All About Champagne
Want to learn about champagne? Want to do it quick?
Thoroughly reading this article will make you expert enough on the subject of Champagne. Take the Champagne wine quiz afterwards to measure your knowledge for a totally unique approach to see what you have learned.
…a sparkling wine produced in Champagne, France. If the wine is not made in Champagne then it is not Champagne, it is sparkling wine.
4 districts to know that Champagne comes from
- Montagne de Reims
- Côte des Blancs
- Valée de la Marne
- the Aube
Champagne: Grapes Used
A blend of three grapes:
- Chardonnay (white) lends delicacy,freshness, elegance and makes a product that ages beautifully (I wish the skin under my eyes was made of Chardonnay)
- Pinot Noir (red) lends body, structure, complexity
- Pinot Meunier (red)lends fruitiness, floral aromas
- 85% to 90% of Champagne is a blend of the these three grapes.
- Around 70% of the grapes used are red and about 30% are white.
- Champagne’s wine production is around 70% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and 30% Chardonnay.
The color of the wine comes from the skin of the grapes, not the juice. The amount of color a wine has is determined by the amount of time the skin has spent with the juice.
Who invented the stuff?
Who probably, really, actually, honestly did “invent” Champagne is an English man named Christopher Merret, in 1662. By invent, I mean ‘came up with the recipe’. He wrote an 8 page paper about his experiments with cider. These experiments outline steps we now take to create Champagne. Bravo, Dr. Merrett, but…
…who usually receives the credit for creating Champagne is Dom Pérignon. In 1668, the then 29 year old Benedictine: (A monk or nun of an order following the rule of St. Benedict) monk was appointed cellar master of the Abbey‘s: (a Catholic monastery or convent) vineyards, as well as the making and selling of the wine. In his tenure, the wines he produced fetched about double than any other wine sold in that region. People pay for good stuff and he made some good stuff!
Where it’s made:
Champagne, France. → 245 million years ago, Champagne, France was the floor of a Prehistoric sea. Since that time, all of the sea creatures that lived there are long dead and have turned to Chalk: a soft, white limestone formed from the skeletal remains of sea creatures. Because chalk is from the remains of sea creatures, it has nutrients that are great for growing grapes and is great at retaining water for the roots of the grape plant.
Sparkling, made in USA: America, and many other countries, produce beautiful sparkling wines, but they can not be called Champagne.
The difference in knowledge and experience from the producers in Champagne to America, is huge. Many of the most skilled and experienced sparkling wine producers in California have been in business for less than 30 years. The most skilled and experienced Champagne producers in Champagne have been in business for over 300 years. That’s a big difference!
How it’s made:
340 million bottles of Champagne are bottled each year, but it starts with the September harvest. The grapes are hand picked. That is still a law in Champagne; no machinery can be used to do this job. The reason is simple: color control. Since the color of wine comes from the skin on the grapes rather than the juice inside the grape, if the grapes are squished the juice could potentially come into contact with the skin…and color the juice red (like red wines are), since that is not the goal, great care must be taken. By letting people do this important job, it keeps the grapes intact (and contributes to the expensive price tag)
The grapes are pressed and made into wine. The grapes are placed in large vats that quickly and delicately press the juice out of the grapes. Next, that juice is transferred into a different vat and allowed to ferment into a still wine, this process takes several weeks.
Here is where Méthod Champenoise, begins. It is the only way Champagne is made.
1. Liqueur de tirage, pronounced: lee kehr duh tear ahj is a vital step in creating the Champagne’s bubbles. After the grape juice has turned into still wine, or base wine, it is poured into its forever home: the Champagne bottle. A mixture of sugar and yeast is then added, this is known as Liqueur de tirage. After liqueur de tirage, the bottle is closed with a crown cap (same as a Coke bottle), or a temporary cork. The bottle is laid down in a cool, dark cellar to begin it’s second fermentation. This process usually takes three months. The reason Champagne bottles are so heavy duty is the glass must be able to withstand the pressure the carbon dioxide creates during fermentation without exploding.
2. Champagne’s are left to age for 15 to 72 months. All the while, the yeast is very busy eating the sugar, creating alcohol and Co2 bubbles. There comes a time when there is no sugar left for the yeast to eat, or the alcohol level reaches a point where the yeast can not survive. At this point the yeast dies, and falls to the bottom of the bottle. This is called the lees. The lees impart a very special characteristic to the Champagne.
3. Riddling begins. Once the aging is over the lees must be brought to the neck of the bottle to be dispelled. This is done by riddling. Ridling is when the bottles are turned, ever so slightly to disrupt the sediment and cause it to settle in the neck of the bottle. Riddling is done about every two days. Slight shake and slight turn further down until the bottle is totally upside down.
4. The necks are frozen and the lees are removed. The necks are dipped into a ice cold brine solution that instantly freezes the contents of the neck (sediment and lees). The temporary cork or cap is removed and the frozen lees is propelled out of the bottle from the force of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle.
5. Sugar is added, known as liqueur d’ expédition. Because the yeast just ate all the sugar for 15+ months, the Champagne is bone dry. It needs a little sweetness so a little sweetness is added. Liqueur d’ expédition = sucrose + base wine.
6. Additional aging. Champagne must be aged at least 15 months. Non-vintage (or “classic”) Champagne must be aged for 15 months. Vintage champagne must be aged for at least 36 months. Some Champagne houses will age their Champagne’s for longer, after the lees have been removed, some don’t.
What is fermentation? It is the conversion of carbohydrates into alcohol and Co2 by way of yeast, bacteria or microorganisms.
If all wine is fermented grape juice, and fermentation creates Co2, why aren’t all wines bubbly? It is true that Co2 produces gas, but since wine is fermented in large vats, the Co2 is allowed to “float up into the air” rather than stay trapped in the bottle with the wine. A second fermentation is required for there to be Co2 bubbles in your wine.
*Understanding the Champagne Label
You may see the following on a bottle of Champagne.
Blanc de blancs: made from 100% Chardonnay, no Pinot Noir or Pinot Meanieur…rare, less than 5% of Champagne’s made
Blanc de Noir: made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meanieur, no Chardonnay…rare, less than 5% of Champagne made
Vintage (year): if a year is stated on a Champagne bottle, it means that all of the grapes used for that Champagne came from that years harvest only! Only the years that produce the best grapes are ever made into Vintage Champagne’s
Non Vintage (may say “classic”): no year on the bottle indicated a “non vintage” Champagne. By law, 20% of the grapes of every harvest must be held back for the years where non vintage Champagne will be made, which is most years. Most Champagne houses hold back even more.
Cru: Village (there are over 300 in Champagne). Also can refer to ‘growth’.
There are certain villages (cru’s), in each of the four districts that have emerged as the best growing regions for wine grapes. Thanks to humans desire for beuracracy, a regulatory body was created (the CIVC: Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) in 1945, to rank the vineyards based on perceived quality. They are Grand Crus and Premiers Crus. Read below.
The villages are ranked from 80 (low) to 100 (high). The higher the rating, the higher the perceived quality, the higher the price.
Grand Crus: The most kick-ass, awesome villages, rated 100 are known as Grand Crus and marked on the label as such. Less than 9% of Champagne’s come with this ranking.
Premiers Crus: The pretty great ones, rated 90-99 are Premiers Crus and marked on the label as such. About 22% of Champagne’s come with this ranking.
The remaining, rated 80-89 don’t put any differentiating “crus” lingo on their label.
Cuvée: The best grape juice is being used, it’s special stuff.
Opening the Champagne Bottle
Be careful! A champagne cork can fly out of the bottle at over 50 mph and is responsible for about 2 dozen fatalities per year, usually at weddings.
- Remove the foil. The proper way to do so is to cut it with your wine key.
- Hold your thumb over the top of the cork the whole time.
- Untwist the cage.
- Leave the cage on while you hold the base of the bottle while your dominant hand holds firm the cage and the cork.
- Do not remove your thumb from the top until you have a firm grip on the cork and cage.
- Never balance the bottle on your leg.
- Slightly twist cork out of the neck.
- Keep control over the cork.
- You don’t want it to pop out! It is a yin and yang, you want to force the cork out while fighting to keep it in. It’s weird.
- When you succeed in opening the Champagne, you should hear a tsss, not a PoP.
- Pour so slowly that the bubbles never come near the top. Your pour should be a steady, slow stream that causes the bubbles to rise but not overtake the glass.
Pouring the Champagne for your table
How to drink it
Slowly! You should be able to keep a steady stream of falling from the bottle without the bubbles overtaking the glass to the point of over-flow. Do not let the Champagne bottle touch the glass. The bottle should hover over the glass by about 1/2 to one inch.
Don’t over pour! A great pour will fill about 2/3 of the glass.
What do you smell? It is quite possible that you smell apples, citrus, pears and yeast!
With over 49 million bubbles per bottle of Champagne and roughly 10 million bubbles per glass, there is a lot to feel. With crappy sparkling wines, you may feel bubbles that are rather big, fat and aggressive, like you may find in pop. But, with sexy well made Champagne, you will find tight, small bubbles that have finesse–bubbles should not feel like an intruder in your mouth, but rather a welcome and friendly guest.
What flavors do you get? Pear, apple, nutty, creamy, vanilla, toasty, strawberry? There is never a wrong answer; if you taste it, it’s there.
Everything. I mean it. Oysters, popcorn, smoked salmon, breakfast foods, deviled eggs, fish, smoked fish, cake, spicy food, sushi, crème brûlée, lobster, chips, foie gras, etc.
Check out Wine Folly’s‘ post on what to pair with Champagne.
When to enjoy.
Breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner. With food, without.
- Quarter bottle – Split or Piccolo (187.5 or 200 ml) – Just itty-bitty
Half bottle – Demi (375 ml)
Bottle – Imperial (750 ml) Standard
Magnum (1.5 liters) Equal to 2 bottles.
Jeroboam (3 liters) Equal to 4 bottles.
Rehoboam (4.5 liters) Equal to 6 bottles.
Methuselah (6 liters) Equal to 8 bottles.
Salmanazar (9 liters)12 bottles.
Balthazar (12 liters) 16 bottles.
Nebuchadnezzar (15 liter) 20 bottles.
Melchior (18 liter) 24 bottles.
Solomon (25 liter) 33.3 bottles
Primat (27 liter) 36 bottles.
Melchizedek (30 liter) 40 bottles.
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