Nothing marks an occasion quite like a glass of fizz. But what makes Champagne different from all of the other Sparkling Wines of the world? Regional Account Manager Rak Jain takes us through what Champagne is, how it is made and the rules governing its production and selling.
A traditional Champagne Cellar
Champagne can be produced by the use of three grapes; Chardonnay (white), Pinot Noir (Red) and Pinot Meunier (a relatively unknown red grape). The grapes must be grown, harvested and the wine must be aged and bottled in the Champagne region, which is around 90 miles northeast of Paris.
So what do each of these grapes give to the final product?
The Chardonnay adds finesse, elegance and fruit to the final blend. As opposed to Burgundian whites, the Chardonnay grape in Champagne with its chalky terroir (the name given to all aspects of the environment where wine is grown i.e. soil, climate, tradition, and terrain such as flora, elevation and slope) produces lighter fresher wine. Chardonnay accounts for around 26% of vineyards in the region.
The Pinot Noir element, which is nearly 40% of grape production, gives structure, body and strength and, in most Champagnes, tends to be at the heart of most blends.
Pinot Meunier (nearly 35% of vineyards) is a durable grape and resists spring frosts. In fact, most Pinot Meunier is produced in the Marne Valley, an area notorious for early spring frosts. The soft and fruity styles of Champagne tend to use this grape although there are some that say that it lacks ageing potential… try telling Krug that as they tend to use around 15% in their final blend!
How is Champagne made?
You will tend to see the phrase Methode Champenoise on many bottles. Simply put, this is the method of making Champagne. Now the below may seem a bit boring but it is worth knowing - not only to impress your mates, but to really understand why it can taste so wonderful and why it costs more than your average bottle of Sparkling Wine.
To start with the grapes are harvested in the traditional way like any other wine and then undergo a Primary Fermentation. This results in a wine that is between 10.5% and 11% in alcohol but with very high acidity (not yet ready to drink) - at this point it is a still wine.
Next we have Assemblage. This is where the real skill of the winemaker comes to the fore with wines from different grapes, vineyards and vintages being blended together. Now each “House” aims to produce its own style and it is at this stage the winemaker makes the magic happen (in most cases!). Once blended the wines are put into bottle.
On to Liqueur de Tirage… this is where a measured quantity of cane sugar and yeast cultures are added to the mix to stimulate the second alcoholic fermentation. This takes place in a long necked, dark green bottle with a crown cap (like a glass beer bottle).
Next is Secondary Fermentation. This occurs slowly within the bottles. This process can last anywhere from 1-3 weeks. The bottles are then laid sideways to rest, mature, and age on their lees. The ageing on the lees (the dead yeast cells and other particles remaining in wine after fermentation) are what aids in the “toasty” “doughy” “bread” like characteristics in Champagne. French law requires 15 months of ageing after the wine is bottled for non-vintage Champagne and at least 36 months for a vintage wine. This is time consuming! After the alloted ageing time lots of yeast cells will have settled to the bottom. They now need to be removed.
Remuage or Riddling happens next, which is the process that requires twisting the bottles to move the sediment towards the bottle cap (to get rid of it). This can be done by hand or machine and can take up to a week (mechanically) or two months if done by hand. This is to get all the sediment to the tip of the bottle (the bottles are now stacked upside down) in preparation for the next stage in production. When done by hand the “Riddler” (nothing to do with batman) or in french, Remeur, is a sight to behold… extremely skilful but also can be dangerous due to exploding bottles. I have seen this done myself and it is amazing! Nowadays most of this is done by machine - sadly less exciting but safer.
Disgorging or Dégorgement follows. This is the process of removing the yeast residue that has now settled in the neck of the bottle. The neck of the bottle basically goes through a process of flash freezing. The lees are now frozen solid and can be carefully removed. The bottle cap is then popped open, and the CO2 pushes the frozen lees right out of the bottle. Boom!
On to the addition of the Liqueur d’Expedition. The bottle is now topped up with small measured portion of additional Champagne in order to replace the quantity that was lost during disgorging. This “dosage” also contains a level of sugar that will determine the desired style of sweetness.
The bottle is now Re-corked with a proper Champagne cork and sealed with wire cage (for protection), and is almost ready for sale (after a few months of additional resting time).
Now, when I get asked what makes quality Champagne so expensive you only have to read the above to see the meticulous and expensive method involved with non-vintage taking 2-3 years and vintage taking from 4-10 years before they can sell it! It is a process of love, care and passion.
Styles of Champagne
Champagne comes in a variety of styles and levels of sweetness. It is important to understand this when you are shopping for a bottle, so you get one that suits your pallet.
- Blanc de Blanc: literally means “white from white,” white wine made from white (Chardonnay) grapes, and usually lighter in style than the following types.
- Blanc de Noir: translates to “white from black,” meaning white wine made from black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier).
- Rosé: most often made by blending red wine and white wine together prior to bottling.
- Non-Vintage (NV): meaning that the wines are a blend of different vintages of wines. Champagne producers blend multiple vintages together in order to achieve a consistent “House style.” This creates consistency, so that you, the consumer can expect similar tasting product year after year.
- Vintage Champagne: produced only in the most exceptional years, and 100% of the grapes used must come from the vintage stated on the bottle. Less than 10% of Champagne produced each year is vintage Champagne. You will see the year of harvest labelled on the bottle.
Now, let’s get to the more important bit! What to drink and my festive Champagne recommendations.
Now you may have seen me mention Champagne Gardet in previous blogs and I make no apologies for extolling its virtues again. The range is AMAZING and in comparison to more famous “brands” it offers superb value for money.
On Christmas morning with your canapes or traditional smoked salmon a bottle of Gardet Brut Tradition NV is perfect. The freshness in this award-winning fizz is stunning and it is what I call slightly dangerous in so much that once you start on it the Turkey might have to be left to someone else to look after!
For those going all European (Oops! Should I have mentioned that?) and serving goose then try Gardet Brut Reserve NV… full of ripe fruit and complexity. I sampled this (maybe slightly more than sampled) the other night at a dinner and suffice to say I had a smile on my face! A Champagne recommendation by Jancis Robinson no less as well.
Now you know that we talked about the different grapes permitted in the production, well the above two wines use all 3 in varying percentages. However one style that just uses one is Gardet Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru (best rated vineyards) and for those of you who are Chardonnay centric this is a must with its fresh, bready and yeasty notes.
Never let it be said that I am blinkered when it comes to recommending wines as I do have other favourites besides Gardet. I often get asked at staff training sessions/dinners what is my favourite wine and it can be hard because my wine tastes like everyone else change with mood/weather/food and even company! However if I knew I was about to pop my clogs (great northern expression!) and I was to be asked what would be my last choice of tipple then it would absolutely be Ultra Brut by Laurent-Perrier. I am a massive seafood fan and this with fresh oysters is absolutely stunning! The fruit and minerality mingle to such a mouth-watering degree that you may even forego watching the Queens speech to go and grab another bottle from the fridge.
And for all of those nut roasters out there… all the above Champagnes, as are many of our offerings, are suitable for vegans and vegetarian.
Like all wine, Champagne can be very personal, but we do recommend trying different styles - don’t just stick with the one brand! Bubbly should not just be for celebrating but to cheer you up after a bad day or a quiet night in with your loved one or to even toast great events like… Let me think… oh yes Liverpool FC winning the Champions League (6th time!).
At House of Townend we have over 50 Champagnes in varying bottle sizes so you are sure to find something that you like. Click here to browse our range.
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