Wiens on Wine - Sparkling Wine Part 3 - Understanding Champagne
Posted on October 6, 2023
This post originally appeared in our Wine Line email newsletter. Stan was kind enough to let us post it on our blog as well. Thanks, Stan!
Learn alongside Stan as he completes WSET Level 4.
Days to Final Exam: 350
This week’s focus: Sparkling Wine (Part 3 – Understanding Champagne)
Champagne! The GOAT (greatest of all time)! To capture the beauty of this sparkling wine, we will look at the history and a few facts that contribute to why this premium product is at the top of my list (refer back to the previous two “Wine Lines” to understand the traditional method of making Champagne, along with understanding how to read its detailed label).
Champagne is a designated region, about 120 km wide and 150 km long, just east of Paris. You cannot, must not, will not call it Champagne unless it came from this precise region. Outside of Champagne, sparkling wine made by the same traditional method, is called Crémant in France, Cava in Spain, and a variety of other names in many regions around the world. Just don’t call it Champagne.
Let’s get a little history into this special wine. Originally, before Dom Pierre Perignon (1638-1715), wine produced in this region was a still wine, pink in colour, made from Pinot Noir. The fermentation would naturally stop in the winter because of the cool temperatures of this northern region. In spring, as temperatures increased, fermentation would restart in the bottle, creating a slight fizzy spritz to the wine. This became quite fashionable in England.
Dom Pierre Perignon, a Benedictine monk, developed the first white wine from black grapes, invented a new gentle pressing method via the Coquard basket press, and the crazy notion of blending (assemblage) grapes from different parts of the region. Here is a little irony – Dom Perignon considered the fizziness in the wine to be a fault. Let’s move on.
In the 19th century, further development was made by controlling the second fermentation which occurred in the bottle (versus a tank or barrel). Carefully measured sugar and yeast, added to the bottle, would create the precise level of pressure, giving the “prise de mousse”, which literally means “capture the sparkle”!
Madame Veuve Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin (1777-1866), further advanced Champagne by developing the riddling system (remuage). Again, go back and read the article on Traditional Method winemaking in “part 1”. Raise a glass to Madame Veuve Clicquot for developing a system to slowly invert a bottle of wine to get all the sediment to the neck, freeze it in a cold briny solution, eject it from the bottle and cap it under pressure. This is a clue as to why Champagne is pricy.
In 1927, the precise vineyard area for the region of Champagne was officially defined, which was critical in defending “Champagne only comes from Champagne”. Many books have been written on the history of Champagne but this can serve as a cursory overview.
The region of Champagne is divided into five key growing regions, each suited specifically to the growing of one of the seven grape varieties allowed in the production of Champagne. The main varieties used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, each bringing a unique taste and texture to Champagne.
Why is Champagne so expensive? We already mentioned riddling. Here are two more key reasons:
First, extraction of juice from the grape (per 4,000 kilograms of grapes, known as a ‘marc’), is limited to two “press fractions”. The first part is called the cuvee, which is the first 2,050 litres, entirely from free-run juice and very gentle pressing. The second part is called the taille, the final 500 litres of extraction. Many other regions in the world would be able to extract far more juice from the grapes. Not Champagne. They discard anything that would detract from quality (much of the discard is sold for other uses).
Second, to appreciate and understand how unique Champagne is, it is important to understand the concept of “lees aging”. Once the fermentation is complete, the bottle is stored on its side for months, even years. Every great tour of one of the Champagne Houses, inevitably leads you into some of the 18 miles of underground cellars, storing your Champagne until it is ready to be released to market. While it is aging, the wine absorbs some of the bready, yeasty characteristics, from the dead yeast cells.
So much more needs to be said. Another day.
Fun Fact: Imagine it is harvest time in Champagne. All the grapes must be harvested by hand. No machines allowed. So what does it take for 15,000 growers to get their grapes to one of the 1,900 pressing centres, and then off to one of 360 “Champagne Houses” for production, all within the span of a couple of weeks? Imagine 100,000 contract labourers descending on this small region just for this one task. This would be some kind of party.
Stan Wiens can be found working at our shop sporadically in between lengthy bouts of drinking wine ("studying") in order to complete Level 4 of the WSET program.
You can also find Stan on Instagram: @wiensonwine
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