When Sipping Champagne, Take Notes, 5 In Fact…

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It seems to be an almost universal answer to what should be a challenging question: ‘If you could only drink one type wine for the rest of your life what would it be?’  Champagne is the reply, nine times out of 10.  And why is this so?  Is it due to the fact that Champagne has become synonymous with celebration?  Is it because Champagne is generally procured by those with deep pockets, a luxury that makes nearly every sip that much sweeter?  Is it derived from sheer appreciation for a craft that has been fine-tuned and mastered by the French over two hundred years?

I happen to think that this unmistakable draw lies in the bubbles.  There is something mesmerizing about this effervescence, each miniature globe quickly rushing to the surface, bringing forth tiny bursts of delicious happiness.  If you have a glass of Champagne in hand it is likely that you are toasting a happy occasion, rewarding yourself for an achievement or that you may be raising your glass in honor of someone very special.

Whether you begin the night in celebration or if a cork is popped long after the festivities have begun, Champagne carries with it a history and tradition that is unmatched.  Try as they might, the Cavas, Proseccos and Sparkling of the world will have to accept their fate as second fiddle.  For there is only one true Champagne.

As discussed in my previous post about the wonderful wines of Alsace, I had the pleasure of taking a three-week wine course taught by Scott Harper, Master Sommelier.  Our last class was dedicated to the Champagne region of France.

We tasted our way through nine different Champagnes and I don’t think there was a drop left behind at the conclusion of the class.  Here I have recapped my favorite take-aways and what I think are the most important elements to know about this star of the wine world!

#1: Location, Location, Location
The name ‘Champagne’ refers not to the grape that makes up the wine but to the process that is used to create it and the region in which it is harvested and crafted.  Champagne is a region of Northeast France, a ninety minute drive east of Paris.

To legally be called Champagne or to wear it’s badge in any way, the wine must be produced in this noble region of France.  Having perfected the art of sparkling wine over the years, the people of Champagne took great offense when neighbors near and far began to copy their creations, producing less-than-stellar results, not at all worthy of bearing the Champagne flag.  Laws were put in place, similar to those in other wine-growing regions such as Chianti and Burgundy, and Champagne’s honor was protected.  Now, this isn’t to say that other sparkling wines around the world are not highly delicious and respectable in their own right.

They must simply go by a different term.  The next time you take a stroll through the bubbly-section of your local wine shop take a closer look at the labels – you will likely come across the following terms, each of which I have associated with their proper place of origin:

  • Prosecco: Italy
  • Cava: Spain
  • Cremant: Sparkling wine made in France, outside of the Champagne region
  • Sparkling Wine: anywhere and everywhere, this is the term associated with sparkling wine made in America and other new-world, wine-growing regions

Now, keep in mind that wines outside of Champagne may use a nearly identical production method.  This will be noted on the bottle via the term ‘methode traditionnelle’ or traditional method.  Previously this was denoted on the bottle as ‘methode champenoise’ but, with current laws in place, the term Champagne, or any derivation of it, may not be included anywhere on a bottle of wine, unless it is indeed produced in Champagne, France.

#2: Grape Varietals
This aspect of Champagne is relatively simple.  There are three grape varietals used in the making of Champagne: two red grapes – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier – and Chardonnay.  The fact that two red grapes make up over 70% of the crops in Champagne may come as a surprise to many.
Afterall, other than Rosé Champagne, all bubbly is white, correct?  Is it also not true that, when you break the skin of a red grape, the juice runs clear?  There is little to no skin contact in the making of Champagne and the following terms are key to understanding what grapes have been used in the making of a bottle of Champagne:
  • Rosé: generally a blend of chardonnay with one or both of the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes.
  • Blanc de Blanc: directly translates to ‘white of white’, indicating that only Chardonnay was used in the making of this bottle.
  • Blanc de Noir: ‘white of black’ – one or both of the red grapes have been used to create this Champagne.

#3: Methode Champenoise
The people of Champagne have perfected what is unquestionably the best method for making sparkling wine in the world and it is a process that is highly labor intensive, a large part of the reason why the price tends to be so high.  A general recounting of the process is as follows:

  • To begin, Champagne grapes are only harvested by hand.  No machines allowed.  The grapes are gently collected in baskets and small bins, rather than mass crates.  This keeps the skin of the grapes intact and prevents them from being crushed prematurely, stalling any early fermentation and ensuring the quality of the juice does not suffer.
  • From the harvest the grapes are pressed and go through the same vinification process as a still wine would, aging for the initial fermentation, as appropriate, and generally in stainless steel tanks or old oak barrels – too old to impart any oak flavors into the wine.
  • Grape varietals are then blended, based on the type of Champagne the winemaker is creating, and transferred to a bottle along with yeast and sugar.  Sealed with a cap similar to that of a beer bottle, the wine undergoes a second fermentation when the sugar and yeast combine to create alcohol and CO2.
  • From here the wine will age for a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage Champagne (indicated by NV on the bottle – various years have been blended) and three years for Vintage Champagne (indicated by a year on the bottle – reserved for exceptionally strong years when production is of the utmost quality).
  • As the wine ages and develops, yeast cells die and gather in the base of the bottle.  This element of the process imparts the unmistakable flavor or fresh-baked bread, or dough that has just finished rising and is warm and fragrant.  Once the bottle has aged for one and a half to three years, the process of ‘riddling’ is begun, in an effort to move the yeast to the neck of the bottle.  A complicated matter, this is rarely done by hand anymore, as it can take months.  Machines have come into play in an effort to save time and energy, doing the job in mere weeks.
  • Now that the yeast has been captured in the neck of the bottle, the top of the neck is frozen, creating an ice plug and trapping the yeast.  When the bottle cap is removed the pressure in the bottle shoots the ice plug out, successfully removing the yeast from the bottle.  A touch of sugar and a bit of Champagne is added to top off the bottle and then the final cork is put in place, held secure with a wire cage.

#4: The Levels of Sweetness – From Brut to Doux
Now, if you’re anything like me, the term ‘sweet’ is not synonymous with delicious – not for my palate, at least.  So if the fact that sugar is added to Champagne is disturbing to you fear not my savory-loving friends.  The amount of sugar added is often so minimal that it is undetectable and not at all cloying.  You’re most likely familiar with the term Brut, denoting that a bottle is of the dry variety.  Below I have listed the other terms indicating the sweetness level in a bottle of Champagne, hopefully saving you any disappointment if you find yourself purchasing a wine that is outside of your preferred flavor profile:

From Driest to Sweetest:

  • Brut Nature
  • Extra Brut
  • Brut
  • Extra-Dry/Extra-Sec
  • Dry/Sec
  • Demi-Sec/Semi-Dry
  • Doux/Sweet

#5: Champagne with Food
Here’s the thing – Champagne is a universally food-friendly wine!  Some of my favorite pairings involve oysters, chocolate and strong cheeses.  Champagne is excellent with high-fat foods such as pork belly or foie gras, the effervescence cutting through the richness and refreshing your palate with every sip.  Champagne is also delicate enough to highlight foods that are more subtle like shellfish and fruit.  An equal friend to both fish, chicken, pork and red meat, you will not go wrong when you pair Champagne with your food.

Lindsey McClave
Lindsey McClave has a deep love for food, wine and travel. While she has no intentions of becoming a chef or a sommelier and doesn't consider herself an expert in any culinary area, she is obsessed with learning.

She says, "the one thing I've taken away from my wine travels is that wine is meant for everyone - rich, poor, and everywhere in-between.” Whatever cooking becomes to you, she encourages you to find that foodie place, embrace it and run with it.
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