Whether it’s a celebration, an aperitif’, or you just feel like “drinking stars” opening a bottle of sparkling wine doesn’t have to be a special occasion. We worked our way through France virtually, and the wines of this country could not be complete without a discussion on Champagne. This little region in the northeast of France garners rich history, sought after labels, and some of the most expensive, iconic wine in the world. This little region is the difference between “Champagne” and Sparkling wine. We have discussed that French wines are labeled by regional designation- were they come from, and not by the varietal that is in the bottle. The term Champagne has been deemed by the EU, and most of the world, to be the exclusive name for sparkling wines only produced in the Champagne region. There are five Provinces in Champagne; Aube, Cotes de Blancs, Cotes de Sezanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallee de la Marne. Epernay and Reims are the two most famous towns in Champagne, and the grapes used to make Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The region has been a viticultural center since the Middle Ages, with the House of Gosset (founded in 1584 as a still wine producer) as the oldest Champagne house still in operation today. There are over 320 villages under the AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee’) and over 300 million bottles of champagne produced annually. Roughly 21 million of those bottles are exported, mostly to England and the US.
What makes Champagne unique, beside the terroir? After the first fermentation- where the juice is actually a still wine, fermented dry, the wine goes through assemblage or a blending process. Juice from previous vintages is added, and then a secondary fermentation process begins. The Liqueur de tirage a mixture of yeast and sugar is added and the wines are placed in thick glass bottles with a sealed cap, in a cellar to ferment. This is a natural process of alcohol and carbon dioxide creating its magic to form bubbles. After at least several months of aging in these bottles (some Champagne houses age for years- which imparts a yeasty, toasty flavor) the secondary fermentation process is complete. The next part of the process is called riddling or remuage. The bottles are kept upside down at an angle and each day are given a 1/8 turn. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells down so they can be more easily removed. The removal of the dead yeast cells is called disgorgement. In this process the bottle neck is frozen causing a plug of frozen dead yeast cells. The cap is removed and the carbon dioxide causes the plug to explode – in effect “disgorging” the dead yeast cells with very little loss of the wine. Finally, the dosage, often a well- kept secret at many Champagne Houses, a mixture of still wine is added and will make the Champagne either Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Extra Dry, Semi Dry or Doux (sweet). Then the Champagne is corked and covered with a cage to prevent the internal pressure from the carbon dioxide “popping” the cork.
These stringent processes are why Champagne prices are usually a bit higher than other sparkling wines made using different methods. If you see the word “Charmat” on a sparkling wine label, it means the secondary fermentation was done in a tank, and not in the bottle. All Champagne (from the Champagne region) undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle. This is called Methode Traditional or Method Champenoise. It is rumored the famous Benedictine Monk Dom Perignon “discovered” Champagne, which is not really true. Though he pioneered many techniques in both still and sparkling winemaking, his discovery of bottles in the cellar popping their corks from the carbon dioxide and declaring he was “tasting the stars” is linked to an advertisement for the Champagne in 19th century. Though if you’ve ever tasted a fine champagne with minute bubbles, it feels like you are drinking stars!
The difference between “vintage” Champagne and “non-vintage” Champagne is that vintage is made with grapes from one particular harvest year, and must be aged a minimum of three years, while non-vintage is a blend of base wines from different years. Non-Vintage Champagne is aged for 15 months minimum. We have a wonderful selection of them here at Ed’s.
Champagne Gosset Brut Reserve 45% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and 10% Pinot Meunier – harmonious notes of apple, with racy acidity, hints of raspberry and chalk, with just a touch of salted almonds. Sophisticated and rich with a fine mousse (the richness of the bubbles). I give it three bones.
Dom Perignon Vintage This classic vintage champagne shines with tropical fruit, mango, melon and pineapple with just a hint of orange zest. The famed Benedictine monk who was cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers set the precedent for today’s methode champenoise. The grapes for this champagne are harvested from 17 Grand Cru vineyards in the AOC. I give it three bones.
Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvee Since 1829 this famed house has been producing world class champagne from mostly Grand Cu vineyards for a continuity in style. Most vintage champagnes from Bollinger are aged twice as long as appellation requirements. This champagne has been featured in 19 James Bond movies. 60% Pinot Noir, 24% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Meunier, fine mousse, and golden color. The non-vintage champagne features beautiful aromas of roasted apple and peaches, with flavors of pear and brioche. Dynamic and fresh, I give it two bones.
Champagne Delamotte Brut 55% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 10% Pinot Meunier shows a floral nose with delicate bouquet of citrus, white flower and lemon peel. Lovely brioche and nougat aromas. An affordable luxury, I give it two bones.
Be sure to come by and give me a pat or a dog cookie when you’re ready to make your sparkling wine selections. Remember, champagne goes with everything, and a trip to France, even virtually, should always include a bit of bubbles. Cheers!
By Brunello Giancola as told to CRBrown