Champagne

Champagne is a type of sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, centered around the villages of Epernay and Reims. It can be made in any number of styles from bone dry (Brut Nature) up to Doux (Sweet). Champagne can also be made into a Rose style, either by the addition of still red wine to white Champagne, or by soaking the skins of permitted red grapes in the still wine to produce a color commonly called "l'oeil du perdrix", or "partridge eye". 

The history of the Champagne region dates back to Roman times. The 5th century saw the planting of vineyards in the northeastern part of France. French kings were commonly crowned at Reims, so the local wines gained cachet from being part of the investiture ceremony. Dom Perignon, a monk at the abbey of Hautvilliers, is famous for having invented Champagne, though sparkling wines were being made 150 years prior to his arrival.

The first Champagne house was Gosset, founded in 1584 as a still wine producer. Many of the larger houses came along in the 18th century, including Moet & Chandon (1743) and Veuve Cliquot (1772). Dom Perignon himself did not work for a house, thoug h there is a statue of him outside of Moet & Chandon.

Dom Perignon was actually given a problem by his superiors -- how to get the bubbles out of the local wines. Champagne is a very chalky region, and miles of caves are dug, storing millions of bottles of wine. In the days before fermentation was understood, the process probably stopped during the cold winter months, and once the wines were bottled in the spring, the warmth started fermentation again, leading to between 20 and 90% of Champagne bottles spontaneously exploding. It was only in the 19th century that what we now know as methode Champenoise was invented. Dom Perignon made a number of advances to the production of Champagne, including the use of wire cages to withstand internal bottle pressure. 

Control over the process led to explosive growth in the production of Champagne, from 300,000 bottles in total in 1800 to 20,000,000 in 1850. The Champenoise have always been great marketers, and together with a cohesive Champagne brand and a small army of small growers, they have linked Champagne to festive events incredibly well. This is all coordinated by a trade group called the CIVC. Champagne was granted Appellation de Origene Controlee status in 1927. 

What many people do not know about the Champagne region is that there are around 17,000 small growers who farm 32,000 hecares of vineyards. Most of these growers sell to a number of large brands. The big houses grow some grapes, but generally they will buy a large portion of their fruit from these farmers. 

In order to facilitate the orderly buying of grapes, there is a system in place called the èchelle des crus. There are 319 villages (357 after a 2008 expansion, though these won't produce Champagne until 2020 or later) in the Champagne region that grow grapes, and each of these is rated on a scale between 80 and 100. Villages rated 100 are called Grand Cru. 90-99 are Premier Cru, and 80-90 are simply village Champagne. Each rating is for a particular grape, so, for example, the village of Les Mesnil sur Oger is 100 rated for Chardonnay. A price per ton of grapes is set every harvest, and that price is multiplied by the rating of the village ot determine pricing. 

The problem with this system is that the French government also controls the maximum quantity of wine produced in the region. If you're the average grape grower, you're going to maximize volume, because the big house you sell your fruit to is just going to blend it into other wines, removing the uniqueness of your particular grapes. 

To confuse matters even more, there's only one way to tell whether or not your bottle of Champagne is from a small grower, a cooperative (a collection of smaller growers), or a large house. On every bottle of Champagne, there is a tiny code, which starts with two letters, a dash, then a string of numbers. The letters tell what kind of producer your Champagne is:

  • NM - Negociant Manipulant -- these are the big houses, and buy most of their fruit.
  • CM - Cooperative de Manipulation -- a group of growers that share equipment and bottle under one brand name. 
  • RM -- Recoltant Manipulant -- small grower fizz. By law, 95% or more of the grapes in the bottle must be grown by the producer.

While there are seven legal varietals made into Champagne (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Arbanne, Petite Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris), three of those (Arbanne, Petite Meslier, and Pinot Blanc) account for .02% of the total fruit grown in the region. Most Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. 

Chardonnay provides length, high acidity, and structure to Champagne. Pinot Noir provides depth, complexity, and richness. Pinot Meunier lends charm, grace, and fruit to wines, but typically does not age as well as the other two. 

There are four major growing areas in the Champagne region: The Côte des Blancs, the Vallée de la Marne, the Aube, and the Côte de Sézanne. Each is known for a particular grape matched to a particular soil type. 

Champagne production is complex, but follows a number of well known steps of regular wine production. Grapes are harvested and crushed and fermented, as usual. These still wines are called vins clairs, and are typically highly acidic and low in alcohol. These wines are put in a heavy wine bottle, yeast and sugar are added, then the bottle is capped with a crown, or beer cap. A secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, and the bottles are rested for a year and a half to let the yeast begin to break down and impart additional flavors.

After this, the bottles are put into a rack point down so that the yeast can settle into the neck. These devices are called pupitres, and the process is called riddling, or remuage. A person has to turn each bottle in the rack one quarter turn every day to get the yeast to settle into the neck of the bottle. In modern, large scale houses, the bottles are packed into a gyropallet, and rotated mechanically. After this is done, the bottles are dipped, neck down, into a freezing solution, and the crown cap is removed. The plug of yeast shoots out of the bottle, and dosage is added - a sugary solution that goes a long way towards determining the final flavor profile of the Champagne. The dosage fills the bottle, and a cork and wire cage is added, then the Champagne is rested until labelling and shipping. 

Most Champagnes are blends of multiple vintages, and the dosage is a closely kept secret. In exceptional years, a vintage wine will be produced, with all the wine except for the dosage coming from the year on the label. Most houses make what is called a tete de cuvee -- the best wine a house produces. Moet & Chandon's Dom Perignon is considered the first tete de cuvee, but others include Pommery's Louise, Roederer's Cristal, originally made for the Czar of Russia and only widely available after World War II, Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill, and Perrier Jouet's La Belle Epoque

Because of how Champagne is given its sweetness, a producer can make the same wine with drastically different levels of sugar in the finished product. These terms have some overlap, and the sugar in the wine can be no more than 3 grams different from the term on the label:

  • Brut Nature - 0 to 3 grams per liter of sugar
  • Extra Brut - 0 to 6 g/l 
  • Brut - 0 to 12 g/l
  • Extra Dry - 12 to 17 g/l
  • Dry - 17-32
  • Demi-Sec - 32-50
  • Doux - 50 or more g/l of residual sugar

Most Champagne produced is Brut, but 150 years ago, Doux was the most popular. People even paired quite sweet Champagne with oysters! 

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