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Champagne - The History and How it's made

Champagne - The History and How it's made

Champagne is perhaps the most famous of all wines and certainly it is the most famous sparkling wine although Prosecco is now giving it a good run for its money. It’s something that is served on many occasions from celebrations to simply as an aperitif. However, Champagne is also a region in France where the wine originates and that has given its name to this exceptional drink.

The wine can only originate from this region and the name cannot be used for sparkling wines coming from other origins. In addition it must be made in a specific way using specified grape varieties. Today there are 3 major grape varieties which make up the vast majority of all Champagnes. These are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. When the grapes have achieved sufficient ripeness and levels of acidity they are picked and taken to a press where crushing begins to achieve the juice that will finally become the effervescent nectar that we call Champagne. 

First of all, the grape juice undergoes fermentation to produce a dry “base” wine. In the spring, all of the various base wines that have been produced in the differing vineyard parcels and from the various grape varieties are tasted and then blended together with some reserve wines from back vintages, to achieve a specific house style that will become the flagship of each Champagne House. This blend will then be placed in the final bottle together with a touch of sugar and some yeast. This will be closed with a crown cork (as you find on beer bottles) and laid in the cold cellars to re-ferment slowly and age. A side effect of fermentation is the giving off of Carbon Dioxide but as the bottle is tightly sealed, this gas cannot escape and becomes absorbed into the wine. Thus, the sparkle is born.

Once some ageing has taken place the bottle is gradually brought to an upside-down position while at the same time it is riddled to make the sediment of yeast cells in the bottle collect in the neck. 

Subsequently the bottle has its neck frozen and it is then opened as it is turned to a vertical position and the pressure inside the bottle (6 atmospheres) expels the pellet. The bottle is then topped up to the required level (usually 75 cl) with a mixture of the original wine and with some added sugar. A cork closes the bottle which is tied down with a muzzle of wire to hold it in place, the label is applied and there you have a finished bottle of Champagne.

The different styles of Champagne are produced in several different ways. Firstly, if only white grapes have been used it can be called Blanc de Blancs and if only red grapes have been used, Blanc de Noirs. During the final process, the amount of sugar added to top up the liquid (dosage) determines the final style.  The driest style of wine is termed Brut Nature which can have between 0 to 3 grams of sugar per liter.  Extra Brut comes next with up to 6 grams per liter. Next is Brut with up to 12 grams of sugar, Extra Dry with towards 17 grams, Dry or Sec with between 17 and 32 grams, demi-sec with 32-50 grams and finally doux with over 50 grams. Confused? Me too!! How Extra Dry can be almost sweet is beyond me but that’s the E.U. for you!

Going back to the 19th century, most Champagne was sweet but gradually tastes became drier and it was for us British that the Brut designation was originally made. 

In addition to these titles there is also Vintage Champagne which as its name suggests is made from the base wines of a specific year. Rosé Champagne is usually made with the addition of some still red wine to give it some colour but it can be made with leaving the original grapes on the red skins for a short while to tint the juice. And then there are the luxury cuvées that tend to be aged longer in bottle and to come from the finer parcels of land.

Many of the most famous Champagne houses have few or no vineyards. Thus, it was the tradition for them to have contracts with the farmers who grew the grapes for their supply. Each parcel of vineyard land was qualified as to where the finest quality grapes were grown. At the start of the harvest, a price was set for the cost of a kilo of grapes to the Champagne Houses. Depending on the quality of land, it was rated by a percentage and the very finest parcels were rated at 100%, so the growers were paid 100% of the price. This is termed as Grand Cru. From 90 to 99% the wines are known as Premier Cru and the lowest rating of all is 80%. As most wines come from a mixture of these origins it’s seldom that the terms Grand Cru and Premier Cru appear on Champagne labels. 

As well as the great Champagne Houses that account for the vast majority of Champagne sold today, such names as Pol Roger, Moet et Chandon and Bollinger, there are many small growers who today make their own brands of Champagne together with Co-operative cellars that act on behalf of many growers. 

But just where is Champagne? It’s in the North-East of France around the cities of Reims and Epernay, towards Avize and then there’s a gap going south until you reach the vineyards around Bar sur Aube. 

Between the cities of Reims and Epernay lies the Montagne de Reims where mainly Pinot Noir flourishes. Extending out from Epernay in the direction of Paris is the Marne Valley where much Pinot Meunier is grown. Over towards Avize there is the Cote des Blancs which is famous for Chardonnay, and finally the Valley of the Aube, much further south, where Pinot Noir grows again.

As a rule of thumb, Chardonnay give elegance and finesse to the wine, Pinot Noir gives good fruit and depth while Pinot Meunier helps the other two blend together.

The determining factors as to quality can be many fold but personal taste will play a fair part. The original vineyard site will determine the overall quality of the grapes used to make the wine together with the farmer, the hand of the man that makes it and the amount of time given over to ageing the wine in bottle before disgorging will all contribute. For the last factor, the very minimum is 18 months but it is quite usual for the wine to rest for 3 years if not more for the very great Champagnes. Thus, many different factors affect the price. 

Suffice it to say, Champagne is always expensive but as you’ve probably gathered by now, it’s quite a complicated process to make the wine and that is therefore reflected in the cost. 

Whatever your taste, we hope you enjoy drinking Champagne and will be very pleased to help or advise you find the perfect wine for your specific taste.

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