Champagne Power #1: The Basics

From Brigitte Bardot to Biggie, Churchill to Chanel – no wine has quite as many famous fans as Champagne. But what is it about this northern French fizz that enraptures rappers and fashion royalty so?  Last week we caught the train to Reims in search of answers. But before we hit the bottle, we hit the books to brush up on the basics…

Champagne is often mistakenly used as a bit of a catch-all term for any sparkling white wine, regardless of where it’s produced and what it’s made from. In fact, only wines made in the Champagne region – and adhering to some pretty strict rules – are allowed the moniker.

These rules relate to everything; the varieties of grapes that are allowed, where grapes are grown, the pruning techniques, the maximum yields come harvest-time, the alcohol level, what the wine maker has for breakfast… Ok one of those isn’t true, but it very nearly could be. They are that particular.

All of this means that we should not be careless with the word Champagne. Because it isn’t just a word. It isn’t even just an indication of geographical origin; it’s an unequivocal guarantee about the wine, where it’s from, how it’s made, and how darn delicious it’s bound to be.

For a wine maker it’s pretty complicated stuff, but for a consumer it’s easy; it either is Champagne or it isn’t. But don’t take our word for it, over to you Benjamin Kane (aka Rob Lowe):

Champagne 101

So you’ve got a bottle and it says Champagne on the label. Provided you are not planning to smash it on a ship’s hull or spray the contents on a Formula One driver, you’ll probably want to know a bit more about what’s inside.

To carry the title, the wine must have been harvested and produced within the Champagne AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) – a strictly designated, yet somewhat scattered group of villages located about 100 miles east of Paris.

Champagne AOC
A Pinot Noir vineyard in Champagne AOC

It will be made from a combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and/or Pinot Meunier grapes and will have been aged for at least 15 months.

As to the exact blend, age and style of the Champagne, there will be more clues on the label. Here are a few commonly seen terms:

NV / Non Vintage: A blend of wines from different years in order to create a consistent ‘house’ style. This will have been aged for at least 15 months.

Vintage: A blend of wines all from the same vintage – only made in particularly good years. This will have been aged for three years or more.

Blanc de Blancs: Made entirely from Chardonnay

Blanc de Noirs: Made from only Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier

There will also be an indication of how sweet the Champagne is, with different names used depending on the amount of sugar in the ‘dosage’ (read more about this below). Ranging from the most dry to the most sweet, these are: Brut Nature, Brut Zero, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec, Doux

How Champagne is made

Champagne production begins much like still white wine production –  grapes are picked and pressed to produce must (juice). This is fermented for a first time in tanks or barrels – producing a base wine, which is blended and bottled.

Pinot Noir grapes
Pinot Noir grapes, approx two months shy of harvest time

From this point on, sparkling wine deviates from still wine production as wine makers go in pursuit of those all-important bubbles.

There are different ways to create sparkling wine, Champagne is made using the most fiddly (and therefore expensive) – the méthode traditionelle.

The delicate bubbles in Champagne are the result of a secondary fermentation which occurs in the bottle. Once the blended base wine has been bottled, this second fermentation is triggered by the addition of sugar and yeast (known as ‘Tirage’). The process releases carbon dioxide which cannot escape, causing the wine to become fizzy.

Riddling and Disgorgement

The flecks of dead yeast left over after this process (the ‘lees’) are kept in contact with the wine for a period of ageing. This imparts complexity and the delicate croissant-y notes you often find in the finished product.

Following this period of ageing, the lees must be removed and this done through a process called ‘riddling’ and ‘disgorgement’.

Bottles ready for riddling

Bottles are stored sideways and rotated by small increments daily (riddled), which sends the yeasty gunk into the neck of the bottle

This is now mostly done by machine, though it was once the responsibility of a winery worker, who would turn the bottles by hand. Sure – this is a tedious job but the payoff is that you get to legitimately introduce yourself as ‘The Riddler’. Worth it.

The yeasty clump is finally removed by ‘disgorgement’, when the bottle neck is frozen (plunged into frozen brine or liquid nitrogen) and the pressure causes the tiny yeast-ice-pop to slide out the top.

Lees before disgorgement
The lees before disgorgement

Brut Force

The bottle is then topped up with a ‘dosage’ – a mixture of still wine and (usually) sugar – before undergoing a final period of ageing. It is the level of sugar in this dosage that determines how sweet the finished Champagne will be, and therefore its style – from Brut Nature to Doux.

Et Voila! A few short years later – you’ve got a bubbly, bona fide Champagne.

In the next post, we head to the oldest winery in Champagne and criss-cross the region in pursuit of perfect grapes. Sounds like thirsty work…