What is Champagne?

What is Champagne?

Did you know “Champagne” is only true Champagne when it comes from the Champagne region of France. There is an actual place in France called Champagne! Champagne is a region located approximately 90 miles northeast of Paris, France. The soils, vineyard conditions and regulated method of production all affect the overall product. Outside of this region is just simply called sparkling wine, for example, Crémant, Cava and of course Prosecco.

The process of making Champagne in France is complex, time-consuming, highly regulated and dependent on factors that can only be achieved within this very region in order to create a very high-quality product.

The regulations for making Champagne are incredibly strict, time-consuming and complex. They must follow these steps.

There are three primary grapes used in Champagne production Chardonnay, Pinot Noirand Pinot Meunier. While there are a few other grapes permitted in the region, they account for a fraction of the total plantings.

The grapes go through a traditional harvest much like any other wine and undergo Primary (First) Fermentation: This usually results in a wine that is between 10.5-11% alcohol and very high acidity. At this point, the wine is a still wine (no bubbles yet).

Wines from different grape varieties, vineyards and vintages are all blended together. This is to create a consistent style year after year so that you, as a consumer, will know that the wine you love right now will likely maintain a consistent flavour year after year. Unlike many other styles of wine that can taste vastly different vintage after vintage, the goal of many Champagne producers is to create a consistent “house style,” reflected year after year.

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.

Second Fermentation: This occurs slowly within the bottles. This process can last anywhere from 1-3 weeks. Then the bottles are laid sideways to rest, mature, and age on their lees. The ageing on the lees is what aids in the “toasty” “doughy” “bread” like characteristics. French law requires 15 months of ageing after the wine is bottled for non-vintage Champagne and at least 36 months for vintage-dated wine. This is time-consuming! After the allotted time lots of yeast cells have settled to the bottom. They now need to be removed.

Remuage or Riddling: This is the process that requires twisting of 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 point is to get all the sediment to the tip of the bottle (the bottles are now stacked upside down) in preparation for the next step.

Disgorging or Dégorgement: This is the process of removing that gob of 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!

Addition of the Liqueur d’Expedition: The bottle is now topped up with a 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.

Re-corking: The bottle is now 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).

The process is time-consuming, requires specialised equipment and is very expensive.

Champagne is a very expensive, meticulous and expensive process, to begin with. For those who make Champagne. It can be a labour of love, but one so very worth it when you taste the end product!

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 what you want.

  • Blanc de Blanc: 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 a 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 the consumer can expect a 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.

Sweetness Levels in Champagne

This refers back to that small dose of sugar (dosage) that is added to the wine prior to determining what style of wine (level of sweetness) it will be. Understanding these terms will come in handy if you are particular about a wine’s level of sweetness (like I am!)

  • Brut Naturelle/Non-Dosage: bone dry, usually no sugar is added
  • Extra Brut: very dry, less than 1%
  • Brut: very dry to fairly dry (this is also the most common style you’ll see)
  • Extra Sec or Extra Dry: dry to medium-dry (around 3% sugar)
  • Sec: medium dry, or some call it medium sweet
  • Demi-Sec: sweet
  • Doux: dessert.

Image: Tristan Gassert-unsplash