Ahhh, champagne! That quintessential quaff that tickles your nose and delights your palate. That signature “pop” that always catches us by surprise. What would a celebration be without a good bottle of champagne to toast the happy occasion? Not to mention a romantic evening for two. Is there a better way to ring in the new year? And how would we send a ship on her maiden voyage without a good whack with a bottle of bubbly?
Champagne is a part of nearly every culture’s festive occasions but how much do we really know about this prestigious potable? There’s so much to learn about this delicious wine. Let’s delve in!
Champagne is From Champagne
You are no doubt familiar with the fact that in order for a sparkling wine to be called Champagne it must come from the Champagne region in the northwest part of France. This was set forth in the Treaty of Madrid of 1891. The sole exception to the rule are those sparkling wines made by wine producers in the U.S. who called their products “champagne” prior to 2006.
While Champagne’s big draw is, well, champagne, it is a beautiful region. Set perfectly in the towering Marne Valley the region is speckled with charming and welcoming villages. It’s easy to see how the area inspired so many of the impressionist painters.
How We Started Drinking Stars
Winemaking has been a tradition in the region of Champagne since the Romans planted grapes there in the 5th century. Sparkling wine was first recorded as being made in 1531 by French monks in Carcassonne. Centuries of perfecting upon the craft gave us what we enjoy today.
The Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon, is often cited as the one who discovered this luscious libation, but that isn’t quite true. Nor did he utter the famous exclamation “Brothers come quickly! I’m drinking stars!”. That actually was used in an advertisement in the 19th century.
However we do owe the legendary monk for perfecting the production and quality of champagne. Before Dom Pérignon’s methods were employed, many vineyards experienced spontaneously exploding bottles from the force of the carbon dioxide. Often a few exploding bottles would set off a chain reaction causing much of the yield to be ruined. Dom Pérignon designed a method to put an end to this wasteful event.
How the Stars Get in The Bottle
There are three grape varieties grown in the Champagne wine region. They are Chardonnay, a white grape, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, two dark red varieties. All three grapes are used to produce champagne. The grapes are harvested in September and crushed to produce a juice, or must.
The must is transferred to an open vat to go through the first fermentation. A special yeast is added to the must, similar to the kind used to bake bread. The yeast eats up the sugars in the must, producing alcohol called ethanol along with carbon dioxide. Although the carbon dioxide is what makes the bubbles, at this point it merely dissipates out of the open vat.
When the yeast is spent it is the end of the first fermentation. The wine is non-effervescent at this stage. Next comes the blending of the wines. A cellar master who specializes in champagne blends just the right wines, which can come from different area vineyards, different grape cultivars and even different years-up to 40 to 80 different wines (although usually a smaller number of wines is used) may be necessary to achieve the coveted balance of sweetness, acidity and flavor. The wines used come only from the Champagne region and only the three grape varieties mentioned above.
The second fermentation involves adding more yeast as well as sugar, then bottling the wine in thick-walled bottles, corking them and moving them to a cool cellar for a slow fermentation process, which takes a few months.
Even though the fermentation process is over the champagne is nowhere near ready to drink. It will take from 15 months to two or more years to achieve the desired flavor and build the complexity of the wine. The longer it ages the more rich and well-rounded the flavor. The best champagnes tend to age more than five years.
Riddling, Dégorgement and Dosage
As fermentation finishes and aging begins the champagne has a good bit of spent yeast cells floating around. You wouldn’t want to drink it now as the flavor would be quite yeasty and the appearance very cloudy. This is when the process known as riddling begins.
In order to collect all the spent yeast in the neck of the champagne bottles the bottles are stored at a slant. Each day, a few times a day, the bottles are turned ever so slightly to ensure all of the yeast and sediment is collected in the neck of the bottle.
Once a job for cellar laborers the riddling is now performed by automation, an easier and much more precise task. Not to mention speedier. It used to take laborers 6 weeks to do what a machine now does in one.
When all the yeast cells are settled in the neck of the bottle of champagne the necks are frozen. This turns the yeast sediment into an ice plug. Voila! But how do you get the ice plug out without losing the champagne? After all the champagne cork is under an awful lot of pressure, similar to being below water at 165 feet.
That much pressure will shoot the ice plug out as soon as the bottle is opened but some of the liquid gold is lost in the process, known as dégorgement. At the risk of losing the champagne, not to mention some of the bubbles, the champagne houses will replace the liquid with a combination of sugar and wine.
This method, called dosage, has been used for many decades. This is also the point, depending on how much sugar is used, that separates the dry or brut champagne from the sweet or doux champagne. The entire process of dégorgement and dosage lasts only a few seconds, helping to ensure the “stars” remain in the bottle. And to make sure the stars don’t escape on their own the cork is held in place by the customary cage cap.
Raise a Glass in Champagne
Once you’ve tasted this liquid perfection in the region from which it comes you’ll understand why champagne is the ultimate choice for celebrating. Why not celebrate a beautiful day in Champagne with a bottle of champagne?
Champagne could be a nice day trip from Paris. Check it out!