Champagne

Champagne
Photo by Lomig / Unsplash

Champagne is a wine appellation in north-east France, and is widely considered to produce the finest sparkling wine in the world.  It is a protected region and wine style, and is the model example of a traditional method sparkling wine.

Styles of Champagne

There are many styles of Champagne, but the most common is non-vintage Brut made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay.

Non-vintage (NV)

This is a blend of wines from a range of vintages, and is usually made to a certain house style.  Blending older vintages wines with youthful wines creates a consistent wine each year that is often ready to drink upon release.  

Vintage

By law, 100% of the wine must come from the year indicated on the bottle.  They are only produced in the best vintages.  Although, not all producers rate vintages equally.  There are some exceptional vintages, like 2002 and 2008, which all can agree deserve a vintage wine.  These wines will also be blended to a house style, but show more characteristics of the given year.

Rose

In Champagne, rose sparkling wines are usually made by blending a small amount of still red wine with white (Rose d'assemblage).  However, they can also be made by bleeding off wine from a black grape maceration (Rose de saignee).  An example of a rose Champagne made by saignee is Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé.

Blanc de Blancs

A white wine made from white grapes only.  In Champagne, this means it is usually 100% Chardonnay.  These wines are often more austere in their youth, but are known for their ageing potential.

Blanc de Noirs

A white wine made from black grapes only.  These wines are fuller bodied and age more rapidly than Blanc de Blancs.

Prestige Cuvee (Tête de Cuvée)

Usually, the top wine in a producer's range.  Although, some houses, like Krug, specialize in making only prestige cuvees.  They can be vintage of non-vintage.  Examples: Louis Roederer's Cristal, Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill, and Moet & Chandon's Dom Perignon.

Late Release / Recently Disgorged

These wines are aged on their lees for an extended period of time, and then disgorged just before release.  They are meant to be consumed immediately upon release.  They taste different and age more rapidly than wines of the same vintage that were disgorged earlier.  Examples: Bollinger's RD, and Dom Perignon's P2.

History

Historically, wine from Champagne was still, pink, and made from Pinot Noir. In the cold winters, fermentation would halt and start again as the temperature rose, which created a slightly fizzy wine.

Dom Pierre Perignon (died 1715) contributed to Champagne in many ways:

  • Produced the first white wine from black grapes.
  • Invented the Coquard press that is still used today.
  • Invented assemblage, which is the blending wines from different areas to create a superior wine.
  • Thought to have re-introduced the cork stopper.

The fizziness in the wines were considered to be a wine fault until the 1800s, when controlled second fermentation in the bottle, by adding sugar and yeast, was developed.  

Sub-Regions

Montagne de Reims

This region is best known for black grapes, especially the grand cru villages of Mailly, Verzenay, Verzy, Ambonnay, and Bouzy.  The wines tend be very high in acid and austere in youth.  There are also some important vineyards that grow Chardonnay.

Vallee de la Marne

There are major plantings of Meunier grape in this region.  Chardonnay is also grown and used in the blends of early-drinking wines.  The grand cru village of Ay is located here.

Cote des Blancs

As the name implies, this region devoted almost exclusively to the cultivation of white grapes.  It has the purest form of chalk which is ideal for growing Chardonnay.  The grand cru villages of the area are Cramant, Avize, Oger, and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.  These wines are known for their great intensity and age-worthiness, but can be austere in their youth.

Cote de Sezanne

A continuation of the Cote des Blancs, this region is also known for Chardonnay.  In general, the quality is rated lower than the above sub-regions.

Cote des Bar

A large area in the south of Champagne that has around a quarter of the area planted to Pinot Noir.  The relatively small plantings of Pinot Noir in other sub regions, makes this a very important source for Pinot Noir to be used in non-vintage blends.

Grape Varieties

The three principal grape varieties of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier make up over 99% of vineyard area in the region.

Chardonnay

This white grape variety is well suited for autolytic styles of sparkling wines.  Its subtle flavors and aromas of apple and citrus compliment the biscuit aromas that come from yeast autolysis.  It brings high acidity to the Champagne blend.

Pinot Noir

This is a thin skinned black grape that lends body to the Champagne blend.

Meunier

A black variety that is a mutation of Pinot Noir that has white hairs on the leaves.  Typically, makes a fruity wine that contributes softness to the Champagne blend.  It tends not be used for wines intended for longer ageing, although there are some exceptions like the producer Krug.

Winemaking

Champagne is made by traditional method, which means the second fermentation occurs in the same bottle that is sold to the consumer.  Grapes are hand picked and whole bunch pressed.

Alcoholic Fermentation

Most producers ferment in stainless-steel tanks, although increasingly a number of quality producers are re-introducing some oak, which adds texture and mouthfeel.  Malolactic conversation is usually encouraged, which softens the acidity of the wine.

Blending (Assemblage)

The purpose of blending is to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.  This is done by blending base wines from different grapes, vineyards, and vintages.  The master blender (chef de cave) has to predict how the wine will develop before second fermentation of maturation has even begun.

Second Fermentation

A solution of yeast, wine, and sugar (liqueur de tirage) is added at this stage.  This starts the second fermentation in the bottle, which creates the bubbles in Champagne.  After the yeast die, yeast autolysis begins producers the brioche flavors and aromas found in traditional method wines.

Riddling / Disgorgement

Riddling is process of gradually rotating the bottle 180 degrees so that the yeast sediment gathers at the neck of the bottle.  At this point the yeast is expelled by disgorgement, and a mixture of sugar and wine (liqueur d'expedition) is added to give the final wine its desired sweetness level.

Maturation

Non-vintage wines must spend 12 months maturing on the lees (dead yeast cells).  The same 12 month rule applies to vintages wines, however they cannot be released until 3 years after tirage.  In practice, vintages wines age for much longer on their lees than is required.