It has recently been bought to my attention that some people, who would really like to know more about champagne, are too afraid to ask about the basics. So while I know a lot of people who read this blog already have some knowledge about champagne, this post is for those real debutantes. So they can read it quietly, and hopefully their questions will be answered. If not, you can always send me a message. I won’t tell!
Champagne is the name given to a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region in France. The Champagne region is about 160 km east of Paris. The viticultural (wine-making) boundaries were legally defined in 1927, and cover an area of about 33,500 hectares. There are over 300 villages in this defined area, and over 20,000 growers, about 5,00o of whom make their own champagne – these are often referred to as grower producers The rest grow grapes to sell to other larger producers and co-operatives.
Only three types of grape are permitted to be used to make champagne. These are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
The producers use different percentages of these grapes in blends in order to get a final result that they are happy with. Each of the grapes adds a different characteristic to the final blend.
Pinot Noir is a red grape variety that adds body, structure, aroma and a complexity of flavours. Champagnes made of 100% Pinor Noir are called Blanc de Noirs.
Chardonnay is a white grape variety that adds freshness, delicacy, elegance and a certain finesse to the final product. Champagnes made of 100% Chardonnay are called Blanc de Blancs.
Pinot Meunier is a red variety related to pinot noir. It adds character and fruitiness to the blend.
The majority of champagnes are made from a blend of 2/3 red grapes and 1/3 chardonnay. However, these percentages are often altered depending on the season and what the producer is trying to achieve.
Rosé champagne is usually made by blending some red grapes for a short time with the white. For more on rosé, click here.
So how is champagne actually made?
After being harvested and pressed, the champagne undergoes a primary fermentation in either oak barrels, or stainless steel vats, depending on the producer. It is then bottled and has a small amount of yeast and sometimes sugar added to create a secondary fermentation process. The bottles are capped with steel caps, and stored flat for about 18 months. To remove the sediment (or lees) that has settled in the bottle, they must undergo a process of ‘riddling’. This involves placing the bottles horizontally in a specially designed rack. Every day the bottles are turned a quarter of a turn and slightly tilted downwards. After a period of time the bottles are almost completely upside down, and all the sediment has settled in the neck of the bottle. To remove the sediment, the bottles are chilled, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle shoots (or disgorges) the icy sediment, and the bottle is quickly corked before the gas escapes.
Most champagne is non-vintage (NV), meaning it is made of a blend of grapes from different years. Vintage champagne is produced when a particular harvest has been declared exceptional, and champagne is made only from grapes from that particular year’s harvest.
The other words you’ll see on a label of champagne, such as ‘brut’, ‘extra-brut’ and ‘brut’ nature have to do with the sugar content, and therefore give an idea of the sweetness of a particular champagne. Brut is the sweetest, Brut nature is the driest, and extra-brut falls somewhere in between.
I get a little bit excited about all the different techniques and variations there are with champagne, but I think I’ll stop there. Hopefully this little bit of information has helped to better understand what goes into champagne and why sparkling wine is not champagne!