Holy Moly, we almost made it through another year- and that’s cause to celebrate! Let’s take a closer look at what’s available, and investigate why some bubbles are pricier than others- why should you celebrate with Champagne?
The average bottle of French Champagne is around $50 and can climb well into the hundreds. There are almost hundreds of reasons why. Champagne is a sparkling wine that must originate from the Champagne region of France to legally say “Champagne” on the label. Champagne the province is located in the Northeastern corner of France, about an hour and a half drive from Paris. There are 16,200 winemakers, 400 official Champagne houses, and the wine ages between 15 months and ten years. Storing wine in a cellar for years before release does not make much profit.
The terroir (soil) is unique to the Champagne region; rich in limestone, chalk and marlstone. This terroir provides a unique natural drainage to the vineyards, as well as giving the grapes a flavor all their own. Under the rules of the appellation of Champagne, only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier can be used to produce the sparkling wine. The rules also dictate the grape yields, pruning, and winemaking methods (traditional) and time for aging. The traditional “Method Champenoise” has been used for centuries. This method means the second fermentation occurs in the bottle, not in a tank or a vat, which other methods of production of sparkling wine use, acceptably, outside of Champagne. There are sweetness levels, from Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut (meaning very dry), Extra Dry, Sec, Demi Sec and Doux (meaning sweeter, more sugar added). Sugar? Indeed, Champagne allows the addition of sugar, and tops off their bottles with a “dosage” which usually corrects the level of acid and sweetness in the final product. Dosage occurs after the disgorging process. Disgorging is when the Champagne bottles are turned upright, often the neck of the bottle is frozen quickly, and the cork pops, losing some of the liquid along with the unwanted solids. Very few sparkling wines are consumed these days that are high in sugar, so most Dosage is Brut to Extra Dry.
These are the terms used in the traditional method of production of Champagne.
Assemblage-the blending of wines from different vineyards
Riddling-the turning of the champagne bottles (often by hand) to dislodge the sediment.
Disgorging-as described above, when the sediment is released.
Dosage-the amount of reserve wine and sugar added back into the bottle.
Liqueur de tirage-the mixture of sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients added to the cuvee’ for the second fermentation.
Remuage-The person who does the actual turning of the bottles, a painstaking process that takes great wrist action, and is often a well-paid position that is held in high regard.
So, the process is complicated and expensive, which helps explain why Champagne is so special. The Champagne methode was believed to have been created accidentally by the Sistine monks in the late 1600’s. Hence the famous line of Dom Perignon claiming he was “tasting the stars” created by the accidental carbon dioxide- bubbles! Champagne can be very complex with flavors of bread dough and yeast and nuttiness, as well as apple and citrus. The bubbles themselves tend to be smaller when less sugar is added to the dosage.
Crémant is made exactly as Methode Champenois but is produced in regions outside of Champagne. Crémant can be very good sparkling wine and also worth every penny.
If you see the word Charmat on the bottle, it means the secondary fermentation happened in a tank. This is another method of producing sparkling wine at a more economic level. Prosecco is the most well-known sparkler where the tank method is common. The tank is held under pressure and the yeast and sugar cause a forced release of carbon dioxide- bubbles! Here are a few Champagnes and Sparkling wines that are well worth the investment.
Saint Hilaire The Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint Hilaire in the southern foothills of France (specifically the Limoux Region) date back to 1531 -on record for making Sparkling wine. France’s oldest sparkling precedes Champagne by more than a century, using a grape variety called Mauzac. Champagne may be king, but this affordable sparkler does not disappoint. We give it two bones.
Willm Cremant d’ Alsace Today, the Alsace region is known specifically for Pinot Gris, Pino Blanc and Riesling, and has become the top AOC (Appellation) for sparkling wine in France outside of Champagne. Using the traditional method Maison Willm produces high quality bubbles at a fair price. Dominated by Pinot Blanc, this wine is fresh and offers flavors of green fruit and herbal notes. We give it two bones.
Moet Chandon Imperial This legendary house of Champagne is celebrating 270 years as one of the world’s most loved Champagnes! Dating back to King Louis XV, one of his madam’s and a most powerful woman for her time, helped make Moet & Chandon famous by saying it is “the only Champagne in the world that makes every woman beautiful”. And Napoleon himself is credited with the tradition of sabering a Champagne bottle with his sword, favoring Moet, of course. The Imperial is bright and fruity, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay showing the elegance and flavor of brioche and nuttiness. We give it two bones.
Champagne Billecart Salmon Is at the top of our list for fine Champagne. The vineyards for the house are located from the Cote des Blancs to the Montagne de Reims, top Grand Cru vineyards in the heart of Champagne near Epernay. This house has over 200 years of history -in 1818 when Nicholas Francois Billecart and Elisabeth Salmon were married. Over 7 generations, the family has endeavored to continue the tradition of producing Champagne of excellence. A floral nose followed by flavors of fresh fruit, and pear. The Brut Reserve is a blend of three different vintages, 30% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 30% Chardonnay. We give it three bones.
With the rich history that is French Champagne and historic sparkling wine, we must mention a California favorite.
Roederer Estate Brut Founded in 1982, nestled in Mendocino’s fog shrouded Anderson Valley, Roederer is among very few California sparkling wine houses that use predominantly estate grown fruit. The traditional method Champenoise produces a lovely fine bubble, it offers crips, elegance with complex flavors of pear and spice. We give it three bones.
Whether you’re entertaining friends and family, watching the ball drop by yourself on New Year’s Eve, or choosing a gift for someone special, we have a selection of bubbles that is perfect for you. Stop by and say “Cheers” and have a wonderful holiday season and a blessed New Year.
By Carolyn R Brown