Pop the Cork on Your Champagne Adventure: A Wine Guide
The story goes that Dom Perignon, a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Hautvillers, came up with Champagne wine. In reality, the famous monk hated this wine because he thought it was bad. He fought against sparkling wines his whole life, and everything he did was to make great Pinot Noir, a grape that has been grown in the area since 1400.
But what is exactly Champagne?
Today, Champagne is an elegant and refined sparkling wine that comes from a second refermentation in the bottle, aided by yeasts and added sugar, but at the time of Dom Perignon, they tried to avoid refermentation, simply because there were no possibilities to tame the wine, the bottles were too thin, and the caps were not strong enough.
Let’s look more specifically at the production process of the champagne. The grapes are harvested in advance, when they are not completely ripe but still rich in acid, since it is the freshness that is sought. Then the grapes are pressed, the must is fermented, and the second phase is passed, that is to say, the assembly of the cuvées. When making wine, different parts of the vineyard are mixed together to find the right balance. Older wines, called “base wines,” can also be added. Each winery and each producer choose to mix young wines with more mature wines to find balance and make younger wines less tangled, but there is no rule: everything is dictated by the sensitivity and style of the vigneron. The wine is then bottled after adding sugar and yeast, known as “France liqueur de tirage” in French.
What is the liqueur de tirage for?
Thanks to yeasts and sugar, a second fermentation is started, called refermentation in the bottle: the yeasts consume sugar, turning it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, and then they die.
The sur lie, or on the yeasts, refining phase is a slow evolution of the wine that is completely uncontrollable by man; the bottle is corked, and so the aging on the yeasts is one of the most important, as well as one of the most delicate: the wine matures in contact with the yeasts, which provide flavors, aromas, and depth to the wine. The classic aromas and flavors of pastry, beer, yeast, bread, and custard come from these yeasts that have indelibly, and beautifully, marked the wine.
But then there is the problem of the deposit, the dead yeasts would make the wines turbid, but with the technique of remuage, invented by Madame Clicquot in the early 1900s, today our beloved Champagne wines are crystal clear and pure like diamonds.
What is remuage in the Champagne production cycle?
The remuage is the most evocative step in the production of champagne: the bottles are placed in pupitres, which are simple easels, but in French, everything sounds better and more poetic, head down, inclined at 45 degrees. Every day, a master cellar worker rotates the bottles half a turn twice so that the deposits in the wine gradually reach the cork.
Now comes the disgorgement. The neck of the bottle is frozen and the cork is taken off, letting the impurities escape.
What is the liqueur de expedition?
The top-up phase is fundamental, where other wine is added, the liqueur de expedition, or other sugar, and reserve wines, always coming from the same cellar, some of which can be 20 years old or more. A curiosity: in a bottle of Champagne, the wine is at a pressure of 6 atmospheres, so be careful when you open it and don’t point it at other people.
But why was the liqueur de expedition added? To dose the wine, shape it, “sweeten” it, and transform it to your liking, you create your own perfect wine recipe. Because the big Maisons want to create bottles of constant quality, regardless of the harvest: Champagne is a precise and measured symphony; nothing is left to chance. And the sum of the parts is always greater than the parts themselves.
Certainly, there is vintage Champagne, where only wines of the same vintage are used, but these are rare cases that only happen in exceptionally favorable years.
There are also “pas dosés,” which are purer wines, where no sugars are added but only reserve wines, and many, especially small producers, are focusing on more intransigent and less processed Champagne.
Who invented Champagne?
This is, in general, the methode champenoise, but, as previously stated, it is not to be attributed to Dom Perignon! Once again, it was the British who started the Champagne craze. As avid consumers of wines from Champagne, they bought whole barrels of wine and transported them to England, but with the arrival of the warm temperatures of spring, the wine started to ferment a second time and developed a certain natural effervescence. Pay attention, we are not speaking about the six atmospheres they have today but rather a light and delicate perlage. So the birth of this wine was totally random. An amazing case of wine serendipity.
Champagne immediately became a legend, the wine of the upper classes, and so the production of this strange wine was perfected, and after about thirty years, more robust bottles were created that could withstand the pressure.
It may seem like a small thing, but the development of stronger bottles made it possible for Champagne producers to bottle the wine, then add sugar and yeast to make it fizz even more. But above all, in this way, the wine could rest in the cellar on the lees before being sold. In this way, the complexity of the wine was exponentially enhanced.
But the question is: why is Champagne a unique and unrepeatable wine?
A matter of terroir, of course. The climatic conditions are unique; it is only the influence of the sea that mitigates the harshness of winter in this region of extreme latitude, so much so that Champagne is the most northern wine region of all, at the limit of the survival of the vine. The cold and the temperature range help to develop acidity and aromas in the grapes, favoring a slow and constant sugar maturation. Consider that the average annual temperature is 10 degrees centigrade.
And then there is chalk; a large part of the Champagne soil (about 75%) is made of real limestone blocks, which in French are called craies. And this particular soil gives crazy minerality, finesse, and structure to the grapes, not to mention that during the day it manages to capture the heat of the sun and release it during the night, providing thermal help to the vineyards.
The Marne, a river that runs transversely through the region, is another important element that acts as a thermal regulator and marks the most valuable area for vineyards, so that all of the most important cities, such as Epernay, Ay, and the same Hautvillers, are nearby.
But the chalk has also allowed the construction of cellars dug into the rock, excellent for preserving the wine with the right humidity and low, constant temperature, essential for keeping the fermentation under control and preventing the bottles from exploding.
Obviously, the man, the winemaker, is also a fundamental part of the equation; as we have seen, the champenoise method is revolutionary, an absolute novelty. But equally revolutionary were the discoveries of Dom Perignon, the first to defend the concept of assembling the cuvées of the various vineyards. He had guessed that mixing the same grapes but from different vineyards helped to balance the wine, so much so that from the simple taste of the grapes, he composed the wine before it was pressed.
As you can see, Champagne is inextricably linked to its surroundings; the method has been replicated with some success in Italy and Spain, but only here have such distinct characteristics been distilled into an immortal elixir.
Vines used to produce Champagne
Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, often found in blends with variable ratios, but Pinot Meunier is used less and less, is the least fine of all, but adds roundness. Not to mention that it is considered a life preserver as it matures before the others and does not present major management problems.
Pinot Noir is the most nervous and pungent grape, and it can be made into both white and rosé wine. Champagne made only with Pinot Noir is called Blanc de Noirs.
Chardonnay is the antithesis of Pinot Noir; it is creamy, warm, and full of dried fruit. If Champagne is produced with only Chardonnay, it is called Blanc de Blancs.
Production area of Champagne
Champagne is 149 kilometers southeast of Paris. It is a small area with about 32,000 hectares of vineyards. The heart of the region is Epernay, just south of Reims Mountain. Mot & Chandon, Pol Roger, Mercier, and Perrier-Jout are among the most well-known fashion houses based here.
The other capital is Reims, which marks the northern border, a historic city, the oldest of which is home to some of the oldest fashion houses like Krug, Ruinart, Tattinger, Luis Roederer, Palmer, G.H. Mumm, and Heidsieck Monopole.
The elective area of Pinot Noir is to the west, in the Marne Valley, while Chardonnay dominates throughout the Cotes de Blancs and even further south in the Cote de Sézanne. Other villages to consider for the goodness of their wines are Avize, Oger, and Cramant.
How many degrees does Champagne have and at what temperature should it be served?
Usually, it does not have more than 12 to 13 alcohol degrees, since it tends to produce intense, savory, acidic wines, but never too much alcohol. The ideal serving temperature is 8 degrees Celsius; never forget this detail. The low temperature enhances the perception of acidity, which is the main characteristic of this sparkling wine, whereas a hot Champagne would be clumsy, pachydermic, and the bubbles themselves would be coarse.
Champagne suggested food pairings
Structure, bubbles, acidity, and enveloping flavor are all features that invite you to combine fatty dishes, white meats, pasta with elaborate sauces, grilled fish, stuffed pasta, Thai cuisine, even spicy Indian dishes, spaghetti with clams, chicken tikka masala, Chicken Cacciatore, Vitello Tonnato, truffle risotto, pasta alla carbonara.