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Champagne

champagne [sham-PAYN]

This most celebrated sparkling wine always seems to signal "special occasion." Though bubbling wines under various appellations abound throughout the world, true champagne comes only from the Champagne region in northeast France. Most countries bow to this tradition by calling their sparkling wines by other names such as spumante in Italy, Sekt in Germany and vin mousseux in other regions of France. Only in America do some wineries refer to their bubbling wine as "champagne."

French champagne is usually made from a blend of chardonnay and pinot noir or pinot blanc grapes. California "champagnes" generally use the same varieties, while those from New York more often are from the pressings of catawba and delaware grapes.

Good champagne is expensive not only because it's made with premium grapes, but because it's made by the méthode champenoise. This traditional method requires a second fermentation in the bottle as well as some 100 manual operations (some of which are mechanized today).

Champagnes can range in color from pale gold to apricot blush. Their flavors can range from toasty to yeasty and from dry (no sugar added) to sweet. A sugar-wine mixture called a dosage added just before final corking determines how sweet a champagne will be. The label indicates the level of sweetness:

  • brut (bone dry to almost dry — less than 1.5 percent sugar);
  • extra sec or extra dry (slightly sweeter — 1.2 to 2 percent sugar);
  • sec (medium sweet — 1.7 to 3.5 percent sugar);
  • demi-sec (sweet — 3.3 to 5 percent sugar); and
  • doux (very sweet — over 5 percent sugar)

Champagne v. Sparkling Wine

What's the big deal? Who cares whether you call it Champagne or spar­kling wine? The French do! They've protected the name Champagne by international treaty-which means, technically, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France can bear the name on the label. The treaty, By the way, doesn't apply in the United States.

The term "champagne" has become generic in the United States to mean all bubblies. A hundred years ago Korbel used "champagne" on its labels. And so have others. It's been only in the last few decades that France has actively sought to protect the name. So, American marketers, with a century of tradition behind them, continue to call their product champagne. And most people-wine geeks included-do the same.

Making Sparkling Wine

Champagne is more than a name. It's a universally adored beverage whose bubbles are created in a time-consuming and labor-intensive process. The technique, methode champenoise, has six basic steps:

Grapes are fermented for about three weeks to produce still wines.

The producer blends his still wines according to what style he wants to achieve. This base wine is called the cuvee.

The wine is bottled and laid down. During the next nine weeks or so, a second fermentation takes place inside the bottle-producing carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles.

The wine is aged-anywhere from nine months to several years-according to the producer's specifications.

The bottles are rotated from a horizontal position to a vertical, upside-down, position. This allows sediment to collect in the neck of the bottle close to the cork so that it can be removed eas­ily and quickly. Rotating the bottles is called riddling.

The neck of the bottle is frozen and the sediment (in the form of a frozen plug) is removed-called disgorging. At this point, sugar is added (a process known as dosage)-the amount dependent on how sweet the producer wants the final product. And the bottles are recorked.

Wine Grapes

To be "real" Champagne, only three grape varieties are allowed: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Pinot Meunier contributes a youth­ful fruitiness. Pinot Noir gives Champagne its weight and richness and is responsible for its longevity. Chardonnay adds lightness.

One of the most important decisions a Champagne-maker has to make is how to blend these grapes to make the base wine. Wines from the different varieties and vineyards are kept separate. The producer then blends the wines (including wines from past years) in varying propor­tions to create its distinct cuvee. This is what distinguishes the ultimate taste of one producer's Champagne compared to others.

For sparkling wines produced by other methods, there are no such strict rules regarding grape variety. Generally speaking, tank-fermented bubblies tend to be fruitier than their Champagne counterparts.

History of Champagne

Until the mid-1600s, Champagne as we know it didn't exist. The region produced still wines, which were very popular with European nobility. But Champagne had yet to be "discovered." The Champagne region in northern France has a cold climate, posing problems for growing grapes and winemaking. Cold winters and short growing seasons mean that grapes had to be harvested as late as possible to get them as ripe as pos­sible. That meant just a short time for fermentation because the cold tem­peratures of winter would put an end to the process. So the wines were bottled before all the sugar had been converted to alcohol.

Then spring would arrive, and fermentation would begin again-this time in the bottle. When the bottles didn't explode from all the pressure that had built up from the carbon dioxide inside, the wines had bubbles. To the winemakers of the time, bubbles were a sign of poor winemaking.

Dom Perignon, the Benedictine monk who's often called the inven­tor of Champagne, was one of those winemakers. He spent a good deal of time trying to prevent the bubbles. He wasn't successful, but he did develop the basic principles used in Champagne making that continue to this day:

  • He advanced the art of blending to include different grapes and different vineyards of the same grape.
  • He invented a method to produce white juice from black grapes.
  • He improved clarification techniques.
  • He used stronger bottles to prevent exploding.

When Dom Perignon died in 1715, Champagne accounted for only about 10 percent of the region's wine. But it was fast becoming the pre­ferred drink of English and French royalty. A royal ordinance in 1735 dictated the size, weight, and shape of Champagne bottles as well as the size of the cork. Two historic Champagne houses came into existence: Ruinart in 1729 and Moet in 1743. By the 1800s the Champagne industry was in full swing.

Champagne Houses

Unlike other French wines that are named after growing regions, Champagnes are named for the houses that produce them. The houses, in turn, produce various brands of Champagne called marques. The largest and most famous of the houses are known as Grandes Marques. You guessed it: big brands! Twenty-four of them belong to an organization that requires they meet certain minimum standards. Some of the more recognizable members are:

  • Bollinger
  • Charles Heidsieck
  • Krug
  • Laurent-Perrier
  • Moet et Chandon
  • G.H. Mumm
  • Perrier-Jouet
  • Pol Roger
  • Pommery & Greno
  • Louis Roederer
  • Ruinart
  • Taittinger
  • Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin

Beginning with Moet et Chandon in 1974, a number of French Cham­pagne houses opened up shop in California. They produce sparkling wines the traditional way using the same grape varieties as in France: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. The French-American pro­ductions include Domaine Cameros (owned by Taittinger), Domaine Chandon (owned by Moet et Chandon), Mumm Cuvee Napa (owned by G. H. Mumm), Piper Sonoma (owned by Piper-Heidsieck), and Roederer Estate (owned by Louis Roederer).

Grower Champagne

While some of the major Champagne houses have sizeable vineyard holdings, they still buy most of their grapes from the 20,000 or so small growers in the Champagne district. The small growers, who collectively own about 90 percent of the vineyards, are increasingly making their own Champagnes. About 130 of these grower Champagnes are available in the U.S. market (out of the 3,747 sold in France). You've probably never heard their names (they can't afford to pay for promotion and advertising like the big guys), but they offer high quality and bargain prices.

How do you recognize a grower Champagne? It's on the label. In the lower right-hand corner of the front label are two letters followed by some numbers. The letters that will tell you it's a grower Champagne are either "RM" or "SR." Here are all the possible letters and what they mean:

  • NM (Negociant-Manipulant) –The term means merchant-distributor. These are the big houses. They buy grapes in volume from inde­pendent growers.
  • RM (Recoltant-Manipulant)-The term means grower-distributor. This is a grower that makes and markets its own Champagne.
  • SR (Societe de Recoltants)-This is basically the same as grower Champagne. Two or more growers share a winemaking facility and market their own brands.
  • CM (Cooperative-Manipulant)-Thisis a cooperative of growers who bottle their product together-although these wines can include purchased grapes.
  • RC (Recoltant-Cooperative)-This means a grower sends its grapes to a cooperative to be made into wine. The grapes can be blended with other wines in the cooperative.

Choosing a Champagne

A Champagne house establishes its reputation based on a particular style. Many factors influence the style – grape varieties, vineyards, blending choices, tradition. The objective of each house is to provide consistency from one year to the next. When you find a Champagne that you like, you can be sure it will have the same characteristics year after year.

Vintage Champagne

Champagne is produced every year. But "vintage" Champagne is only produced in the best years. Like in all other regions, some grape harvests in Champagne are better than others. In exceptional years, a house will decide to make its bubbly using only the grapes from that harvest-and will date the bottle with that year. In the years in between, the house blends wines from multiple years. It's termed non­vintage (NV). Blending across years is one reason you can expect uni­form quality.

Nonvintage Champagne represents most of a house's production-SO percent or more. They're usually lighter, fresher, and less complex than their vintage counterparts.

From Dry to Sweet

If Champagne were like most other wines, the grapes would be picked when they're perfectly ripe. They'd have plenty of natural sugar to be converted to alcohol. But, alas, that's not the case. The grapes are less than ripe. So the winemaker has to add enough sugar so the yeast will have adequate fuel to convert into alcohol. How much sugar is up to the winemaker. And, needless to say, adding more sugar will make the Champagne taste sweeter. Then, there's another addition of sweetness at the end of the process right before bottling. Sweetness levels of Cham­pagne are important parts of their styles. Progressing from dry to sweet, these are levels:

  • Extra Brut (also called Brut Sauvage, Ultra Brut, Brut Integral, Brut Zero) -driest of all but not a common style
  • Brut -the most popular style and considered to be a good balance of sweetness to dryness
  • Extra Dry (or Extra See) -dry to medium-dry
  • Sec -medium-dry to medium-sweet
  • Demi-See -sweet
  • Doux-very sweet
Champagne Variations

Pink Champagne! The accompaniment to romance! Rose Champagne gets its pink color in one of two ways. The wine maker can leave the skins of the grapes in brief contact with the grape juice during the first fermen­tation ... or add a little Pinot Noir wine to base the wine blend. People sometimes think of Rose Champagne as sweet (maybe because they associate it with sweet blush wines), but it's definitely dry. It's available both as a vintage wine and as nonvintage.

Blanc de noir has a hint of pink, too. In wine terms, blanc de noir means "white wine from black grapes." This Champagne is made from just one of the permitted grapes: Pinot Noir or, less often, Pinot Meunier. It's fuller than Champagnes with Chardonnay in the blend. Blanc de blanc is another one-grape bubbly. It's Chardonnay all the way. It's lighter and more delicate than Champagnes that also include Pinot Noir.

Champagne Bottle Size

Have you ever noticed those superlarge Champagne bottles on dis­play at wine stores and restaurants? Well, they're not just some marketing tool. They're real. Champagne is bottled in ten different sizes, shown in Table 15-1.

Champagne Bottle Sizes and Names

Measure

Size Equivalent

Servings

Popular Name

187ml

quarter bottle

1

split

375 ml

half bottle

2

half

750 ml

standard

4

fifth

1.5 L

2bottles

8

magnum

3L

4bottles

17

jeroboam

4.5 L

6bottles

24

rehoboam

6L

8bottles

34

methuselah

9L

12 bottles (1 case)

50

salmanazar

12 L

16 bottles

68

balthazar

15 L

20 bottles

112

nebuchadnezzar

Only the half bottle, standard bottle, and magnum contain Cham­pagne that's undergone the second fermentation in the bottle. And the three largest sizes are rarely made anymore. How many people must it take to pour from them?

Champagne Name

The fact that a sparkling wine is produced outside of the Champagne region of France doesn't mean that it's inferior. It's just a little differ­ent. Some sparklers are made with the exact same grapes employing the same traditional method. They'll be different because of the terroir - the taste the earth has given to the grapes-and the blending choices of the winemaker. But even some experts have failed to recognize the difference between well-made bubblies from inside and outside the Champagne region.

Non Champagne French Sparkling Wine

Even in the Loire Valley (so close to Champagne) they can't use the Champagne name on the labels of their sparkling wines. The region known, in part, for its use of Chenin Blanc grapes in Vouvray uses the same grapes for its bubblies. The effect is refreshing and creamy.

The eastern regions of France, including Alsace, are known for blend­ing Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris for their sparkling wines. The bubblies turn out crisp. French sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne are labeled "Vins Mousseux.”

Spanish

It used to be called "Spanish Champagne." Then in 1970 the Euro­pean Union banned the use of the term outside of Champagne. From then on Spanish sparkling wines have been known as Cava. The word is Catalan for "cellar," referring to the underground cellars where the wines are aged.

To qualify as a Cava, the sparkling wine has to be produced in the tra­ditional method using specified grape varieties. The list includes Chardon­nay and Pinot Noir, which are used in the best wines, but producers still use the "big three" indigenous grapes: Macabeo, Xarel-Lo, and Parellada.

Italy

Oh, so many bubblies to choose from in Italy . . . starting with Prosecco. It's made from the grape of the same name in the Veneto region of northeastern Italy. Prosecco comes both fully sparkling (spumante) and lightly sparkling (frizzante). They're crisp and dry and inexpensive. They've become very popular, and you see more and more of them on restaurant wine lists.

Then there's the more familiar Asti (in the past known as Asti Spurnante) made from the Muscat grape. Its second fermentation takes place in pressurized tanks in a modified version of the charmat method, and its taste is semisweet to sweet. Asti's cousin is Moscato d'Asti. It dif­fers from Asti in that it's frizzante instead of fully sparkling, sweeter, lower in alcohol, and is corked like a still wine. Both should be drunk young and fresh.

Lambrusco is another Italian option. Most Americans know it as pink, semisweet, and frizzante. But it's also made white and dry.

Domestic Sparkling Wine

Sparkling wine is made almost everywhere still wine is made-the two largest producing states being California and New York. In Califor­nia, particularly in the cooler climates of Sonoma and Mendocino coun­ties, many wineries produce excellent bubblies. And not just the ones with ties to France. Names to look for: Gloria Ferrer, S. Anderson, Iron Horse, Schramsberg, to name just a few. While California gets most of the attention, sparkling wine has been a mainstay of New York winemak­ing since before the Civil War when French Champagne-makers were recruited there by local wineries.

Storing and Serving Sparkling Wine

Champagne is sensitive to temperature and light. Like other wines, it does best stored in a cool, dark place without big temperature fluctua­tions. You don't need an expensive cooling unit-a 50°F basement usu­ally works fine. Champagne is ready for immediate consumption as soon as it leaves the Champagne house, but if you provide the right conditions for your bubbly, it'll last for three to four years-if you haven't drunk it by then. And don't be afraid to keep it in the refrigerator. A couple weeks in the cold isn't going to hurt it.

Opening a Bottle of Champagne

First word of advice: Popping the cork wastes bubbles. The cork should be removed so the sound you hear is a soft "sigh." Removing the cork in this slow manner also reduces the risks of killing someone in the room. (After all, there are 70 pounds-per-square-inch of pressure in that bottle!) Here's a checklist for how to safely open your bottle of Champagne.

  • Stand the bottle on a counter for support. (It's safer than holding the bottle in your arms and possibly pointing it at someone Remove the foil covering.)
  • Get a towel. Keep one hand over the top of the cork with the towel between your hand and the cork. Untwist the wire cage. Remove the wire.
  • Keep the towel on top of the cork with one hand and put your other hand on the bottle at a point where you have a good grasp.
  • Turn the bottle-not the cork. You'll feel the cork loosen a bit. Keep a downward pressure on the cork as it completely loosens and finally releases.
  • Hold the cork over the opened bottle for a few seconds to ensure the Champagne doesn't escape.
  • Pour slowly. Because of the bubbles, the liquid rises quickly ... and you can end up with overflow (and wasted Champagne!) before you know it.

Champagne Glassware

You've undoubtedly seen the sherbet-style glasses that were popular in the 1950s. Now that "retro" is so chic, the glasses are everywhere. Buy them if you want . . . but don't use them for Champagne. Long­ stemmed flutes are the glassware of choice for sparkling wines. The elon­gated shape and slight narrowing at the rim enhance the flow of bubbles and keep them from escaping.

There's no need to chill the glasses. If you do, they'll just fog up and cloud your view of the bubbles.

A couple more words about glasses. If there's soap residue on the glasses, you may experience lots of foam that doesn't subside-caused when the carbon dioxide meets the detergent. To prevent this always rinse the glasses thoroughly when they're washed. And dusty glasses will destroy the bubbles.

Sparkling Wine Leftovers

On the rare occasions that the bottle of bubbly hasn't been emptied, your main objective is to save the bubbles for another day. Your best bet to pre­serve the effervescence is a Champagne bottle stopper. It's made of metal with a spring and special lip to grab the rim of the bottle. They're available.

Sparkling Wine Tips:

Because of its rougher surface, crystal produces more bubbles than ordinary glass. If you want the effect of crystal without the expense, do what restaurants do. Lightly scratch an X in the bottom of the inside of the glass with the tip of a knife. This gives the bubbles something to cling to-just like the crystal.

Bubbly is best served around 45°F. It will take three to four hours in the refrigerator to cool a bottle. But you can quick-chill your Champagne in about twenty minutes by immersing the bottle in ice water. It's faster than ice alone. Half ice and half water in an ice bucket is the way to go. No bucket? The kitchen sink will do.

For a Champagne to qualify for a vintage date, at least 80 percent of the grapes used in producing it have to have been harvested that year. The other 20 percent can come from reserve wines from other years. A vintage Champagne has to age for three years before its release but can be, and often is, aged longer.

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