Champagne & champagne
Champagne is the standard by which all other sparkling wines are
measured. Good Champagne is costly due to the high price for grapes and the amount
of hand-labor required.
We feature excellent French Champagnes as well as good alternatives from California,
Italy, Spain, Germany, etc.
The French are big on protecting the name "Champagne," as it represents a
geographical place name as well as a tremendous amount of money.
To be called "Champagne" in France, the wine must come from grapes grown within
the region of Champagne and be made within the boundaries of that region. The
law encompasses grape varieties, production methods and aging requirements.
California wineries use the word "Champagne" on their bottles and the French
have challenged this. Unsuccessfully. U.S. courts have ruled against the
French on this. California wineries have been calling their sparkling wines
"Champagne" for too many years. It is sad to see the words
"Andre" and "Dom Perignon" under the same heading!
Of course, California wineries would be up in arms if the French started making wines
called "Napa," "Sonoma," or "Stags Leap."
The Champenoise have seen the damage to Chablis. Most Americans are surprised to
learn that (YES!) they produce "Chablis" in France, too! Few understand
that "Champagne" and "Chablis" are regions as well as "wine
types." California wines using those names have little in common with their
Le Methode Champenoise
First....Champagne is a region. The northernmost in France. It's 90 miles
north-east of Paris and it's a great place to visit!
Champagne is not a huge area, but it is twice the size of Beaujolais or Alsace, for
example. There are some 15,000 growers, averaging about 2.1 hectares
of vines each!
Three grape varieties constitute Champagne. Two of them are red, the Pinot Noir and the
Pinot Meunier. The only white grape is the Chardonnay. Virtually every firm
will tell you they use primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, yet Pinot Meunier accounts for
about half the vineyards in the region. Hmmmm. Make you wonder, doesn't
it? A few houses will admit to using Pinot Meunier, especially Krug (!),
Billecart-Salmon, Jacquesson and Pol Roger.
Pinot Noir, accounting for 30% of the vineyards, is particularly fine in the Montagne de
Reims. Plantings are on the rise, though, in the Aube, the southeastern pocket of
Champagne bordering Burgundy.
Chardonnay seems to do best in the chalky soils of the Côtes des Blancs south of Epernay.
The grapes are harvested at a relatively low sugar and fairly high level of acidity.
Most of the firms have press houses scattered around the region, so the fruit doesn't have
a long trip from the vineyard.
Visit the large firms and you'll find huge fermentation tanks, neatly polished and looking
like something out of a sci-fi film. "Smaller" firms such as Roederer, for
example, have a tank farm with an amazing variety of various sized stainless steel.
This is because they purchase fruit from so many villages....the houses explain they like
to keep each "wine" separated to facilitate producing a consistent blend.
Most firms put the juice into a settling tank and allow the juice to settle a bit of
sediment. Almost everyone ferments the base wines in stainless steel tanks, though
Krug, Gratien and Bollinger still use wood for, at least some of, the primary
fermentation. Again, the claim is that they're keeping each village's wine
Once the wines have fermented, there's a question of malolactic fermentation. Many
firms induce this secondary fermentation, while others inhibit it, preferring the crisper
edge of non-malolactic fermentation wine.
MAKING THOSE TINY BUBBLES
The next bit of
business, after assembling the base wine or "Cuvée," is putting the bubbles
into the wine. The larger firms buy fruit all over the region of Champagne and can
blend to create their blend. Small growers usually have fruit in but one or two
villages and must make do with what they have.
Some will tell you this is the advantage of a large firm. Others claim the growers
make a unique product, one displaying the "terroir" which you won't find in a
large firm's Champagne. Having tasted many large producer's products and quite a
number of the small, grower's wines, I can say there is room for both on the table.
You can imagine, however, the amount of skill and precision required of
those who blend dozens (or hundreds) or wine together trying to achieve a wine which is
consistent, year after year. This is one bit of "artistry" which some may
argue in which the grower does not have to participate. On the other hand.....
Once blended, the liqueur de tirage (yeast, sugar and, perhaps, some reserve wine) is
added to the bottles filled with "still" wine. These are then stoppered
and the secondary alcohol fermentation takes place within each and every bottle. The
bottles are laid away in the cellars where the fermentation proceeds until its
The wine is then aged "en tirage" for a minimum of 15
months. Virtually every major Champagne house claims they age their
non-vintage (today they prefer to call these "multi-vintage," since they usually
are based on one year with some older reserve wines added) wines for three
years. This is difficult to believe if you taste the wines of Bollinger or
Charles Heidsieck or Krug, for example. Compared to most of the large firms, you
will note those mentioned have a significantly more "toasty" or
For vintage-dated Champagnes, most firms have a five year aging cycle. The law
requires vintaged wines to be three years old before release.
At a seminar on Champagnes, one winemaker noted that virtually all the firms, despite
their claims to the contrary, disgorge their non-vintaged products "fifteen months
and two hours" after setting them in the cellar.
Those A-Framed racks in that photo show the bottles in "riddling
racks." This endeavor, known as "remuage" is a slow and
labor-intensive method of starting the process of removing the spent yeast from the bottle
of wine. "Riddlers" go through the cellar and twist and turn the bottles
over a period of two or three months. Each time he handles the bottle, it is
inclined at a higher level to allow the sediment to collect against the crown cap which
seals the bottle. Many firms now have "gyropalettes," very large machines
(VLM's for short) which can "riddle" the bottles constantly in as little as a
week or so.
Finally, the bottles are set in a freezing brine solution to freeze the sediment of
yeast. The bottles are then opened and the CO2 gas pushes the solidified yeast
"plug" out of the bottles, (hopefully) leaving the wine free of sediment.
The bottles are then topped with wine to a particular level. To this, the Champagne
firm will add a "dosage." This determines how dry or sweet the Champagne
The next step determines how dry or sweet your bottle of
Champagne is. This step, if employed, is called the "dosage." It is
usually some wine and sugar syrup, though a few claim to include brandy or Cognac in their
dosage. Those who use brandy contend it adds a note of complexity. Those who
do not say it detracts from the wine.
A few wines are non-dosaged Champagnes. These are often so dry and acidic that they
are not palatable to most tastes. Look for "Non-Dose,"
"Pas-Dose," "Extra Brut," "Brut Integral" or "Brut
Zero" on the label. More "normal" are those designated as
"Brut." These typically have a slight bit of liqueur d'expdition (the
The Champagne laws do not regulate the level of sugar allowed in the various designations
of Champagnes. Generally speaking, however, you'll find something like 6-13grams per
liter in "Brut" Champagnes. Those called "Extra Dry" are not at
all "dry," having usually 10-30 grams per liter of sugar in the finished
wine. Since Champagne tends to be so high in acidity, the combination of CO2
and acid tend to mask the sweetness.
The Champagne producers specializing in the "Extra Dry" wines, tend to use
inferior fruit for those wines. This is because the sugar masks the modest quality
of the wine.
Vintage-dated Champagnes are, for the most part, "Brut." You can find
demi-sec, or mildly-sweet Champagnes. These are not terribly popular at this
ONE BIT OF CHICANERY:
And More Info on Champagne
AND BUBBLIES IN STORE