When is it Champagne o’clock?

Whenever you want it to be!

But what makes Champagne so special in the wine world? Is it really the king of Sparkling wine? Where does champagne come from? How is it made? What grapes is it made from?

We would like help you with this, with our short guide to these questions:

Lets start with the easy question: Where does Champagne come from? Easy, right? Yes and No. Champagne comes from Champagne, in France. However, the ‘Champagne’ name can also legally be given to some sparkling wines made in California, USA. Due to a loophole dating back more than 100 years, continuous production of Champagne in California by certain vineyards is allowed. Confused? I am. lets agree that Champagne is produced in Champagne, and anything else is not Champagne.

Champagne Info

Next, What grapes is it made from? Champagne may only be made with 3 different grape varieties, each giving thier own flavour profile to the end result:

Chardonny: Provides the buttery, but fresh notes in your champagne. It has aromas of white flowers and citrus fruits in its younger state. With age it develops into the rich brioche and toasted nut notes we know and love.

Pinot Meunier: This grape is the least used because it doesnt age as well as the others. However, it does provide Peach, Apricot and yellow fruit notes, developing into almond and gingerbready flavours with subtle earthy and moss tones.

Pinot Noir: All the punchy red fruit flavours are found here, with hints of rose and violet. With age is exudes more of a dried and candied fruit aroma: dried figs, dates and some earthy tobacco also.

How is it made? Champagne is made using Methode Champenoise. This is the method by which there a double fermentation, once in the tanks and once in the bottle. The grapes are collected by hand, and pressed. The first press, known to those in the know as the cuvée is the best juice. Most champagne houses will use this in their creations. The taille is the second press, producing slightly rougher juice. This is often sold by smaller houses to the larger ones who don’t grow enough grapes to support their gargantuan operation. It is also made into Marc de Champagne (don’t kid yourself into thinking you get the real deal in those truffles!)

Once the grapes are squashed and relieved of their juice, they are transferred to tanks and the juice is allowed to settle to remove solid particles such as skins and pips, this is called débourage. The better champagne houses will allow this to happen naturally (slowly) and some champagne houses will use additives to do this. Ever notice how some wine or champagne bottles will say they contain animal products ? This is usually why, as some of these additives contain milk and or eggs (among other things). At this stage it is still a flat, non-sparkling wine but on its way. After this the juice is transferred to (usually) cold fermentation tanks, where the natural sugars in the wine begin to ferment.

The next stage is the assemblage, or blending. Most of champagne produced is non vintage, meaning it is a mixture of new pressed wine, blended with older, aged wine from previous harvests and other vineyards. Adding these aged wines to the blend adds a richness and complexity to the wine.

Once blended, the wine needs to be fermented again, this time in bottles. This is the most crucial stage in Champgane making and is what makes Champagne, Champagne. Once blended and bottled, the tirage, a mix of wine, sugar and yeast is added. the bottle is capped, placed on its side, where the sediment settles in order to have the maximum exposure to the wine called sur-latte. At this stage the fermentation produces the signature fine bubbles in the wine.

Once this second fermentation is complete, it undergoes the process of riddling. No, this is not a medieval method of torture, but a mean of slowly and gently rotating the bottle in a pupitre to encourage the sediment into the neck of the bottle. This process can take 3 weeks until the bottles are fully upside down and the sediment has settled.

A quicker method used by some champagne houses large and small (including quiet a few we have visited) is by using a mechanical device known as a gyropallette, that rotates the bottles automatically. This takes 8 days.

The next stage is the ageing. this is done while the sediment is still in the bottle, in a method called sur point. Ageing a non vintage Champagne must take a minimum of 15 months. Most houses will age for longer, up to 30 months. Vintage bubbles must have a minimum of 3 years, but again many are aged considerably longer.

champagne
Champagne ageing at Pommery.

Once the bottles have aged enough to be released, they are then disgorged. This process removes the sediment. The bottle neck is frozen in a brine which, you guess it, freezes the sediment. When the bottle is turned upright and the cap removed, the sediment is ejected due to pressure in the bottle.

Finally, the bottles ares topped up to replace the lost volume from the disgorgement. This liquid is called the liqueur d’expedition, and is usually a mix of varying amounts of sugar and wine. This is where a wine maker can decide whether the wine will be sweet or dry. In extra brut and brut nature you will no (or very small amounts) of  added sugar.

It is now ready for corking and consumption. In some instances the bottles are returned to the cellar for further ageing.

All champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne. The uniqueness of Champagne comes not only from its production methods but also from its terrior, the region of Champagne. There are many strict rules that control the production of Champagne, this is what makes it the King of the bubbles.

 

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