Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by inducing the secondary fermentation of wine. It is named after the Champagne region of France and is most often produced from one or a blend of three varieties of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier.
In Europe and some other countries, the name "champagne" is legally protected to mean only sparkling wine produced in its namesake region and adhering to the standards defined for that name as an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. In the rest of the world, the term can refer to any sparkling wine. Some wineries denote a sparkling wine fermented in the bottle as méthode champenoise, méthode classic, or méthode traditionnelle.
Some countries have introduced special terms to define their own sparkling wines: Spain uses Cava and South Africa uses Cap Classique. A sparkling wine made from Muscat grapes in Italy uses the DOCG Asti. In Germany, Sekt is a common sparkling wine.
Champagne's sugar content varies. The sweetest level is doux (meaning sweet), proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), and brut (almost completely dry). Some producers also make an extra brut or a wine with no added sugar.
How is champagne made?
Grapes used for champagne are generally picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels higher. Except for pink or rosé champagnes, the juice of harvested grapes is pressed off quickly, to keep the wine white.
The first fermentation begins in the same way as any wine, converting the natural sugar in the grapes into alcohol while the resultant carbon dioxide is allowed to escape. This produces the "base wine". This wine is not very pleasurable by itself, being too acidic. At this point the blend is assembled, using wines from various vineyards, and, in the case of non-vintage champagne, various years.
The blended wine is put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar, called the liquor de tirage, and stored in a wine cellar horizontally, for a second fermentation. During the secondary fermentation the carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, keeping it dissolved in the wine.
After ageing, they undergo a process known as riddling (remuage in French), in which they are rotated a small amount each day and gradually moved to a neck-down orientation, so that the sediment ('lees') collects in their necks and can be removed. The removal process is called "disgorging " ("degorgement" in French), and was a skilled manual process, where the cork and the lees were removed without losing large quantities of the liquid, and a dosage(a varying amount of additional sugar) is added. The bottle is then recorked. Until this process was invented (reputedly by Madame Clicquot in 1800) champagne was cloudy, a style still seen occasionally today under the label methode ancestral. Modern disgorgement is automated by freezing a small amount of the liquid in the neck and removing this plug of ice containing the lees.
The wine cannot legally be sold until it has aged in the bottle for at least one year, but the longer the better. Vintage champagnes are aged in cellars for six years or more before disgorgement. The wine does not improve after disgorgement - it is the length of the ageing after the secondary fermentation before disgorgement which is important.
Most champagne is non-vintage, a blend of wines from several years. Typically the majority of the wine is from the current year but a percentage is made of "reserve wine" from previous years. This serves to smooth out some of the vintage variations caused by the marginal growing climate in champagne. Most champagne houses strive for a consistent "house style" from year to year, and this is the hardest task of the winemaker. Good-quality vintage champagnes are the product of a single high-quality year, and bottles from prestigious makers can be rare and expensive.
Champagne is a single Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (although there have been suggestions that there should also be a Grand Cru in the appellation system). Grapes must be the white Chardonnay, or the red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. Champagnes made exclusively from Chardonnay are known as blanc de blancs , and those exclusively from the red grapes as blanc de noirs . Champagne is typically a white wine even if it is produced with red grapes, because the juice is extracted from the grapes using a gentle process that minimizes the amount of time the juice spends in contact with the skins, which is what makes red wine red. Rosé wines are also produced, either by permitting the juice to spend more time with the skins to impart a pink color to the wine, or by adding a small amount of red wine during blending. The amount of sugar (dosage) added after the second fermentation and ageing also varies, from brut zéro or brut natural , where none is added, through brut , extra-dry , sec, demi-sec and doux . The most common is brut, although in the early 20th century Champagne was generally much sweeter.
Most Champagne is non-vintage , produced from a blend of years (the exact blend is only mentioned on the label by a few growers), while that produced from a single vintage is labelled with the year and Millésimé .
Many Champagnes are produced from bought-in grapes by well known brands such as Veuve Clicquot or Mumm . The identifier 'RD' on the bottle can be used to identify single growers who make their own Champagne.
Wines from the Champagne region were already known before medieval times. Churches owned vineyards, and monks produced wine for use in the sacrament of Eucharist. French kings were traditionally anointed in Reims. Champagne wine flowed as part of coronation festivities.
Kings appreciated the still, light, and crisp wine, and offered it as an homage to other monarchs in Europe. In the 17th century, flat wines of Champagne were the chosen wines for celebration in European countries. English people were the biggest consumers of champagne wines, and drank a lot of sparkling wines.
The first commercial sparkling wine was produced in the Limoux area of Languedoc about 1535. They did not invent it; nobody knows who first made it, although the British make a reasonably good claim.
Somewhere in the end of the 17th century, the sparkling method was imported in the Champagne region, associated with specific procedures for production (smooth pressing, dosage...), and stronger bottles (invented in England) that could hold the added pressure. Around 1700, sparkling champagne was born.
English people loved the new sparkling wine, and spread it all other the world. Brut champagne, the modern champagne, was created for the British in 1876. The Russian royalty also consumed huge quantities.
Main article : List of champagne producers
The largest producer of champagne is Moet and Chandon, part of the LVMH group of luxury goods companies. It produces 25 million bottles each year. See the main article for further details.
Bubbles in champagne are commonly believed to be formed in impurities in the glass that act as nucleation sites. However, these impurities are actually too small as shown by Gérard Liger-Belair, Richard Marchal, and Philippe Jeandel with a high-speed video camera. Bubbles most readily form on scratches or nicks in the glass, which are frequently made intentionally by the manufacturer or the end user to provide nucleation sites. Dom Perignon was originally charged by his wine-making Abbey of Hautvillers to get the bubbles out of their champagne.
Side-by-side comparison of champagne bottles. (L to R) On ladder: magnum, full, half, quarter. On floor: Balthazar, Salmanazar, Methuselah, Jeroboam
Champagne is mostly fermented in two sizes bottles, standard bottle (750 mL), and Magnum (1.5 L). In general, magnums are thought to be higher quality, as there is less oxygen in the bottle, and the volume to surface area favors the creation of appropriately-sized bubbles. However, there is no hard evidence for this view. Other bottle sizes, named for Biblical figures, are generally filled with champagne that has been fermented in standard bottles or magnums. List of bottle sizes:
- quarter bottle (aka. split or piccolo bottle) (187.5 or 200 ml)
- mainly used by airlines and nightclubs.
- half-bottle (aka. Demi) (375 ml)
- used in restaurants
Sizes larger than Jeroboam are rare. The same names are used for bottles containing wine and port; however, up to Methuselah they refer to different bottle volumes.
Opening champagne bottles
The deliberate spraying of champagne has become an integral part of sports trophy presentations and locker room celebrations, though champagne enthusiasts sometimes cringe at the waste. To reduce the risk of spilling champagne and/or turning the cork into a projectile, open a champagne bottle as follows:
- Remove the foil;
- Loosen but don't remove the wire cage;
- Grasp the cork and the cage firmly with your hand, then rotate the bottle (rather than the cork) by holding it at the base; this should allow the cork to come out on its own accord.
The desired effect is to ease the cork out with a satisfying pop rather than to shoot the cork across the room or produce a fountain of foamy wine. Some wine connoisseurs prefer that the ideal way to open a bottle of champagne is to do it so carefully and gently that no sound is emitted at all.
Another disputed method to open a champagne bottle is the use of a sabre. To properly execute, one should:
- Select a heavy sabre, with a rather short blade and broad back;
- Hold in one hand the sabre. Use the back and not the cut of the blade;
- Hold in the other hand the champagne bottle on its lowest part, the wire cage loosened;
- Touch and slide the blade alongside the bottle until it hits the swelling on the bottleneck. The jolt will break the bottle and its tip will fly away in a trajectory;
- Have part of the spray spill out in order to wash away potential glass splinters;
Using the sabre method is not particular difficult, but some precautions are necessary:
- The sabre is a weapon and might be dangerous;
- The tip of the bottle will fly away with force. Keep the forseen trajectory free of obstacles;
- Check fluid for glass splinters before drinking;
Champagne is now usually served in a champagne flute, whose characteristics include a long stem with a tall, narrow bowl and opening. The wider flat glass commonly associated with champagne is no longer preferred by connoisseurs because it does not preserve the bubbles and aroma of the wine as well. The wide flat champagne glass may also have fallen out of favour due to its association with drinks considered "beneath" fine wine such as Babycham. Champagne is always served cold, and is best at the temperature 7C° (43 to 48°F). Often the bottle is chilled in a bucket of ice and water before and after opening. Champagne buckets are made specifically for this purpose.
Last updated: 05-07-2005 15:02:24
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04