- France: Champagne
Champagne has traditionally been served as a special occasion drink however feel free to consume it when the mood strikes.
HOW TO SERVE
- Chill before serving: in the fridge around 4 hours, freezer 15 min, ice bucket 20 min
- For NV serve at: 8 – 10 °C (46 – 50 °F)
- For Vintages serve at: 10 – 12 °C (50 – 54 °F)
- Glass type: tulip, flute, coupe
FOOD & CHEESE
- Shrimp, caviar, salmon, oysters, egg dishes, mushrooms, fruit desserts, truffle, sushi
- Cheddar, emmental, goat’s cheese, parmesan
Champagne is a sparkling wine that can come only come from the region Champagne in France. No other sparkling wines which are not produced in this region and under the rules of this appellation cannot be labeled as Champagne. This was way for France to preserve the prestige of their Champagne and to distinguish it from other parts of the world.
The traditional Champagne blend is made from 2 black grapes and 1 white grape: Pinot Noir (black), Pinot Meunier (black), Chardonnay (white). Other varietals like Pinot Gris are also allowed however they are very rarely encountered.
- Pinot Noir: 38% of all vineyards; known for how hard it is to grow, is high in tannins which adds aging potential
- Pinot Meunier: 32% of all vineyards; adds aroma, usually has a small percentage of the blend
- Chardonnay: 30% of all vineyards; adds freshness, citrus and apple flavors
- Champagne AOC
- It is chalky soiled region of roughly 35 000 hectares northeast of Paris
- Approved grapes are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Petit Meslier, Arbane (although the last 4 grapes make up only 0.3% of all harvest)
- Vineyards are cultivated on slopes which allows for enough sun and good drainage when it rains saving the roots from rot.
- Montagne de Reims
- Main grape: Pinot Noir
- Famous Champagne Houses: Veuve Clicquot
- Vallée de la Marne
- Main grape: Pinot Meunier
- Famous Champagne Houses: Moët & Chandon
- Côte de Sézanne
- Main grape: Chardonnay
- Famous Champagne Houses: Bernard Remy
- Côte des Blancs
- Main grape: Chardonnay
- Famous Champagne Houses: Louis Roederer (Cristal)
- Côte des Bar
- Main grape: Pinot Noir
- Famous Champagne Houses: Drappier
Champagne Cru System
Like many other wine regions in France, Champagne also has a Cru classification however it works in a bit of a different way. Historically known as the Échelle des Crus, the system was first established in 1919 after the region was hit by a series of events like bad weather and phylloxera causing a shortage in Champagne and creating chaos in grape prices.
The Cru system was supposed to regulate the prices by rating the villages on a scale from 80% to 100% as either Grand Cru, Premier Cru or no Cru. The idea was that for each harvest there was a price per kilo set for the grapes. Depending on the Cru classification, the growers would then get a percentage of that price.
- Grands Crus villages
- Rated as 100%, hence receiving 100% of the price per kilo
- Comprise of 17 villages, 9 of which are located in Montagne de Reims, 6 in Côte des Blancs, and 2 in Vallée de la Marne
- Premiers Crus villages
- Rated at and receiving between 90% – 99% of the price per kilo
- Comprise of 44 villages
- No Cru villages
- Rated at and receiving between 80% – 89% of the price per kilo
- Comprise of 255 villages
Today this system is not used in price setting anymore nor does it guarantee a specific level of quality. This is because it only looks at villages as a whole and not at separate vineyards. It also disregards the differences in terroir, vintage or climate fluctuations. Champagne is essentially a blend of grapes from different vintages and vineyards and producers will many times mix different crus based on the quality of individual vineyards not villages.
- Blanc de Blancs
- Made from 100% Chardonnay grapes
- Blanc de Noirs
- Made from 100% Pinot Noir or a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier
- Compared to Blanc de Blanc it is fuller in body, fruitier and with moderate acidity
- Although made from black grapes, Blanc de Noirs are white in color as a result of gently pressing the grapes so that the pigment from the skins does not bleed into the juice of must. After this the skins are removed.
- Rosé Champagne (Pink Champagne)
- Made with the classic Champagne blend
- Most common way to produce Rosé Champagne is by adding around 15% still red wine to the must
- Some producers (such as Laurent Perrier), although rarely, use a method called saignée (bleeding) which is when there is a brief maceration period (the contact between the grape skins and the must) of a couple of hours. This method is used in the production of still rosés.
Vintage vs Non-Vintage Champagne
- Vintage Champagnes
- Made from grapes harvested in the same year
- Aging requirements are of at least 3 years on the lees during tirage
- Represent only around 5% of all Champagnes
- Usually produced when there is a good year in order to get the best Champagne quality.
- Prices are usually quite high for these Champagnes
- Non-Vintage Champagnes (NV)
- Made from grapes harvested during different years, usually a mix of 3 – 5 vintages
- Aging requirements are a minimum of 15 months
Usually Champagnes have 2 letters in very small print on their labels and unless you know to look for them, they can easily go missed. These 2 letters denote the type of producer behind the Champagne.
- NM – Négociant Manipulant
Most Champagnes including the big houses belong to this group. These are the houses that buy grapes and wines from other growers which they then use to make Champagne and sell it under their own brand.
- RM – Récoltant Manipulant
These are houses who use their own grapes which have been grown in their vineyards, then produce and sell Champagnes under their own label. Many of the RM growers sell their unused grapes to the NM houses. This is also a category where you can find good value for money Champagnes.
- RC – Récoltant – coopérateur
A producer who is a member of a co-op and produces its wine at a co-op wine-making facility then sells it under their name.
- CM – Coopérative de Manipulation
Cooperatives will usually buy the other growers grapes, produce Champagne then sell it to supermarkets as either their own brand or another brand. This is also where the RC producers who are members of these co-ops get their wine from.
- SR – Société de Récoltants
This is a usually a family or union of growers who share their resources, produce and sell the wine under their own label.
- ND – Négociant Distributeur
A distributor who buys and distributes Champagne that they have not grown or produced.
- MA – Marque d’Acheteur
This is usually a supermarket, restaurant, celebrity who will buy the Champagne that is not produced or grown by them and sell it under their own private label.
Sugar Levels (Dosage)
Champagne follows the same rules when it comes to the added sugar or dosage as the rest of the sparkling wines. Below is a chart which shows how many grams of sugar per liter each Champagne style allows. It is common for Champagnes to be Brut however there is an increasing amount of producers who are focusing on producing Brut Nature and Extra Brut Champagnes which really let the taste of the wine shine through.
More information on the below chart can be found in our post on sparkling wines.
Champagne Production Method
Champagne is made with the Traditional (Champagne) method exclusively. The main idea of this method is that the second fermentation takes place in the bottle rather than a pressurized stainless steel tank. Below are the steps that this method entails. For more details on other types of production methods and the difference between them, head over to our sparkling wines post.
1. Primary Fermentation/ Cuvée
- The first fermentation takes place in the barrel
- At this point the alcohol levels are quite low, around 10%
2. Tirage & Second Fermentation
- A blend of yeast and sugar called liqueur de tirage is added to the wine base which causes the second fermentation to initiate.
- It is important to note that the wine base is transferred into bottles where the second fermentation will take place. This is a key difference between this method and other methods where the second fermentation takes place in the barrel.
- When the yeast and sugar are added, the yeast starts to consume the sugar releasing alcohol and CO₂ which causes the fermentation to begin.
- The bottles will have crown caps at this point not corks in order to ensure that the CO₂ is trapped, which is what creates the fizziness
- The yeast eventually consumes all the sugar and dies (dead yeast is called lees). The wine is then left to age on the lees from 9 months to 5 years (for Champagne it is around 1.5 – 8 years).
- The lees is what gives the wine creaminess, richness and texture.
- The longer the wines will age, the more expensive they will be.
4. Remuage / Riddling
- The dead yeast that has formed plus whatever sediment is left must be removed through what is called Remuage (or Riddling).
- This entails the frequent turning of the bottle which is placed at an angle with the bottleneck down.
- This takes about 3 – 4 days and it used to be done manually back in the day.
- When the lees and sediments are accumulated at the bottom of the crown, the bottleneck is dipped into a freezing solution.
- This causes the bottleneck to freeze together with the lees.
- The crown cap is then popped and frozen lees is removed.
- Some wine and sugar is then added into the bottle which is called dosage.
- The bottle is finally corked and labelled.
How to read a Champagne label
In addition to the above information, Champagne labels can have various information depending on each producer. For example a Vintage Champagne will also have the year or the vintage on the label. However a Non-Vintage one may also have the years of the harvests that were blended. It can also have on the back of the bottle, information on dosage, disgorgement date and mis en cave (when the wine was placed in the cellar) date.
These days however many Champagnes do not have all the detailed information on the back of their label anymore, most of it is stored on their website so instead it is common to add a QR code on the label.
A. Viot & Fils
Brut Tradition, NV, Récoltant Manipulant
- Country and region: France, Champagne
- Producer: A. Viot & Fils, RM
- Blend: 60% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Meunier
- Alcohol content: 12%
- Tasting notes: crisp with notes of apple, citrus, buttery, toasty brioche
Blanc de Noirs, Brut Nature, 2015
- Country and region: Portugal, Bairrada
- Producer: Kompassus
- Blend: 70% Baga, 15% Pinot Noir, 15% Touriga Nacional.
- Alcohol content: 12%
- Tasting notes: Apple, grapefruit, orange, toast, brioche, fresh, fruity, crisp, medium body.