(Published in Flava magazine, issue 3, 2013)
A nod to all things luxurious and decadent, Champagne can bring people together and lift the spirits like no other wine can. After all, who can’t resist a smile on hearing the pop of a Champagne cork and watching the bubbles fizz away in an elegant, tulip-shaped flute?
Champagne, that is real Champagne, is made from grapes grown within the Champagne region of France, located east of the capital Paris.
“Champagne has protected geographical status, meaning only wines made from grapes grown within the delimited region of Champagne may be labelled as such,” Carrie Chaloner, general manager at Premier Wines & Spirits and a Champagne aficionado says. “Ultimately, these restrictions benefit the consumer, as if you are drinking a sparkling wine with Champagne written on the label, you can rest assured that the wine comes from the Champagne region.”
Champagnes are typically made from one, or a blend of three grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. There are eight steps in the Champagne-making process, which must follow the traditional method, or méthode champenoise: fermentation, blending, second fermentation, lees aging, riddling, disgorging, dosage, and finally re-corking.
Champagne is, in effect, wine which has been made twice, due to the second fermentation process, which creates those all important bubbles. For it to be labelled Champagne, the second fermentation must have taken place naturally in the bottle, according to Carrie.
“After the blend is perfected, a concoction of wine, sugar and yeast called the ‘liqueur de triage’ is added to the blend to trigger the second fermentation,” she says. “The bottle is sealed with a crown cap, similar to a beer bottle top. The yeast consumes the sugars, creating carbon dioxide, which in turn forms Champagne’s distinctive bubbles when the bottle is opened.”
There are many different styles of Champagne. It can either be non-vintage, which means it is made from a blend of wines from various vintages, or vintage, where the grapes come from only one harvest, which has been deemed particularly good.
“By law, non-vintage Champagne must age a minimum of 15 months on the lees, although most age between 18 to 24 months,” Carrie says. “Vintage champagnes must age a minimum of three years on the lees, however many producers choose to leave vintage Champagnes on the lees for much longer.”
Additionally, Champagnes are labelled Extra-Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux, with Extra Brut being the driest and Doux the sweetest. There are also Blanc de Noir Champagnes, meaning only black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier) have been used and Blanc de Blanc, where only white Chardonnay grapes have been used. Rosé Champagnes can either be made traditionally, by using the saignee method – leaving the clear juice of black grapes to macerate on its skins for a brief time to give the wine a light pink colour – or by blending a small amount of red wine into a white cuvee.
“Champagne is an incredibly versatile wine, which can be enjoyed on its own or paired with a vast array of foods and cuisines,” Carrie says. “Sweeter styles pair well with foie gras, spicier foods like sushi, and even desserts. The drier styles are perfect with fried foods, like calamari, or cream sauces, as the acidity cuts through the fat, cleansing the palate.”
Champagne has a long and storied history. In the 1600s, the Champenois envied their neighbouring Burgundians for their elegant, light and rich Pinot Noir and attempted to emulate their winemaking. The Champagne region, however, is further north and has a cooler climate than Burgundy, resulting in wines that were more acidic.
“During fermentation, the colder temperatures of the region during autumn and winter caused the yeast to become dormant, stopping the fermentation process when there was still sugar remaining in the wine,” Carrie says. “As the temperatures started rising again in the spring, the yeast would become active, starting up the fermentation process again in the sealed bottles. As a result of carbon dioxide being produced, the bottles would explode left right and centre from the pressure.
“The bottles that did not explode, were considered faulty, as when they were opened they contained bubbles. The British developed a taste for this bubbly wine and created a demand for it, so in the 1700s the French embraced the bubbles and turned their efforts towards strengthening the glass bottles to stop them from breaking under the pressure. Champagne as we know it was born.”
Older brands – many of which have been around for more than 200 years – remain some of the most popular.
“As the Champagne region is at its limit in terms of production, and most grapes are contracted to the established Champagne houses, there is very little room for newcomers with new brands,” Carrie says. “Moet & Chandon, owned by brand giant Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, remains the international market leader in terms of volume. Veuve Clicquot is another brand owned by LVMH, and is widely recognised by its orange label.
“Laurent Perrier was founded in 1812, sits fifth in terms of volume and is a fantastic Champagne house known for innovation. It remains family owned and operated. They are most famous for their Rosé, which is made using the traditional saignee method. Bollinger is another house producing fabulous wines, and their vintage R.D. Champagnes, disgorged just before being released onto the market, are definitely worth splurging on.”
If you can’t splurge on the real deal however, there are plenty of good sparkling wine options on the market.
“California produces some lovely sparkling wines made using the traditional method, as does Spain,” Carrie says.
Cava is a popular sparkling wine made in Spain using the traditional method. The key difference is the grapes which are used, a blend of Macabeu, Parellada and Xarello. Other popular sparkling wines include Prosseco and Asti from Italy, although neither of these is made using the traditional method.
No pop required
Contrary to popular belief, if a Champagne bottle is opened correctly, there should never be a loud ‘pop’. “Champagne bottles are actually very dangerous, which is why care should be taken when opening one,” Carrie says. She recommends chilling the Champagne bottle to subdue some of the fizz and keeping a firm grip on the cork to prevent it from flying off. “Hold the bottle facing away from yourself and others and apply a downward pressure on the cork. Once the cork is very nearly out of the bottle, angle it slightly to allow the carbon dioxide and pressure to slip out of the bottle, making little or no noise at all.”