What Is Champagne?
Champagne is named after the Champagne region of France, where it is made. Champagne tends to be more expensive than other sparkling wines, so it has become a symbol of luxury and celebration.
Not just any sparkling wine can be called Champagne. According to EU regulations, this wine must be made in the Champagne region of France using a specific winemaking technique called the méthode champenoise. Champagne winemakers are so proud of this method that they have gone to court to protect the name, and no wine made outside the region can be called Champagne.
What Is the History of Champagne Making?
The sparkling version of the Champagne wine was discovered by accident. It all began when the wine growers (today's famous Champagne Houses) from the Champagne region were trying to equal the Burgundy wines. However, they did not succeed due to the cold winters in the region that caused the fermentation of the wine which were lying in the cellars, to stop.
The cold climate ensured that the sleeping yeast cells awoke again in spring and started fermenting causing the release of carbon dioxide gas, which was coming from the wine in the bottle. At first, the bottles were weak and exploded but the ones that survived contained the sparkling wine.
The King of France, Hugh Capet, started serving the sparkling wine during official dinners at the Royal Palace. In the years after 1715, the Duke of Orléans introduced the sparkling version of the Champagne wine to the rich and famous.
How to make Champagne?
Step 1: Make the Base Wine
The Champagne method starts exactly like any other wine, still wine is made from three possible grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. It is, however, very acidic and low in alcohol as these will adjust later.
Step 2: The Assemblage
o Most Champagne is a blend of multiple wines made from different grapes, vineyards, and vintages. This is not always the case, but often it is.
o During the assemblage the winemaker decides what the blend will be, and puts the wines made in step one together.
Step 3: Secondary Fermentation (making the bubbles)
o After the blend is assembled, the wine is bottled with a mixture of yeast and sugar (the liqueur de tirage).
o The bottle is then sealed and, over time, the yeast converts the sugar (a secondary fermentation) into a small amount of alcohol and CO2 which is trapped in the bottle, creating the bubbles.
Step 4: Sur Lie Aging
o Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the yeast cells gradually break down in a process called autolysis.
o Sur Lie Aging means resting the wine on the lees (the spent yeast cells).
o In Champagne, it’s legally required to age on the lees for 12 months for non-vintage Champagne, and for vintage Champagne, 36 months is required. Many producers rest their wines on the lees even longer than this though.
o Sur Lie aging adds a creamier texture, and flavors/aromas of freshly baked bread and a nutty quality to the wine.
Step 5: Riddling (Remuage)
After sur lie aging, the lees must be removed or else the wine will have sediment and be cloudy. This is done by gently turning the bottle over and over to gradually to move the lees into the neck of the bottle.
Step 6: Disgorging (Dégorgement)
After the sediment has collected in the neck, the neck of each bottle is frozen in an ice bath and the yeast is ejected.
Step 7: Dosage
o After disgorging, the liqueur d’expedition (a mixture of wine and sugar) is added to the bottle, determining the sweetness level.
o Driest to Sweetest: Brut Nature (0-3 g/L), Extra Brut (0-6 g/L), Brut (0-12 g/L), Extra Dry (12-17 g/L), Sec (17-32 g/L), Demi-Sec (32-50 g/L), Doux (50+ g/L).
Step 8: Aging in Bottle
What Grapes Are Used to Make Champagne?
Some terms you may see on a label include:
• Blanc de noirs (“white from blacks”): a white Champagne made from black-skinned grapes, usually pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
• Blanc de blancs: a white Champagne made from white grapes, usually chardonnay.
• Rosé: pink Champagne made by blending still red wine into a sparkling white wine base, an unusual technique which is only allowed in Champagne.
The sweetness levels of Champagne are:
• brut nature (no dosage)
• extra-brut (wines with up to 6 grams of sugar per liter)
• brut (6–12 grams of sugar per liter)
• extra-sec or extra-dry (12–17 grams of sugar per liter)
• sec or dry (17–32 grams of sugar per liter)
• demi-sec (32–50 grams of sugar per liter)
• doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per liter)
Understanding champagne labels
Look for vintage year. If there is none, the champagne is non vintage (NV) and usually a blend of two or more vintages.
• Blanc de Blancs or Chardonnay on the label indicates that only Chardonnay and no black grapes have been used and the wine may be slightly austere. (Blanc de Noirs means that only black grapes have been used and the wine may be quite full-bodied.)
• Look at the two-letter code which accompanies the code number of the producer.
• NM – Négociant-Manipulant – This appears on the label of large Champagne houses who buy their grapes from a wide variety of other growers then make the Champagne under their own brand.
• RM – Récoltant-Manipulant – This is a Champagne which is both grown and made by the same producer, known as a Grower Champagne.
• CM – Coopérative-Manipulant – This is on the label when a group of small growers blend their grapes collectively and make a sparkling wine under one or more brands. They will usually be involved in the wine-making too.
• RC – Récoltant-Coopérateur – This is when a grower provides grapes to a Coopérative- Manipulant and they make the wine on the grower’s behalf, under the grower’s own brand but without their involvement.
• SR – Sociéte des Récoltants – When a small number of growers get together and share the same winery but make their own labels. This differs from a Coopérative-Manipulant because the growers keep their grapes separate, make their own brand, and are directly involved in the winemaking process.
• ND – Negociant Distributeur – A company selling Champagne it did not make.
• MA – Marque d’ Acheteur – A brand name owned by the purchaser, such as a restaurant, supermarket or wine merchant.