Champagne

The original bubbly comes from the Champagne region located about 90 minutes northeast of Paris. Its harsh northern climate, chalky sub-soil, erratic sunshine, and low yield make for a unique terroir. Though some California growers continue to call their sparkling wines “Champagne,“ Common Market countries reserve the name for wines produced in Champagne, France. The Champagne “AOC” (Appellation of Controlled Origin) protects the region’s name from misuse and ensures that the wine is of the highest quality. The AOC’s regulations ensure quality by controlling the pruning, height, spacing and density of the vines. They ensure hand harvesting, and govern the winemaking process.  Click here to search for champagne cocktail recipes:

Fun Fact

French kings were crowned at the Cathedral of Reims, the capital of Champagne. Visiting royals from across the continent would celebrate the coronations by drinking Champagne.

"Come quickly! I am tasting stars!"   - Dom Perignon, at his first sip of champagne.

First Fermentation. After the grapes are pressed, they are stored in stainless steel vats – or occasionally in oak barrels – for the first fermentation. A still (not bubbly) wine is produced.The Vineyard. Only three varieties of grapes are used in Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. During harvest, grapes are picked by hand and sorted to remove damaged fruit. Then, as quickly as possible, the grapes are pressed in large, low presses.

Second Fermentation. Once the blend is complete, it is bottled, and a mixture of sugar and yeast, known as the liqueur de tirage, is added. The bottle is closed with a crown cap and laid down, horizontally, in a cool, dark cellar. The minimum amount of time the wine ages is 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage, but most Champagne is aged for longer than these minimal rules stipulate. It is from this second fermentation that the Champagne gets its bubbles, as the carbon dioxide, a natural by-product of fermentation, is trapped in the closed bottle.

"Hardly did it appear, than from my mouth it passed into my heart."  - Abbé de Challieu, 1715, upon first tasting Champagne.

Blending. After the first fermentation, the winemaker blends the still wine with various other base wines—as many as 70 different wines--to produce the Champagne house’s signature blend. For non-vintage Champagne, reserve wine set aside from previous harvests is also added. This complex and delicate process allows the wine-maker to produce his own version.

My only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne.  - John Maynard Keynes

Riddling. After aging, the yeast deposit remaining from the second fermentation is encouraged down the neck of the inverted bottle through a series of quarter or half-quarter turns, during which the bottle moves from a horizontal position to an inverted one. This process, called riddling, takes an average of eight weeks by hand, or eight days by machine.

Disgorgement and Dosage. Once settled, the sediment is removed by immersing the Champagne bottleneck in ice-cold brine that freezes the residue into a small ice block. It is then removed from the bottle, either by hand or automatically. Then, a small amount of sugar dissolved in wine is added before the final cork is inserted in the bottle. This solution contains a specific measure of sugar that will define the sweetness of the wine.

Fun Fact

Great Britain is the largest importer of Champagne. The U.S. with about 20 million bottles is second.

A Variety of Wines

Even though Champagne is a small region there are many styles of its delicious sparkling wine.

I like champagne because it always tastes as though my foot's asleep. - Art Buchwald

Blanc de blancs is a sparkling from 100% Chardonnay grapes. The light, dry taste makes it a good aperitif or wine to pair with seafood and soups.

Blanc de noirs is made from 100% Pinot Noir and/or Meunier grapes. These are fuller-bodied and deeper yellow-gold or even pale peachy pink. They stand up to full-flavored foods, even meats and cheeses.

Pink or rosé is made by two methods. In one, a small amount of still red wine from Champagne is added. In the other the juice is exposed briefly to the skins of the red grapes during pressing. Only a small amount of this delicious version of Champagne is produced.

Non-Vintage or "NV" Champagne is composed of several different years rather than from a single harvest. More than 85% of Champagne is Non-Vintage.

Vintage Champagne is produced from grapes harvested in a single year. It is produced only when the harvest is particularly distinguished. Even in a good year, only a fraction of the total Champagne made is declared as a vintage Champagne.

Practical Tips

A magnum is the perfect amount of Champagne for two people – if only one is drinking.  - French saying

Storing Champagne: Just like any other wine, store Champagne on its side in a dark cool place-between 40 and 60 degrees.

Chilling: Chill Champagne to a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees in the refrigerator for a couple of hours or in an ice water bath for 20 minutes.

Opening a Champagne Bottle: Forget the charming 1940’s movie scene with the exploding cork and the frothy Champagne spilling onto the floor. The trick is really to avoid “popping” the cork and losing some of those precious bubbles that took a great deal of skill, time and expense to produce. Remove the foil. Then, carefully untwist and loosen the bottom of the wire cage, but do not remove it. In one hand, enclose the cage and cork while holding the base of the Champagne bottle with your other hand. Twist both ends in opposite directions. When you feel pressure forcing the cork out, hold it back in while continuing to twist gently until the cork is released with a “poof” sound. Keep the bottle slanted at a 45-degree angle that mysteriously keeps the Champagne from overflowing.

Serving Champagne: Pour Champagne slowly with the glass slanted toward the mouth of the bottle so that the wine flows down the inside of the glass instead of splashing directly into the glass. This preserves the bubbles and keeps a “head” from forming.

The Right Glass: A tulip glass or deep white wine glass is the glass of choice among Champagne makers because it both preserves the bubbles and allows for full appreciation of the aromas of the Champagne. A Champagne flute—shaped like an inverted cone is fine, too. Since the bubbles rise from the bottom of the glass, the smaller the area of the bottom, the fewer the bubbles that can rise.

In victory you deserve champagne; in defeat you need it.  - Napoleon

Fun Fact

Large Champagne bottles are named after biblical kings:

  • Jeraboam = 4 bottles
  • Methuselah = 8 bottles
  • Salmanazar = 12 bottles
  • Balthazar = 16 bottles
  • Nebuchadnezzar = 20 bottles