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Posts Tagged ‘French wine’

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 haltPinot 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.

Pretty Champagne vines in Fall

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.

Merci, Madame Clicquot!

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.

Notice: A guy all decked out in formal top hat and tails and an elegant evening-gown clad lady.

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!

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*Note: Click the map above for the full-sized image!

The French are a people who thrive on complexity. One need look no further than to their seemingly infinite varieties of spoiled dairy or to the French language and its unique affection for long strings of vowels for affirmation of this fact. These are the people who managed to take the simple combination of butter, flour, sugar, and eggs and raise it to an art form that the world devours in awestruck bliss.

The French take their wine no less seriously than they do their cheese or pastry. The country is divided into 12 wine-producing regions that are further broken down into 472 AOC’s (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) that are established based on geography and the unique French concept of terroir.

Though the word is derived from the French word, terre that translates to land in English, it is a concept that evokes much more than just the ground from which the wine comes. To talk about terroir is to include all of the elements of a place that were present when the grapes were growing and not just in terms of geology, geography, or weather (though those are parts of it).

Terroir encompasses everything from the plants that grew among and around the vines to the natural events that may have occurred in a single year such as a fire. Terroir is an expression of all the particular smells, textures, and conditions that surrounded the vines of a specific area at a given time. Terroir, the French insist, can account for the differences in wines that are made from grapes grown on neighboring or even adjacent hillsides.

French school children are taught their AOC’s right along with their ABC’s – that’s how important they are. As Americans, we are used to seeing the varietal on the label right alongside the place the wine’s from, but for the French, that would be redundant as each region is so clearly associated with a particular grape or blend.

Below you’ll find my attempt to make sense out of the French AOC system. Good luck and Godspeed.

• Alsace – White wines made from Reisling and Gewurtztraminer

• Beaujolais – Young wines that are made from Gamay. These wines range in style according to where they were grown within the region.

•For more on Beaujolais, check out my previous post

• Bordeaux – Big, powerhouse red wines that are composed of various blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and Malbec.

• Burgundy – Pinot Noir & Chardonnay

• Côtes de Nuits, Côtes de Beaune, Côtes Chalonnaise, Maconnais

• Champagne – Perhaps it’s fitting that the wine that’s easiest to gulp down is also the easiest to remember. Champagne is made from Chardonnay grapes as well as Pinot Noir grapes that have, very early on in the process, been separated from their red skins. A minor grape called Petit Meunier, pretty much only grown for use in Champagne is also sometimes added.

• Jura – Jura is known for making Chardonnays that have been oxidized, lending them a dark amber color and flavor notes that are more similar to those found in Sherry (marzipan and orange peel). Jura also makes some fantastic sparkling wines from Chardonnay.

• Languedoc-Roussillon – For a long time the region was known for making Europe’s table wines. Lately, however, these rustic wines have gotten lots of attention for their bold and hearty style. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Syrah, Viogier, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay

• Loire – White wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc dominate the Loire Valley. These are often considered the best white wines of France.

• Sancerre & Pouilly Fume– Sauvignon Blanc

• Vouvray – Chenin Blanc

• Chinon – Cabernet Franc

• Provence – Provence is known for enchanting and delicious roses. Red wines from Provence are the best example of a wine tasting like the land its from with pronounced flavors of thyme, lavender, and black olives swimming around. The region’s red wines are a fascinating study in wine’s savory side.

• Bandol – Wines made predominantly from the Mourvedre grape that are characterized by notes of dark fruit, cinnamon, and leather.

• Rhône

• Northern Rhone – Seriously spicy and juicy wines made from Syrah-based blends that can incorporate Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne.

• Hermitage

• Saint-Joseph

• Saint-Peray

• Southern Rhone – These wines are different from those of the north because they blend Syrah, with Grenache, Carignan, and Mourvedre.

• Right Bank – A tendency towards light and fruity

• Côtes du Vivarais

• Left Bank – Rich, intense wines that are often meant for aging

• Côtes du Rhone

• Chateauneuf du Pape

• Savoy – obscure and indigenous white grapes

• South West France – This region is mostly notable for the Malbec that is produced in Cahors. This Malbec is a big, full bodied, and highly tannic wine that is very different than Argentine Malbec. You’ve been warned.

Phew. Deep breaths. And….

 

JUST IN CASE all that isn’t confusing enough, the wines of each region are further broken down according to rank.

Here they are from lowest to highest quality:

Vin du Table – lowest quality wine

Vin du Pays – a step up from table wine this is the “country wine” of a specific geographic area

AOC – wine that is made according to guidelines on varietal, yield, and standards from a specific geographic area.

• Okay, this gets even more confusing because some regions also have wines that called “Villages”. In the case of Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Cotes du Rhone, a wine that is qualified as “Villages” is not really considered better than the plain old AOC wines, but qualifies as distinct enough to get its own rank-within-a-rank.

Premier Cru – Wine produced within an AOC that is considered better than most and according to certain standards but not as good as the very best.

Grand Cru – The very best wine produced in a given area that comes from specific vineyards and holds up to very strict and high standards.

 

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