If you follow my Carpe Vinum adventures, you know that a couple of us are heading to France on vacation this summer (I’m going Paris and north; my girlfriend is going Paris and south). A couple of months ago, we embarked on an in-depth study of the French wine regions where we’ll be traveling — our very own Tour de France.
For every Carpe Vinum wine tasting, I try to do a research post on our chosen topic. It’s part of my self-guided continuing wine education. Here’s the ongoing list of our Tour de France stages (the research post is listed first):
The French have all kinds of rules about making Champagne — maybe even more rules than the Germans. 😉 There are rules about regional boundaries, grape origin, pruning, fermentation, press yield, blending, alcohol content, aging, labeling, et cetera. Honestly, it all made me dizzy. (But, if anyone ever asks me how many liters of must can be extracted from every 160 kilograms of grapes, I’m gonna raise the hell out of my hand!! The answer is 102.)
What I need is a shortened, condensed, and completely abridged Champagne. What follows are my notes and thoughts on Champagne. If someone else can benefit . . . bonus!
First thing’s first — a map of Champagne (you know I need a map).
Champagne — Why is it Different?
We’ve all heard the refrain: All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. Only Champagne is Champagne. Champagne is different. Why??
A stressed out vine makes great wine.
Terroir, terroir, terroir. The Champagne region lies at a latitude of 49° North. This is the very northern edge of what’s possible for growing wine grapes. You can try to grow grapes above 50°, but you’ll be really disappointed. The Champagne region has cool summers and cold winters — the grapes only barely ripen. This is why most Champagne is NV, or non-vintage. Producers can’t rely on a consistent grape harvest every year.
The soil in Champagne is unique – it’s a limestone subsoil rich in chalk. The chalk drains well, but also retains moisture, so the grapevines are rarely thirsty.
The terroir of Champagne contributes heavily to it’s hallmark acidity, minerality, and overall deliciousness.
The Grapes of Champagne
There are three main grapes used in the making of Champagne:
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
There are four other grapes permitted in Champagne:
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
- Petit Meslier
Vineyard/Regions of Champagne (check the map ⬆)
- Montagne de Reims
- Côte des Blancs
- Vallée de la Marne
- Côtes de Sézanne
How is Champagne Made?
The Traditional Method (aka Méthode Champenoise or Méthode Traditionelle):
- Press the grapes. There are three types of juice pressings:
- Cuveée – the free run + first light pressing. High in sugar and acids; used for the highest quality Champagne.
- Taille – the juice from secondary pressings. Lower in sugar and acids; usually used for demi-sec or extra-dry Champagne.
- Rebêche – the remaining juices. Not used to make Champagne; sent to distilleries for the production of spirits.
- First Fermentation. The juice is fermented (usually in tanks, though some Champagne houses still ferment in wood casks) into a base wine, which is wildly acidic and low in alcohol.
- Blending/Assemblage. The juice is blended (usually with réserve wine from other vintages), and then bottled. You need to be part magician and part oracle to master the blending process involved in making Champagne. Most Champagne is non-vintage, but in exceptional years, a Champagne house can declare a vintage Champagne.
- Secondary fermentation — Liqueur de tirage (a mixture of wine, yeast and sugar) is added to the base wine (this is what triggers the secondary fermentation). Bottles are topped with a temporary cap (just like a beer cap) and stored horizontally, usually in underground caves, for a few weeks. The yeast eats the sugar and produces carbon dioxide, which gets trapped in the bottle as . . . bubbles!
- History Break: Many of Champagne’s chalk caves, crayères, were once chalk quarries dug by the Romans to construct the city of Reims in the 3rd century.
- Aging on the Lees/Sur Lie (dead yeast cells). When Champagne is allowed to age with the lees, it lends character and depth to the wine, producing the characteristic “bready” aromas and flavors.
- Riddling – bottles are placed on special racks called pupitres, at a downward 45° angle, and turned frequently (usually by machine, but sometimes still by hand), each time increasing the angle until it reaches 90°, forcing the lees into the neck of the bottle.
- Disgorgement/Dégorgement – the temporary cap and sediment are removed by dipping the neck of the bottle into a frozen brine solution or liquid nitrogen. This causes the pressure inside the bottle to increase, and the sediment plug comes flying out. Watching a mass disgorgement is definitely on my bucket list.
- Dosage – the Champagne is topped off with liqueur d’expédition (base wine + some degree of sugar). The amount of sugar in the liqueur d’expédition determines how sweet the champagne will be.
- Recorking – Put a cork in it! Add a fancy cap, secure it with a muselets (the wire cage), and foil. You’re done!
Types of Champagne
- Non-Vintage (NV) – the most abundant type of Champagne. The goal of each Champagne house is to produce a consistent, even signature style of NV Champagne each year. Requires at least 15 months of aging.
- Vintage – made from a single year’s harvest. Requires at least 3 years of aging.
- Prestige Cuvée or Cuvée Spéciale is the highest quality, top of the line Champagne produced by a Champagne house. Think Dom Perignon or Cristal.
- Blanc de Blancs – made entirely from white grapes.
- Blanc de Noirs – made from red grapes.
- Rosé – made from adding red wine to a white blend, or fermenting the juice in contact with the skins.
Sweetness levels in Champagne (listed from driest to sweetest)
- Brut Nature (no additional sugar, bone dry)
- Extra Brut (very, very dry)
- Brut (very dry)
- Extra Sec (extra dry) — which is not as dry as very dry. Confusing? Hey, I didn’t make the rules.
- Sec (dry)
- Demi-Sec (half-dry)
- Doux (sweet)
What are Grower Champagnes?
Champagne made by the same people who actually grow the grapes. Think artisnal Champagne. I need some.
Non-sparkling wines, in Champagne?
Champagne has two AOCs for non-sparkling wines:
- Rosé de Riceys – rosé wines from Pinot Noir.
- Coteaux Champenois – red, white or rosé.
How many bubbles are there in a bottle of Champagne?
56 million. This, according to a study by Bollinger.
I realize I’ve only scratched the surface of Champagne here. You can get much nittier and much, much grittier. But I needed to build a solid Champagne base before I start peeling away at those Champagne rules.
Stay tuned for our Carpe Vinum Champagne pairings!
Related Armchair Sommelier Posts on Champagne: