Exploring the World of Champagne: An Introduction

By | 29 May 2024

Where is it? This area is situated in France’s northeast corner, close to 49 degrees north – the farthest boundary where grapes can ripen effectively. Influenced by both the quelling effect of the sea and the extreme climatic conditions seen in continental regions, the interaction of these two forces is a vital factor that brings about variations in the vintage. Overall, the finely balanced cool climate is perfect for cultivating grapes that yield rich flavours at relatively low alcohol concentrations, along with refined acidity, which are the quintessential elements for producing excellent sparkling wines.

Why the bubbles? Champagne stands apart as a unique wine-producing region largely dedicated to sparkling wines. During earlier periods, prior to the advent of cost-effective, resilient bottles that could undergo the second fermentation process to produce bubbles, this area primarily produced still wines, predominantly of paler red hues. Consequently, from its development around the fifth century CE until the mid-18th century, Champagne thrived as a renowned wine region, widely celebrated for its array of wines distinct from those it produces today.

Then the fizz came. These wines, typically a combination of red and white grapes, gained immense popularity. However, as preferences shifted towards deeper, darker red wines, the region had to reinvent its wine-making approach. The result was a remarkable transformation of their somewhat tart still wines into an ideal base for producing sparkling wines.

Who invented it? Many attribute the creation of Champagne to Dom Pérignon, a monk from Hautvillers, in the 17th century. While he was indeed a significant figure in the region, his role in the creation of this sparkling wine is somewhat of a myth. Actually, we owe the invention of Champagne, as we know it today, to the English. Dr Christopher Merret invented the process of using sugar to initiate a second bottle fermentation to produce bubbles in the wine, described to the Royal Society in London in 1662. Decisive advantages for the English were their ability to manufacture durable, lightweight bottles required to accommodate the pressure from the second fermentation. The French adopted this bottle technology at the start of the 18th century, which not long after, led to the manufacture of the first deliberately sparkling bottled Champagnes. 1729 saw the establishment of the first Champagne house, Ruinart.

Understanding the Bubbly Process of Wine The still wines, or the base wines, are born from freshly picked grapes in both red and white varieties. After these wines have aged for several months, they are often blended with seasoned wines known as reserve wines, and then bottled. What makes these blended wines bubbly is the extra bit of sugar and yeast that factors into a second fermentation process within the bottle. The bubbles you see in your glass are actually carbon dioxide released from the wine when it’s poured out.

Facts on the Champagne Appellation Region The official boundaries of the Champagne Appellation region were legally established back in 1936. This vast area includes 320 villages dispersed across five departments. The most suitable parts of this region are designated for vineyard growth, given the quality of the soil. Since Champagne’s formal delineation, there’s been an impressive increase in production. Compare the 30 million bottles produced in 1950 to the approximately 330 million bottles produced now, all cultivated meticulously across 34,300 hectares of vineyards.

The Influence of Soil on Wine Chalk and different sorts of limestone constitute the majority of the soil in the region. Mainly, the chalk soil is the remainder of a massive sea that enveloped the region about 70 million years ago during the Cretaceous period. Consequently, the soil has sedimentary rocks that formed over time due to deposition. Some of these rocks are fossils of marine creatures with limestone shells. In some parts, the chalk layer is extra thick—Up to 300 meters. You can trace the Paris Basin limestone layer across the English Channel to Southern England, where the ground looks strikingly similar to Champagne’s soils. Roughly 25% of Champagne has another type of limestone soil that’s entirely distinct. The southeast’s Côte des Bar, for example, features Jurassic-era Kimmeridgian limestone and marl as well as calcareous clay. Variations exist within the region due to discrepancies in limestone type, topsoil depth, and the presence of sand or clay in the soil. The influence of these soil types on wine flavor is uncertain, but it’s generally agreed that the limestone impacts the wine’s acidity. Limestone can retain and release water slowly to vines, and it has a high pH, meaning it’s more alkaline than acidic.

Deciphering the Two-Letter Code You’ll find a two-letter code on every Champagne bottle, followed by a registration number. This code represents the type of company that produced the wine.

NM Négociant manipulant – someone who buys grapes, must or base wines from others and makes wine. This is the category the famous Champagne houses fall into.

RM Récoltant manipulant – These are what are known as grower Champagnes, made by growers from their own grapes.

RC Récoltant-coopérateur – This is a grower who sells their grapes to a cooperative and then gets Champagnes back to sell under their own name.

CM Coopérative de manipulation – This is a cooperative, where growers bring their grapes to be made into Champagne. The cooperative will sell bottles, but can also sell the pressed juice or finished base wines to Champagne houses. Many of the famous houses buy must or base wines from cooperatives that they then use to make their wines, and sometimes these even find their way into prestige cuvées.

SR Société de Récoltants – This represents a company founded by two or more growers who jointly use the same winery for the production of wine that they sell under their own label. It’s distinct from a cooperative, as the growers are also actively involved in wine production.

MA Marque d’acheteur – This is essentially a Champagne label owned by the buyer or an own-brand Champagne. Supermarket Champagne typically falls into this category.

ND: Négociant distributeur – This refers to a wine merchant who sells Champagnes under their own trademark.

Growers versus houses. The majority of renowned names in Champagne belong to houses, which sell up to 70% of the Champagne but own merely 10% of the land. This implies that 90% of the Champagne vineyards are maintained by growers. They often sell either directly to Champagne houses or cooperatives, which may then retail their wines, or they might sell the extracted juice or basic wines to various houses. Nevertheless, some growers produce and package their own wine from the vineyards they cultivate. A lot of global attention has surrounded the growers, many of whom have produced some of the finest Champagnes over the past several decades. However, not all growers excel, and it’s an oversimplification to assume that only grower Champagne is superior and that products from larger houses are inferior. Moreover, due to the high cost of buying vineyards, many top-performing growers have had to forgo their grower status as they begin to buy grapes for ramping up production – acquiring more vineyard area is usually outrageously expensive, with prices hovering around €2.5 million per hectare.

Harvest. The process typically occurs around September or October but climate changes have shifted it to August in recent years. Grapes are manually collected into 50 kg bins which are transported to wineries or press centers in the vineyards. The bin size is a balance between quality and efficiency, smaller bins could potentially improve quality but would also make press loading a longer process, possibly affecting the final product quality.

The importance of pressing. This process is critical in Champagne production as it can significantly impact the wine’s quality. The traditional press capacity in Champagne is 4 tonnes (4000 kg) of grapes. Modern presses like the Cocquard PAI utilize tilted plates which squeeze the grapes, believed to produce better quality juice. For a 4-tonne load, the first 100 litres, which can contain dirt, is typically discarded or sold. The next press fraction known as the cuvée and amounts to 2050 litres, represents the highest quality juice. The final 500 litres, the taille, is kept separately and might be used or sold depending on its quality. Later press fractions usually contain more phenolics and have slightly reduced acidity.

Champagne comes in different styles. NV (non-vintage) cuvée is the most common which is a blend of base wines from various years and includes the three main Champagne grapes- Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. However, five other grapes can be used including Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, Pinot Noir, Petit Meslier, and a new disease-resistant white grape named Voltis. Some Champagne producers name their NV cuvée MV for multi-vintage, and even number each release to add prestige to these wines. The NV Rosé, usually concocted by blending in red wine, another style. Others include NV Blanc de Blancs (made solely from Chardonnay), NV Blanc de Noirs (from a blend of Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or both). Vintage wines from a single year also exist. These usually come with a price premium. Many producers also offer a premium cuvée, produced in limited numbers and sold at a steep price.

The other style difference concerns sugar levels. This detail is often denoted on the label using terms that can be slightly confusing. During the disgorging process, when the plug of dead yeast cells is removed, the bottle is filled using the liqueur d’expedition, which is wine-based (may contain barrel-aged wine or even brandy) and may have added sugar, known as the dosage. Brut Nature or Zero Dosage means that no sugar has been added and the final wine contains less than 3g/l residual sugar. Then there’s Extra Brut, which can range from 0-6 g/l residual sugar. Brut is 0-12 g/l sugar and is the most common category. The rarer, sweeter Champagnes can be categorised as Extra Dry (17-32 g/l), Demi-Sec (32-50 g/l) and Doux (more than 50 g/l).

Maturing in the basement. Being situated over a dense layer of chalk offers a unique advantage – the ease of carving out cellars. These cellars are heartily utilized for aging wines after the process of second bottling fermentation. This secondary fermentation phase adding the bubbles, is lengthy and the eventually dying yeast cells take even longer to release flavour essences into the wine through a procedure known as autolysis. Law mandates that Champagne should be kept on these yeast remnants for 18 months before dislodgement, but many houses prefer to age their wines longer. Top-tier wines are commonly aged on yeast for three or five years, sometimes even more.

Wine is not all about aging. Early in my understanding of Champagnes, I was made to believe that basic wines are bland, acidic and unpleasant, and that wines derive their distinctive taste from secondary fermentation and aging on yeast remnants. Although yeast aging certainly bolsters the distinctiveness and passions of Champagne, it is merely a facet of the whole account. Now, many top manufacturers, particularly the prominent growers, are cultivating flavour and complexity right in base wines, and then aging them for a relatively short time on yeast inside cellars. These wines usually make the most interesting terroir-reflective Champagnes.

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