To impress your friends on New Year’s Eve (and every subsequent celebration thereafter), here’s everything you need to know about champagne, from blending to harvesting and dosing.
Unlike Burgundy, where we have always tried to isolate the terroirs according to taste, in Champagne we mix it all together. Certainly, as in Burgundy, we identify by areas (côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, etc.), by villages (Cuis, Bouzy, Cramant, etc.), by fields often. The aim is not to isolate but to enrich by addition. In large Champagne maisons, a hundred or so vintages from different origins sometimes mix to produce a cutvée. The young wine brings freshness and the oldest, the so-called reserve wines, give roundness and bouquet. The production of vintage wines, with the year of harvest on the label, represents less than 10% of total volume produced.
Champagne made exclusively from the Chardonnay grape variety. On the other hand, a Blanc de noirs is made from black grapes (pinot noir, pinot meunier) only.
Champagne is mainly made with black grapes that are pressed quickly so that the juice (white) is not stained by the coloring materials contained in the grape’s skin.
Pinot noir. It gives off fine red fruit aromas and has a very winy, solid palate. Only soil that isn’t very humid and sun-exposed are suitable for this rather fragile and late wine. 38% of land area.
Pinot meunier. It matures quickly and doesn’t suffer in less sunny exposures. The meunier produces supple, fruity wines that are easy to drink but have an astonishing capacity for aging. After having overlooked it for a while, winemakers are now rediscovering its great qualities. 34% of land area.
Chardonnay. The white grapes of the main Burgundys. Solid, fruity, it is incomparable in its delicacy on the limestone terroirs. 28% of land area.
Some producers are bringing forgotten grape varieties back to the mainstream, such as arbanus or petit-meslier.
Double meaning. The cuvée refers both to the blend (special cuvée, prestige, etc.) and the first juices that come out of the grape press, of much better quality than the “tailles,” which come from subsequent pressing and are used to produce champagnes with high price tags.
This is the last step before the sale. At the end of the maturing process, when the producer decides that his wine is ready, he will proceed with the stirring. This, manual on a surface or mechanical in a gyropalette, allows the deposit created by the yeasts to descend to the neck. Then, the bottle passes (head down) into a bath that transforms the deposit into ice, then the bottle is uncorked in order to get it out — this is the disgorgement. The missing volume is filled with the appropriate dosage of liquor — a mixture of wine and cane sugar — before placing the final cork in. In recent years, some producers have replaced this sugar with rectified concentrated moûts (concentrated grape juice), which has excellent results. A too recent dosage (less than three months) damages the harmony of the taste of the champagne.
The different qualities of champagne are defined according to the sugar per litre added in at the time of the dosage.
– Brut nature or ultrabrut: no input
– Extrabrut: 0 to 6 grams of sugar
– Brut: less than 12 grams
– Extradry: between 12 and 17 grams
– Sec: between 17 and 32 grams
– Demi-sec: between 32 and 50 grams
– Doux: more than 50 grams
Élevage, or the raising, can last several years. The, bottles stacked in the cellars, must wait in a dark and warm place. Yeasts gradually restore compounds to the wine which enriches it. A long élevage is a guarantee of quality.
Foudre are large wood barrels of different sizes. They had almost disappeared in Champagne, replaced by stainless steel tanks (Inox). But we’ve come back to it for the maturing of reserve wine (those that will be used in the following years) or even to make wine. They bring complexity and roundness to the wine.
This is the shortcut to malolactic fermentation, which is not really fermentation but the degradation, because of bacteria, of malic acid into lactic acid, which is less aggressive. From one summer solstice to the next, malic acid is useful to keep wines fresh.
After blending, the wine is bottled with a tirage liqueur (a mixture of sugar and wine) and leaven (selected yeasts). These will attack sugar and create carbon dioxide. This “foaming,” which lasts about two months, is prolonged by the élevage (minimum fifteen months in total). The bottle is then capped (some rare vintages are capped with a cork stopper held by a staple).
See dosage. More and more houses and winegrowers are offering champagnes with very low dosage (extra gross) or without dosage, called natural. Most of the time, slightly older wines are used, rounded by time and aging, than in a normal brut.
Always hold the cork still and turn the bottle, you have more control that way. Always aim at a wall, never open with the wine aimed at a person. It is a frequent cause of accidents.
Vintage or not, the cuvée prestige is composed of a selection of terroirs and generally comes from the first press after eliminating the very first juices that come out of the press. The most famous: Dom Pérignon, Cristal de Roederer, Grand Siècle de Laurent-Perrier, Grande Dame chez Clicquot… Every maisons and most of the independent winegrowers have a cuvée prestige.
Often obtained by adding red wine (from Champagne), it’s actually the only area where this practice is allowed. Some producers prefer the method used in other regions, which is a short maceration (vatting) to extract enough coloring matter. This creates winy rosé wines perfect to accompany food. The elegant aperitif rosé is more often made from chardonnay and colored with red wine. Rosés can be vintage or not, both are possible.
A practice inherited from Spain (from Jerez), which consists of replacing old wines with younger ones in the barrels according to a complicated system of communicating vases. In Champagne, we have simplified this process by using a vat or a foudre (a large barrel), from which a small amount of wine is drawn off each year, replaced by wines from recent vintages. Through this, freshness and maturity are combined.
We can narrow this down to a multitude of vintages or villages and a few large areas:
La côte des Blancs. A renowned area that goes from Epernay to Vertus, where chardonnay grapes are harvested first and foremost. The villages of Avize, Chouilly, Cramant, Cuis, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, all of which have a layer of limestone underground on which they reside, each offer different characteristics to the wine.
La vallée de la Marne. Downstream from Epernay, these are the hills that dominate the Marne and border its tributaries. Pinot meunier is the main grape variety, along with chardonnay and pinot noir.
La Montagne de Reims. Between Epernay and Reims is a large limestone massif with varied soils and sun exposures, where pinot noir grapes reigns supreme. The villages are Ambonnay, Bouzy, Verzenay, and Verzy. There are also large and rare chardonnay grapes in Mailly, Trépail, and Villers-Marmery.
La côte des Bars. This is the name given to the Aube vineyard, closer to Burgundy. The pinot noir grape dominates, while the meunier is nearly absent from the area. Two vintages have become reference points in the champagne world: those of Riceys, where a bubble-free rosé with a long shelf life is also produced, and Montgueux, near Troyes, famous for its chardonnays.
Vendanges, or the harvest, must be done by hand to prevent the skin of the red grapes from coloring the white juices (pinot noir and meunier are red grapes, only the chardonnay is white).
This article was written by wine experts Jacques Dupont and Olivier Bompas