I have a horrible habit of thinking it’s hilarious to pronounce Champagne like “Champ-Ag-Nee.” Regardless of how you want to say it, Champagne is weird stuff. At its most interesting, Champagne is a product of sheer ingenuity – of centuries of curious tinkering, trial, and error. At its most expensive, Champagne is one of the most successful tales of marketing in the history of food and beverage. And at its most refined, Champagne is the stuff of delirious gustatory delight and celebration.
So, what exactly is Champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Noir grapes that are grown exclusively in the Champagne region of France.
Queue the sound effect of tires coming to a screeching halt – Pinot Noir? But that’s a red grape! And Champagne is white!
Not exactly – the skins of the Pinot Noir grape (and the Pinot Meunier grape for that matter) are most definitely red but(!) the juice of the grape is actually white. If you separate the juice from the skin early in the wine making process, you’re left with the makings of a white wine.
Champagnes made from only Pinot Noir grapes or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are called Blanc de Noirs (literally translates to “white from red”). Similarly, Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes is called a Blanc de Blanc (white from white). In a similarly confusing fashion, most Champagne is made from a mixture of grapes harvested in different years (usually marked N.V.). However, if a particular year (aka vintage) proves to be exceptional, under the laws of the powers that be, a Champagne Vintage may be produced that contains grapes exclusively from that one year.
In Europe, where they are much stricter about these things, not only must a wine called Champagne be made from grapes grown within this small region, but that wine must also be produced by a specific and traditional method (here in America, we’re not so particular – you can slap “Champagne” on a $5 bottle of Andre. God bless America!). This method requires that the effervescence, or bubbles, in Champagne be produced by a second fermentation in the bottle.
This means that, to start, Champagne is made just like any other wine – the grapes are harvested and thrown into a fermentation tank along with some yeast. The yeast converts the natural sugar present in the grapes into alcohol and voila! A wine is born. To make that wine into Champagne, it is poured directly into the bottle along with some extra sugar (called dosage), some more yeast and set aside to age for a minimum of 1.5 years or 15 months. During those years when a vintage is declared (a year when the harvest is exceptional), bottles must be allowed to age for twice as long – for a minimum of three years.
For a long time, because yeast and sugar were introduced directly into the bottle, Champagne was a cloudy wine – it had all kinds of fun particulates floating around! It was the infamous Widow Clicquot (of Veuve Clicquot) who introduced the use of something called a riddling table (a table that holds Champagne bottles upside down so that the sediment from secondary fermentation settled into the neck of the bottle and made it easier to draw off) that was used to produce the sparkling clear Champagne we know and love today.
So, if Champagne is such a specific wine why do we have a habit of calling any old sparkling wine Champagne? This is where we get into a case study of brilliant marketing. Even before it came to resemble the stuff we drink today, Champagne had long been treasured by European royalty and French aristocracy and imbibed at official ceremonies and celebrations. The method champenoise wasn’t introduced until around 1700 (and, coincidentally, not in Champagne but probably somewhere in the Languedoc region). Before the method was introduced to the winemakers of the region, Champagne was imbibed as a still wine, and often only during celebratory occasions – it was, even back then, the good stuff you busted out for company. Champagne, then, was always a wine associated with luxury, prestige, and celebration.
During the 1800’s Champagne houses and producers took advantage of their product’s rarified past and began marketing it to the burgeoning middle class at home and abroad. Take a look at any old Champagne ad (if you don’t already have a poster up on your wall) and you’ll see the instant appeal.. Needless to say, the Champagne industry did gangbusters.
However that success was not built entirely on marketing a lifestyle – Champagne is amazing stuff. The range of styles; from delicate, floral and dreamy to biscuity and savory younger varieties to the rich and complex mature examples make Champagne exactly the kind of indulgence that pairs perfectly with just about any occasion.
So, to review:
• A true Champagne may only be made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes grown within the Champagne appellation and subjected to the traditional and specific method of secondary in-bottle fermentation
• Methode Champoinese is the traditional method by which Champagne is produced. Sparkling wines that are made in other regions may indicate that they were produced in this same fashion. If you see a sparkling wine that has Methode Champoinese or Methode traditionelle on the label, it just means that the wine was made using the same technique as Champagne – with the secondary in-bottle fermentation and aging.
• Blanc de Blancs is Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay grapes. You may see other sparkling wines that are called Blanc de Blancs – and they may be made from white grapes other than Chardonnay.
• Blanc de Noirs is Champagne made from either 100% Pinot Noir or a mixture of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. You may see other sparkling wines that identify themselves as Blanc de Noirs – this just mean’s they’re made from red grapes, not that they’re Champagne.
• Vintage : A Vintage Champagne means that all of the grapes used to make the wine (regardless of varietal) were harvested in the same year and that that year produced an exceptional harvest. A Vintage Champagne also means that the wine was aged for at least 3 years in the bottle. If you see N.V. on a Champagne label, it means that the wine was not produced as a Vintage and could have been made from grapes from different years.
•Brut, Extra Brut, Sec, and Demi Sec are all terms that are commonly found on Champagne labels as well as on the labels of other sparkling wines. Brut indicates a dry wine; Extra Brut means, incidentally, extra dry; Sec means sweeter than Brut but still on the dry side; Demi Sec is used to indicate a sweet sparkling wine.
Next week, I’ll be looking at sparkling wines other than Champagne – Prosecco, Cava, Cremant, and New World sparklers. Stay tuned!