The Ultimate Celebratory Beverage!
Champagne is arguably the most celebratory beverage on earth. Just the mere act of popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly always seems to make the moment that much more festive. Versatile and food-friendly, these wines are the perfect starter to a great meal, great with a wide range of appetizers, and with the right menu and chef, can work wonderfully throughout the dinner.
Champagne, after all, is wine. Not all that bubbles is Champagne. So what sets these special and magnificent wines apart from the rest of the sparkling wines in the world? The first and foremost factor is what the French call terroir, a term that encompasses all of the elements of climate, soil, exposure and sun that affect how grapes ripen a specific region or vineyard. Champagne is one of the most northerly wine regions – if it were in North America, it would be on the same latitude, the 49th parallel, as Winnipeg, Canada. The region’s cool climate means that the grapes, even after a very long growing season, are still naturally tart and very high in acidity at harvest. The vineyards are mainly on gentle slopes composed of layers of tertiary soils a few feet deep (washed down over millions of years from the Isle de France, a geological formation that stretches west to the English Channel that also helps moderate the worst of the Channel weather), overlying deep chalk sub-soils. The region gets its name from the Romans who thought the chalky soils looked like the ash soils around Vesuvius in Campagna in Italy. While Champagne in its bubbly form was not created commercially until the 1600’s, the history of winemaking in the region dates back much further. The main sub-regions in Champagne are the Valle de la Marne. Cotes des Blancs. Montagne de Rheims. Cotes de Sezanne and the Aube, and the wines can be even more specifically identified by the name of the village where the grapes are grown. Each of these sub-regions has their own unique variations of micro-climate and soils that can influence the style of the wine.
The second factor is the grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are the only permitted varieties. In this cool climate, they ripen differently than warmer regions like Burgundy, California or Oregon. The cool climate allows a long ripening with much lower sugars and higher acidities, in fact so much so that ordinary still wine made here is often so tart that it is actually unpleasant to drink.
Enter the third factor, the method of fermentation, the Methode Champenoise. The magic of Champagne, the bubbles being the most obvious, is created when the wines go through a second fermentation in the bottle, a labor-intensive and time-consuming process that is required for all true Champagne. First, a still wine is produced, then a blend is made of these wines, an addition of yeast and sugars are added, the wines are bottled and capped, and a secondary fermentation begins, capturing the CO2 inside the bottle and creating the signature bubbles. Cheaper bubblies can be made in bulk rather than in the individual bottle, but the unique environment in the bottle fosters an interaction between the wine and the yeast, called lees, creating finer bubbles and layers of flavor associated with the best Champagnes. In general, the longer the wine ages on the lees, the better it gets.
When deemed ready, the wine needs to be somehow rid of the sediment in the bottle, and this is done in a complex process called remuage and disgorgement. The method is called riddling, and the bottles are slowly turned from horizontal to nearly vertical, with a little shake, allowing the sediment to slide down into the neck of the bottle over the period of a few weeks. Traditionally this is done by hand in a rack designed specifically for the purpose, but in many cases has now been automated with the bottles turned in large baskets. The next step is disgorgement, where the bottleneck containing the sediments are frozen, quickly turned upright, the cap removed, allowing the sediment to blow out the top and leaving the wine in the bottle free and clear. The wine is topped, corked, and allowed to rest before being ready for sale.
Champagne is produced in a number of styles and prices. Vintage wines are more expensive and are made to show the specific qualities of that year, and nearly all of the famous luxury Champagnes are vintage dated. Non-vintage wines are generally less expensive and are a blend of wines from several years. Most Champagnes are a blend of grapes, but there are also Blanc des Blancs made from 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de Noirs, white champagne (sometimes with a little copper hue) made from all red grapes. Rosé Champagnes often have an addition of Pinot Noir to create their pinkish/ salmon hue.
Champagne can range from crisp, delicate and racy to toasty, full-bodied and creamy – with Rosé’s often having a little raspberry or strawberry nuance. Champagne can come with various levels of sweetness, with “Extra Brut” and “Brut” the driest. “Extra Dry” is ironically a little less dry; “Demi-Sec” has just a hint of sweetness but is not often seen. While we think of it as the ultimate celebratory beverage, it is actually quite a food friendly wine.
Most Champagne is ready to drink upon release, but some of the better Cuvees can age for 10-15 years or more. It should be kept like any other wine, on its side to keep the cork moist, in a cool, vibration free, dark environment. Serving temperature is generally a little cooler than still white wine as the bubbles tend to dissipate the chill faster. To open, carefully remove the wire and capsule (it’s under pressure – warm or shaken bottles are supercharged!) Grasp the cork and gently turn only the bottle while holding it at about a 45-degree angle. Slowly allow the cork to slide out, restraining it, so it emerges slowly and steadily. As unsatisfying as it seems, the proper sound is just a little hiss as the cork quietly leaves the bottle.
In the world of Champagne, the big brands dominate the market, offering mostly good solid quality, but the buzz in the trade is all about small grower, estate grown and bottled wines. These boutique properties often sell for the same or less than the big brands and offer wonderful pure expressions of the villages and sub-regions where they are grown, rather than the “house style” of the big brands. These family domains bottle their wines in tiny quantities, whereas the large houses mainly purchase grapes and fruit and produce huge volumes. And while neither has a lock on quality (many of the Grand Cuvees of the big growers are spectacular wines) the smaller Domains perhaps give a better insight to the individuality of place. While nowhere near as recognizable as the big brands, and thus a bit intimidating if you don’t have good advice, the smaller properties often deliver top quality Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines at remarkably lower prices.
As we approach the holiday season it is hard to have too much Champagne on hand – the best-stocked cellar should always have plenty! It is ideal for gifts, parties, and entertaining holiday guests – but don’t forget about the rest of the year. It is also an even better way to make life’s simple moments that much more special – Cheers!