay. It may be labeled Blanc de Noirs indicating it is made exclusively from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier.
Champagne can also be made as a Rosé. Rosé Champagnes are produced by allowing the wines made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier to sit on the skins for a brief period (known as saigneé) or by adding small amounts of red wine to the cuvee. Rosé Champagne tends to be more expensive than the white counter parts although I am not sure why.
Like many other areas in France, the vineyards are rated as to quality with the best being designated as Grand Cru. Some of these include Les Mesnil, Bouzy and Ay. It is the vineyards (as in Burgundy) and not the wines (as in Bordeaux) that are labeled as Grand Cru.
There are many styles of wine made in Champagne. Every house has its own style which they try to make consistent for every wine they produce. It is important to understand the terminology.
First, the sweetness level of Champagne is identified on the label. These range from various levels of Brut (very dry wine), to Extra Dry (just slightly sweet), to Sec (medium dry) to Doux (sweet). The specific categories are created based on the amount of residual sugar left in the wine after fermentation.
- Brut Natural (or Brut Zero) has less the three grams of sugar per liter.
- Extra Brut has less than six gram per liter.
- Brut, less than 15 grams.
- Extra Dry has 12 to 20 grams.
- Sec has 17 to 35 grams of sugar per liter.
- Demi-sec has 33 to 50 grams per liter.
- The sweet Doux has more than 50 grams per liter.
Today, dryer Champagnes are more popular but this has not always been historically true as throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century Champagne was generally much sweeter than it is today.
Champagne may be released as a blend of vintages or from a specific vintage. Most Champagne is produced as non-vintage meaning a blend of many different vintages. Some people use the term MV, or multi vintage, to indicate that the wine is kept separate until blended. Non-vintage Champagne tends to be one “base” vintage with other vintages added in. The blending of vintages is one of the ways that each house is able to imprint their particular house style on a wine.
If the wine from a particular vintage is good enough, it will be kept separate and released with a vintage date. At least 85% of the wine must be from this vintage allowing for slight blending. Vintage Champagnes are only produced in the best years, typically three to six times a decade.
Many Champagne houses produce a luxury prestige cuvee. This is the top wine that a house will release and many are quite famous such as Moet & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, and Louis Roederer’s Cristal.
There is an ongoing controversy about which prestige cuvee was the first one produced. Dom Perignon was first released in 1936 using grapes from the 1921 vintage. Cristal has been produced as a private cuvee since 1876. It was originally made for the Russian Czar and not publicly released until 1945. In the 1950s more houses began producing luxury cuvees and today, most houses produce one.
This is Part One of a Two Part series on Champagne. In Part Two, I will discuss the different producers. In the meantime, I hope you all go out and enjoy a bottle of true Champagne. I would love to know what you think.