The Wines of France

 

CHAMPAGNE!

From vine to glass, the distinctive history, land , climate and practices of the Champagne Region of France guide every step in the centuries old process of creating this extraordinary sparkling wine.  This provenance is the reason why only the sparkling wines produced in this region of France may be called Champagne. 

Sparkling wines produced in other places around the world, even those created using the same production practices known as the “methode champenoise”, yield great results indeed, but not Champagne.  In Italy, where climate and land are very different, wine growers produce sparkling wines called “spumante”.  Spanish methods turn out fine wines known as “cava”.   Even sparkling wines from other regions of France have different names, such as “cremant”.  In an area near the town of Saumur, they are called “mousseux”. 

In America, fine sparkling wines are produced according to the methods established and perfected in Champagne.  While many achieve distinction in the marketplace, they are not Champagne.

A very special terroir
The distinctive natural components of the terroir of Champagne - a unique combination of soil, sub soil, climate and grape varieties are the underlying factors which account for the uniqueness of the wines of the region.  The harshness of the northern climate is fortunately tempered by two particularities:  a deep chalk sub soil that allows easy drainage, and the way the vines are planted on slopes where they can receive the most sunlight.  Under these conditions, the vineyards can yield their best grapes.  

The Method Champenoise

The uniqueness of champagne stems from the combination of the region's terroir and the vines and grapes that can only be grown in specific plots of land within the Champagne Region.  These characteristics, combined with specific process of champagne winemaking, “method champenoise”, are strictly regulated and can only exist in one place in the world to cultivate one, unique sparkling wine.

The champagne making process has been carefully developed over hundreds of years.   In transforming the fruits of the unique terroir of the region into champagne the method covers everything from careful vine growing to the special cork placed into the bottleneck. 

The Vines

In the Champagne Region, the vines climb slopes crowned by woods.  Divided into numerous parcels, the vineyards are like gardens cultivated by the growers.  Each parcel is tended with the greatest care to preserve the individual characteristics of the wine made from its grapes.  The work is meticulous and arduous in the northern vineyards of Champagne.

The care of the vines of Champagne is strictly monitored.  Only three systems of pruning are employed, each is designed to limit the yield of the vines and to ensure that the grapes grow close to the ground.

From winter until August, tasks of the growers include pruning, plowing, tying, debudding and finally trimming.  Much of this is done by hand.  Weather alone decides the time for the harvest, which will vary according to village and grape varieties.  Typically, the harvest takes place in Autumn, a hundred days after the flowering of the vine.  At harvest time, grapes are carefully picked by hand and sorted to remove any damaged fruit.  Only the best bunches are picked and as quickly as possible, they are dispatched to the region’s large, low presses.

Once a generation, the vines of Champagne are replanted in order to guarantee strong, high quality harvests.  While older vines do exist, the average age of a vine in Champagne is approximately 20 years of age.

Towards perfection

In the course of the 20th century, the selection of grape varieties and the yeasts suitable for fermentation further evolved to a state of near perfection.  Pruning and grafting techniques were improved and active measures were taken to protect the vineyards against pests of every description.  The quality of pressing and winemaking has been guaranteed by the establishment of 2,000 press houses throughout the region's vineyards.

The Appellation "Champagne"

In 1927, the vineyards of Champagne were legally defined, according to the wine producing history of individual villages.  In addition, quality regulations have been enacted to limit the yields in the vineyards and in the press houses.  Standards have been set for the pruning, the height, the spacing and the density of the vines, to ensure harvesting by hand.

More recently, measures have been taken to lengthen the minimum ageing time to fifteen months for Non-Vintage Champagnes and to three years for Vintage wines.

Grape Varieties

The Appellation "Champagne" allows only three grape varieties in the production of champagne:  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and pinot Meunier. 

Pinot Noir:  A black grape variety with white juice grown mainly on the slopes of the Mountain of Reims and Cote des Bar.  It gives champagnes their aromas of red fruits, as well as their strength and body.

Pinot Meuneir:  Another black grape variety with white juice.  It is grown mainly in the Valley of Marne and is characterized by its suppleness and spiciness.  It gives champagnes their roundness and fragrance.

Chardonnay:  A white grape variety mostly planted in the Cote des Blancs.  it provides the wines with their finesse as well as their floral and sometimes, mineral overtones.

The First Fermentation

After pressing the grapes, they are stored en masse, frequently in stainless steel vats, but occasionally in oak barrels to undergo the first fermentation.  This process yields what is called a "still".  The methode champenoise and the art of blending will transform the still into what is uniquely champagne.  After the first fermentation is complete, the resulting still wine is blended by the “chef de caves” or cellar master with various other base wines.  The art of blending the grapes, and then wines, from different villages within Champagne, was first discovered by monks  and was a well established practice by the end of the 17th century.    Blending calls on experience and memory and the cellar masters' taste buds.  Each cellar master creates a unique blend, or cuvee from as many as 70 different base wines - the specific style of each producer.   For this reason, every champagne is a unique creation, which explains the almost universal use of a House name on the label, declaring their style. 

Once the blend is complete, it is placed in the thick glass champagne bottle it will eventually be sold in and a mixture of sugar, yeast, and old wine, known as the “liqueur de triage”, is added to induce the “mousse” or bubbles.  The bottle is closed with a crown cap and placed horizontally, in a cool, dark cellar.

The Second Fermentation

The second fermentation takes place over the course of at least three months in the champagne bottle and is often referred to as the “prise de mousse”, or "capturing the sparkle".  Carbon dioxide, as well as fermentation lees (yeast cells), form within the bottle.  The long, slow second fermentation is responsible for the formation of the tiny bubbles so characteristic of champagne.

Time in the Caves

After the second fermentation is complete, champagne continues to age in the bottle for an average of 2 1/2 to 3 years.  Finer champagnes may age in the bottle for more than 6 years.  As the months, and in some cases, years go by, the sparkling wines is changed through the interaction of the lees with the wine.  This leads to a unique character - attractive aromas and flavors of nuttiness, toastiness, or that of freshly baked bread.  For the connoisseur of champagne, this means that the wine has already been aged when it arrives and is ideally suited for consumption.

Riddling

It is only in the methode champenoise that the yeast deposit remaining from the final fermentation is encouraged down the neck of the inverted bottle.  This process, called “remuage”, or riddling, begins after the aging period is complete and takes an average of eight weeks by hand, or eight days by machine.

The goal of remuage is to intermittently turn, slightly shake, and slightly increase the angle of a bottle of champagne over a period of time until all the sediment is in the neck of the bottle.  The entire procedure is repeated every second or third day and can take between two and three months to complete by hand.  While some of the more traditional champagne houses maintain the tradition of hand riddling, a device designed for this purpose can fulfill the same task inside of one week.

Disgorgement and Dosage

Once settled, the sediment is removed by immersing the champagne bottleneck in an ice cold brine that freezes the residue into a small ice block.  It is then removed from the bottle, either by hand or automatically (degorgement).  The frozen ice plug is propelled out of the bottle by the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas.  What little champagne is lost in this process is replaced in the final step of the methode champenoise, the “dosage”.

Because champagne is extremely dry at this stage due to its high acidity and effervescence, the taste is too harsh for most people.  To counter this dryness, champagne producers add a small amount of sugar, dissolved in wine, before the final cork is inserted in the bottle. 

This solution, known as the “liqueur d'expedition” contains a specific measure of sugar that will define the sweetness of the "dosage".  This is the final step in defining the style, i.e. brut vs. demi-sec, of the champagne.

Champagne Varieties  

One of the beauties of champagne is the remarkable diversity of styles that come from such a small corner of the world.  Each style and type of champagne is designed to please an individual  preferences in taste.  The primary types of champagne include Blanc de Blancs,  Blanc de Noirs, and Rose.  

Blanc de blanc - means white from white - or white champagne from a white grape.  By law, blanc de blancs can only be made from a single grape variety, Chardonnay.  While it is somewhat counterintuitive to make champagne from a single kind of grape, blanc de blancs have become very popular as an aperitif due to their light, dry taste.  They are also ideal for light first courses including seafood and soups.

Blanc de noirs - are white champagnes made only from the black grape varieties of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Typically, these sparkling wines are full bodied and deeper yellow gold in color.  They are ideal for full flavored foods, including meats and cheeses.

Pink or rose champagnes - are produced by one of two methods.  The traditional method involves the addition of a small amount of Pinot Noir still wine to the base wine or cuvee prior to the second fermentation.  The maceration method or skin contact method involves the pressing of the grape skins, allowing them to soak with the juice of the grapes prior to fermentation.  While the popularity of rose champagnes comes and goes, rose undoubtedly brings a special element of romance because of its romantic hue.

Vintage vs. non-Vintage Champagne

Non-Vintage or sans Annee champagne accounts for 85 to 90 percent of all champagne produced and it is less expensive than those produced in a vintage year.  It is designated as non-vintage because it is composed of several different vintages, rather than from a single harvest.  Each year, all champagne producers  set aside at least 20 percent of their wine for use in future non-vintage champagne.   Because this was the only type of champagne sold for the first 150 years of champagne production, it is typically referred to as "Classic Champagne".

Viintage Champagne - is one in which all grapes used have been harvested from a single year.  There is no law governing when a year is vintage.  Instead, each House decides for itself whether it will produce a vintage champagne in any given year.  In a good year, no more than 10 to 15 percent of the total champagne made is vintage champagne.  Finally, according to regulations, vintage champagne must be aged for at least 3 years.

Champagne Producers

Every bottle of champagne has to carry an indication of the status of the producer and the brand owner.  The various types are as follows:

NM - Negociant Manipulant.  A firm or person which buys grapes, juice or wine and completes its production on the premises.

RM  - Recoltant Manipulant.  A firm or person which produces wine on its own premises exclusively from grapes it has grown.

RC  - Recoltant Cooperateur.  A grower who gives his grapes to a co-operative and takes back the wine at any stage of the production and sells it.

CM - Cooperative de Manipulation.  A co-operative which vinifies and sells wine from grapes supplied by its members.

SR - Societe de Recoltants.  A family business which produces wines from grapes harvested exclusively by members of the family.

ND - Negociant Distributeur.  A merchant who buys finished wines and labels them in its own premises.

MA - Marque d'Acheteur - Buyer's  Own Brand (BOB).  The wine is made and labeled in Champagne, the name of the producer appears on the bottle but the Brand name belongs to a client (wholesale buyer, supermarket, restaurant, etc.  

Serving Champagne  
In the 18th century, champagne - which in those days was sweet, like today's demi-secs- used to accompany desserts.  But it was already the only wine not to be served exclusively at the dinner table.    

In the 19th century, champagne began to be enjoyed at the start of dinner.  This led to the creation of Brut Champagnes which were less sweet and could be sipped throughout the fashionable suppers of the time.  The wines then found their place in the world of gastronomy and in leading restaurants. 

Today, champagne wines are consumed as an aperitif, during the course of the meal, or indeed at any moment of the day or night.

Chilling

Champagne wines should be enjoyed chilled, but not too cold.  A champagne bottle usually reaches its ideal temperature of 45-50 F (7-10 C) after twenty minutes in a bucket filled with ice and water or after three house in the refrigerator.  Do not chill champagne in the freezer.

Opening

Cut the foil and undo the wire cage known as the "muselet".  Grasp the cork in one hand and turn the bottle with the other, holding it at the bottom.  The cork will then easily come off by itself.

Glasses and flutes

Always served chilled, champagne was first enjoyed from stemmed, cone shaped glasses.  During the 19th century, the shallow coup became fashionable, but true wine lovers still preferred the "flute".  Today the favorite glass from which to sip champagne is tulip shaped.  The bubbles may dance around freely and there is enough room for the aromas to express themselves. 

It is best for the champagne if the glasses used are simply rinsed (without using soap) in warm water and left upside down to dry.

Champagnes with food - Champagne's four families

Champagnes with Body, with their powerful character, provide an excellent match for foie gras, Parma ham, stews, ossobuco or poultry.    Champagnes with body are sensual, powerful, structured and intense with woody, spicy and red fruit overtones.

Champagnes with Spirit - are perfect aperitif.  They also have a special affinity with fish and shellfish and excel with sorbets or frozen desserts.  Champagnes with spirit are vivacious, light and delicate with grassy and citrussy aromas.

Champagnes with Heart - are a perfect accompaniment to lamb, sweet and sour dishes, gratins, warm desserts and red fruits ... or try them at tea time.  Champagnes with heart are generous, heart warming and smooth, offering aromas of brioche, cinnamon and honey.  They can include Rose and Demi-Sec Champagnes.

Champagnes with Soul - are so exceptional that they deserve to be savored by themselves.  Champagnes with soul are mature, complex and rich with hints of rare and subtle spices.  Among these wines are Special Cuvees and cherished Vintage Champagnes.  

Exploring the Champagne Region

The natural beauty of the vineyards, the mosaic of the vines, as well as towns rich in history:  Reims, the city where the Kings of France were crowned, Epernay at the heart of the vineyards, medieval Troyes, Chateau Thierry, birthplace of Jean de la Fontaine, Chalons-en-Champagne and its gardens.  Also not to be missed are the Gothic cathedrals, Romanesque churches, country houses and aristocratic manors.

The three main elements - climate, soil and sub soil, vary within the appellation Champagne.  However four main regions can be distinguished:

The Mountain of Reims where the vineyards snake along the slopes between the plateau and the valleys of the Ardre and the Vesle throughout a National Regional Park

The Valley of the Marne where the slopes flank the river on both sides, following its curves as it meanders from Ay to beyond Chateau Thierry.

The Cote des Blancs where the vineyards follow the slopes that run from Epernay in the north down to the slopes around the town of Sezanne.

 The Cote des Bar and Montgueux as the southern tip of the region.  There, the vineyards run up the gentle slopes of rounded hills between the rivers Seine and Aube.  The countryside is lovely and peaceful.