The Wines of Champagne

champagne

The king of all bubbly, Champagne is one of the truly unique and second to none wines of the world. Sometimes it is used interchangeably with sparkling wine, but Champagne actually refers to a specific area in Northern France – find out what makes it so special (and expensive).

Champagne: A Brief History

When you think of ancient Roman troops, marching all through Europe, usually the warmer Mediterranean areas of the coast and slightly further inland come to mind. Who knew these old school Italians made it so far north?

Like many other great wine areas, Champagne was first planted by these same Romans as they conquered most of Gaul (modern day France) and the Germanic tribes living up there. Whatever was growing there seemed to be enough to satisfy the military men for a while, but when things settled down and France as we know it started to come together, the locals were looking for something a bit better.

At this time, Pinot Noir was the mainstay grape of the region. The first wines of the area were surprisingly then red, and not sparkling. So far north, the grapes really struggled to ripen sugar, flavours, and lessen the high acid bite. Word got around, and apparently the Pinot Noir from Burgundy south of Champagne were making the best wines at the time, and this made the Champenois more than a bit jealous.

They also had other problems: not only did their wines taste like cheap, watered down and vinegary versions of red Burgundy, but their cold winters were giving them more grief. Because the wines fermented so slowly in the cool fall time weather, they didn’t finish in time before winter set in.

During winter, the yeast stopped working (as it does below a certain degree) and kicked back in again when it warmed up in the spring. When the wines were *done fermenting* half of them had a slight sparkle to it from trapped CO2 in the bottles.

The locals were even more pissed! They had no idea what was happening, and hated that their wines weren’t on the same level as Burgundy. But, not everyone thought so: it seems the British took a shining to these prickly wines, and over the next few years they managed to unload some of these so called faulted wines in the UK.

As time went on more and more French started to appreciate the bubbles, and with new technology and knowledge of the science behind it, winemakers were now able to control the second fermentation process, and coax out these bubbles with more ease.

But, it didn’t stop there: the glass they were using was cheap and brittle, turning the Champagne cellars into minefields where bottles would explode at any moment due to the pressure inside them. The British stepped in again, and invented a new way to temper and create glass by burning coal instead of wood. These hotter temperatures lead the glass to be much stronger, and able to withstand the pressure of a true Champagne. How much pressure, you ask? Somewhere around 5 atmospheres, or 70-90psi. You know your car tires? There’s about 3 times the pressure in Champagne then those tires.

When locals finally thought they had suffered enough, phylloxera, American Prohibition, and then the Russian Revolution hit, making the vineyards of Champagne a battlefield. Even today, farmers are still finding shell casings and bullets in their fields.

After Prohibition, Champagne underwent an incredible marketing campaign to brand their wines as the epitome of luxury and to be drank during celebrations. This was in the last century, making it a relatively new things for the wines. Nowadays, it’s hard for people to un-learn the fact that Champagne and even sparkling wine isn’t just for special occasions like New Years or weddings. The rest, as they say, is history.

Champagne: An Overview

Within the region of Champagne, there are a ton of small little villages, sub regions, terms, styles, sugar levels, and more to make your head spin. In an effort to make this thorough and not overwhelming, let’s stick to the real nitty gritty here, what you’ll need to know to be able to buy Champagne confidently.

Styles of Champagne

  • Non Vintage: Also could be called multiple vintage Champagne. This is the most common style of Champagne, and the cheapest. Producers will have what is called a “house style” for their standard wine. Using a range of multiple wines from multiple years, they will be blended and bottled in an effort to maintain a very consistent flavour profile from year to year. So, if you buy Veuve Clicquot in 2005 it should taste the same as if you buy a bottle in 2015. Each producer will have their own signature style and taste that they have tried to keep consistent for years.
  • Vintage: These are wines made from a single vintage date. As not every year or vintage is “declared”, they are only made in the best years, with the best weather and climate and thus creating the best wines. These wines are one of, if not the most expensive in a producers portfolio of wines. Expect to pay top dollar as quantities are limited, and because time spent creating these wines is much longer.
  • Rose: Made differently than rose everywhere else, Champagne is the only wine region in the world that is allowed to make rose wine by mixing red and white wines together. They also may use traditional methods, but this is interesting because it is forbidden everywhere else. While blends may be used, usually the most common practice is to use 100% Pinot Noir.
  • Blanc de Blanc: Translated as “white of white”, referring to the grapes. 100% Chardonnay, these wines will have a much different structure and flavour profile than a standard Champagne.
  • Blanc de Noirs: Translated as “white of black”, again referring to the grapes. 100% Pinot Noir, but creating a white wine. This is done by very gently pressing the grapes, extracting the juice but also eliminating contact with the skins of the grapes so it does not colour the juice.
  • Prestige Cuvée: A step above Vintage Champagne, the prestige offering is the top of the line for Champagne producers. Familiar with Cristal? That is the prestige offering from Louis Roederer. Dom Pérignon? That is the top of the line wine made by Moët. Made from the best years, from their best vineyards, and aged the longest. Expect to pay top dollar.

How Is Champagne Made?

Champagne Production

If you are unfamiliar or want to brush up on the basics of how sparkling wine is made, please check it this article here. If the same rings true but of *traditional method* sparkling wine, the name of the style that is made in Champagne, and other key regions across the world, feel free to read this article here. Otherwise, read on for a brief overview on how Champagne is made.

In the vineyard, Champagne is picked very young, way before a traditional still wine grape would be picked. This is for several reasons: because there is going to be two fermentations, grape sugars need to be kept low to avoid 15% alcohol wines.

The high acids in these unripe grapes also help to protect it against bacteria that could infect it during the winemaking process, which is much longer and more labour intensive than a regular wine. It also has to do with flavour: like in Sherry, the flavours desired from Champagne largely come from the ageing process, with less emphasis on fruit or grape varietal character.

Once grapes are picked, wines are pressed, fermented, and then blended. The wines after the first fermentation are dry, low alcohol, and extremely sour to the point of being undrinkable. Winemakers need to taste all of these vinegary wines and decide on their blend at this time.

The wines are then bottled, and a dose of sugar and yeast is added to each bottle. This kick starts the second fermentation, which leads to the bubbles (CO2) being trapped in the bottle. After a certain amount of time (12 months non vintage, 36 months vintage) of the yeast cells being in contact with the wine, it is time to pop open the bottle and get rid of the sediment that has been collecting.

When the yeast is removed, the wine is topped up with more wine and a touch of sugar, which helps to offset the high acid levels in the wine. This is called the “dosage” and depending on which sugar levels are desired after, varying amounts will be added. Some Champagnes these are just topped up with wine, with no sugar added. After this, corks and wire cages are put on, labels too, and wine is ready to be shipped.

Brut Champagne: Sugar Levels

Leaving off after the last step, there is another important thing to know about Champagne, and that is sugar levels. Have you ever read “Brut” on a Champagne bottle, and wondered what it meant? This is referring to one of the sugar levels that Champagne has, or the “dosage” level. Here is a complete list, with grams of sugar per liter being the measurement:

  • Brut Nature/Non Dosage: 0-3g/L
  • Extra Brut: 0-6g/L
  • Brut: 0-12g/L
  • Extra Dry: 12-17g/L
  • Sec: 17-32g/L
  • Demi-Sec: 32-50g/L
  • Doux: 50+g/L

What Does Champagne Taste Like?

With most of the flavours of Champagne being from its yeast ageing, or ageing on its lees (as it’s sometimes called) it makes sense that it is completely unlike most still wines. What happens to the wine during its contact with the yeast is called “autolysis”, and the flavours associated with it are then called autolytic. Remember that article on Muscadet wines, also from France? They go through the same process, except the yeast ageing is done in barrels.

Yeast is mostly known as an agent than helps bread to rise, or even become bread, when it is baked. With the two being so close, the flavour lines can be blurred. It then should be no surprise that the flavours associated with a nice Champagne are like bread. Toast, biscuit, cracker, and bread are all tasting notes that will pop up in Champagne and other traditional method sparkling wines.

When the wine is in contact with the yeast cells, protein cells break down and impart these toasty and grainy flavours into the wine. The longer the contact, the stronger the flavours. This is why vintage Champagne is so expensive: with minimum 36 months needed, the wines are left in cellars for years on end, taking up valuable real estate. The added time, labour, and space is marked up in the high cost of the wines, but the flavour is also there, making the wines that much more complex and interesting.

So, at the end of the day you should be tasting:

  • apples
  • pears
  • lemon zest
  • custard
  • toast
  • nuts
  • caramel
  • hazelnut
  • brioche

While it may sound weird, these flavours are prized in Champagne. It may be an acquired taste for some, but for others, it is the reason why they love Champagne so much.

Champagne and Food Pairings

caviar champagne

With Champagne, there is an incredible amount of things they successfully paired with. But, like any other food and wine pairing, the characteristics of the wine need to be looked at to find out what works best. Lots of fine bubbles? Mild fruit flavours? Toasty, bready, and biscuity? Light bodied with high acid? Here is a list of some great pairings that work well with Champagne.

French Fries and Mayo

A personal favourite of mine, nothing works as great with Champagne than something fried. Add in something starchy and salty, and you’ve got a real winner. The toasty notes are seen in the fries and wine, with the mayo adding a nice bit of fat for the bubbles of the wine to slice through.

Fried Chicken

Another high/low pairing, the crispy and fatty nature of fried chicken is just calling out for something to help break its hard outer shell. While chicken is a lean meat, with low fat and protein, the fried part of it needs a high acid and bubbly wine to help tame it.

Caviar

Moving to the other side, caviar is a delicacy and one of the classic pairings with Champagne. The salty and briny nature of caviar is really offset again by the bubbles and toast of a good Champagne. Not for the faint of heart, or with a light wallet, it is something to try at least once in a lifetime.

Oysters

With the same approach, salty and fresh ocean tasting oysters are a great match to slurp down with some bubbly. You won’t do much chewing, but there are few better things to sip on while taking down a plate of bi valves.

Sushi

The light and delicate flavours of sushi and sashimi are best suited to non vintage Champagnes, with less assertive flavours. Matching well to a variety of fish and vegetables, Champagne is something to try out instead of a light bodied white or even a chilled glass of sake.

Goat Cheese

For this, a drop of goat cheese on a toasted baguette slice is the way to go. With a high fat and moisture cheese like goat, the cleansing power of Champagne matches nicely. Keep it simple for a classy weekend snack.

Champagne: In Conclusion

Far from being an expensive once a year treat, there are plenty of great value Champagnes out there that won’t break the bank to stop you from buying it every once in a while. Aside from that, it is also very versatile at the dinner table, so don’t hesitate to serve a bottle as a nice pairing for any number of chicken or fish meals. If there is anything else you’d like to see in this article, drop a comment below and I’d be happy to keep updating to keep this page a one stop resource for all things Champagne.

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