Champagne is made from fermented grapes following similar cultivation techniques as other wines. However it is exceptional in that it must follow unique procedures in order to obtain its bubbles.
Guidelines drawn out by the appellation, along with officially controlled designation of origin, ensure that Champagne’s identity is protected.
Wine of Champagne comes from the Champagne region in north-eastern France 100km east of Paris. The Appellation ensures that a sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s made within the 35,000 hectares (84,000 acre) region.
Unlike other French wine producing regions that recognise terroirs (vineyard quality), Champagne uses Crus. Whole Villages in Champagne are classified as Grand or Premier Cru. Or just classified as Cru, and legally can use the Champagne Name. There are 17 grand crus, covering 14% of land area. Premier Crus account for 17%, and crus for the remaining 69% of the region.
The Champagne region has been making white wine from red grapes since the Middle Ages. This was originally done during their bitter rivalry with neighboring Burgundy, whose reds were rich in colour compared with Champagne’s weaker pink attempts.
Dom Perignon improved these techniques in the mid-16th Century, making clear white wine from black grapes by pressing quickly and gently to prevent the skins macerating with the juice.
Champagne is made with three major grapes:
Pinot Noir (39% of regional production) has a full body and adds a firm foundation to blends or can be bottled alone. It is fragile, leafs early and is susceptible to spring frosts. However, it’s high tannin content creates a wine that ages well.
Main sub regions: Montagne de Reims, Côtes des Bar
Pinot Meunier (32% of regional production) is often used in smaller quantities in a blend than Pinot Noir. It adds roundness, and can produce supple fruity wines. The grape ripens more reliably than Pinot Noir, and ages faster, so can be consumed sooner.
Main Sub-region: Vallée de la Marne
Chardonnay (29% of regional production) is cherished for freshness and can either be used to provide sharp notes to a blend or bottled on its own. It yields delicate flavour with distinctive notes of flowers, citrus and green fruit such as apples.
Main Sub-region: Côte des Blancs
Blends that can feature different grapes and from different harvests to ensure a consistent product. Minimum maturation is 15 months, but typically 2-3 years.
An exceptional year’s grape harvest. A portion of that harvest is kept aside to be used solely in making the blend. Minimum maturation is 36 months, but typically 5-10 years.
Early September workers harvest the grapes by hand, known as the “vendange”. The grapes are carefully picked then quickly and gently pressed in a “coquart” press. The leftovers, known as “mout” , are not wasted but instead used to make a liqueur called Ratafia.
The pressed juice is left to ferment in cuveries (steel vats) or sometimes oak casks. This 1st Fermentation is finished when there is not sugar left in the juice.
Barrique (Oak) the most common size of barrel @ 200-300 l
Demi-muids is a medium size @ 500-600 l
Foudre is the largest @ up to 1000 l
A settling of the juice after pressing to remove solid particles such as skins and pips before fermentation.
“The heart of the first pressing”. The cuvée refers to the first 2,050 liters from a 4,000 kilogram press, and the coeur de cuvée is the highest quality portion from the middle of the pressing.
The adding of sugar to grape must in order to raise its degree of potential alcohol.
Often called malolactic fermentation, it is not actually fermentation, but a conversion of sharp malic acid to softer, creamier lactic acidity. Some producers choose to block it in order to retain the firm, lively structure of malic acidity.
The “assemblage” is the pivotal moment where the chef du cave (cellar master) creates his secret blend. Master blenders have the skilled task of ensuring consistency.
However, the best Champagnes are made exclusively with the first juice from the press (tête de cuvée).
The cellar master will not only blend the current vintages, but sometimes return to reserve vintages from as far back as 30 years! This is unique to Champagne.
Vintage Champagnes are an exception to the above. These are wines blended from years where the harvest was particularly good.
Older “reserved” grapes are used for this blend. However many houses such as Pol Roger or Taittinger may label their most basic Bruts as Réserve.
A prestige cuvée, sometimes also called a tête de cuvée, represents the most meticulously selected, most expensive, and presumably the highest quality champagne in a house’s range. Well-known prestige cuvées include Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Pol Roger’s Sir Winston Churchill and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne, while the first prestige cuvée of all was Dom Pérignon, launched by Moët & Chandon in 1936.
“white from whites” in English. These are blends made using 100% Chardonnay grapes. A small minority of houses also use obscure regional grapes such as Petit Meslier and Arbane, or Pinot Gris (Champagne Fleury).
“white from blacks”, are wines made solely from black grapes. These blends are often characteristically strong with flavours and are particularly well-suited to serve with a variety of foods.
Rosé d’assemblage (blended) is the most common method, as it ensures consistency of colour and density. White wine (before its second fermentation in the bottle) is blended with 5 to 20% of red wine, vinified to be non tannic.
Rosé de saignée allows the grape must (juice) to remain in contact with the skins for just a few hours. The natural pigments of the black skins begin to colour and enrich the juice. These champagnes are generally richer in taste and have vinous character which makes them more suitable to be served with food.
A champagne that is made entirely from a single parcel of vines, as opposed to being blended from many different vineyards, as the vast majority of champagnes are.
A system of storing reserve wines by blending them together and constantly replenishing by wine from each new harvest, this eventually creating a complex, multi-vintage blend. A solera involves multiple tiers of wine, that are used to replenish each other, whereas a perpetual blend utilises only a single cuvée.
Once the blends have been assembled, they are bottled and tightly sealed.
The act of bottling. During this process a mixture of sugar, yeast and a reserved blend, called liqueur, is added. While it ages “sur latte” (bottles layered on their sides) in the bottle, the sugar and yeast react and produce gas, which creates the bubbles.
is the residue that gathers in the neck of the bottle during the maturation process, which must be a minimum of 12 months on lees of a total 15 months maturation before being corked.
A complex process involving both the turning and tilting of bottles in an upright rack, to collect the sediment at the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement. Antoine de Müller, cellarmaster for Veuve Clicquot in the early 19th century, is credited with inventing the riddling rack in 1816. Today, riddling by hand is still practiced, but it is increasingly becoming replaced by the gyropalette, a mechanical device that accomplishes the task in a much shorter amount of time.
The act of shaking the bottles during lees aging, to put the lees in suspension and prevent them from sticking to the sides of the glass. It can also be done after disgorgement, to more evenly distribute the liqueur d’expédition.
after resting in the cellars for between 18 months and 5 years (or longer), bottles are raised into a vertical position with their necks at the bottom to collect the sediment. This sediment is removed (Disgorged) by quickly opening the bottles, and refilled with “liqueur d’expedition”, a blend of reserve wine and sugar (dosage).
A clarification of wine by the addition of a physical agent, such as bentonite or egg whites, that removes solid matter.
is the large metal clip used to secure the cork before capsules were invented, typically during the second fermentation and aging in the bottle.
A square lip on the mouth of the bottle, used to secure the agrafe. Whereas the Bague Couronne is the thin rounded lip seen on most champagne bottles. This holds the crown capsule (bottle top) in place for the second fermentation.
Sweetness is determined following the second fermentation process, where the liquor is added to dose the wine and boost the residual sugar.
Brut Nature – no added sugar and under 3 grams/litre of residual sugars
Extra Brut – between 0 and 6 g/litre of residual sugars
Brut – less than 12 g/litre (of residual sugars)
Extra Sec (or Extra Dry) – between 12 & 17 g/litre
Sec (or Dry) – between 12 & 17 g/litre
Demi Sec – between 17 & 32 g/litre
Doux – more than 50 g/litre
Champagne goes through intense phases of fermentation and ageing. Where Prosecco never leaves the stainless steel pressurised vat, Champagne spends most of its time ageing in a bottle in the cellar, before being released for sale. When the time comes, the cap is removed and it is corked. Some enthusiasts like to age their Champagnes after corking, but you don’t have to, you can enjoy straight away!
Fillete 375 ml
Imperial Pint 470ml
Magnum 1.5 l
Jéroboam 3 l
Réhoboam 4.5 l
Mathasalem 6 l
Salmanazar 9 l
Balthazar 12 l
Nabuchodonosor 15 l
Other extreme bottle sizes exist such as the Salomon (18 l), Souverain (26 l), Primat (27 l) and Melchisedec (30 l), these were introduced as recently as 2002, usually for events or competition between houses to produce the largest bottles.
Reading a Champagne label
Some bottles have a combination of front and back labels. You will most likely find the following information.
Grapes – indicated by area and blending style
- Village Cru – Avize Grand Cru in Côte des Blancs
- Blending Style – Blanc de Blancs made only with Chardonnay
- Bottle size – 75cl standard bottle
- Maturity – Year indicates a vintage
- Producer ID – NM: Négociant Manipulant
- Sugar Content – Brut Nature: very dry
- Bottling date
- Disgorgement date (at least 15 months after bottling)
- Certification – Organic / Biodynamic
Producer Identifier is a code on the side of the bottle, which indicates the producers status. They begin with two letters e.g “NM”
A Handling Merchant sources grapes and usually create their own blends in house. Representing over 50% of the market and include names such as Bolinger, Moet & Chandon and Krug.
Don’t get involved in production, they simply purchase bulk champagne and add their own label.
Buyers Brands that consist of Champagnes grown and produced by someone else. Usually found in Supermarkets or can be special orders for restaurants or VIPs.
At least 95% of the grapes must be homegrown in the Récoltants end to end production of the final product.
A company of growers that pool resources to produce and commercialise their Champagne
Small landowners cooperative that share resources and release under a single label. The most famous is Nicolas Feuillatte.
Not very common, these landowners pool their grapes and share a press, yet sell champagne under their own individual labels.
Non-Vintage Champagne Temperature Guide (check bottle label)
Ideal temperature range: 10-12C (46.4-50F)
Fridge cooling time: 4 hours approx.
Freezer cooling time: 15 minutes
Ice bucket cooling: 20 minutes
Vintage & Special Cuvée Champagne Temperature Guide (check bottle label)
Ideal temperature range: 8-10C (50-53.6F)
Fridge cooling time: 3 hours approx.
Freezer cooling time: 10 minutes
Ice bucket cooling: 15 minutes
Fill an ice bucket half way up with ice then to the handles with cold water. Thus allows space without overflowing from the extra volume of the bottle. Adding water is important as this causes the ice to melt and properly transfer the cold. Use a napkin to wipe water off the bottle before serving.
In a hurry? You can use lots of water, some rock salt and only a little water to melt the ice quickly into a very cold water that chills the Champagne in under 10 minutes.
If you don’t want to use an ice bucket then a chiller / cooler sleeve is the easiest and cleanest solution to maintaining your Champagne’s temperature.
Corked – An all-too-common wine flaw due to the presence of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) in the cork, which imparts a musty, unpleasant aroma. A corked wine is flawed, and generally speaking, any good restaurant, retailer or producer should replace the bottle. Note that bits of cork that happen to fall into a wine do not make a wine corked.
Many Champagne houses, restaurants and sommeliers prefer to use white wine glasses to serve Champagne, as traditional long flutes prevent Champagne from revealing its aromas and achieving its true potential. The best shape is the tulip glass which was developed as a hyrbid of the flute, a coup and white wine glass. The widening shape encourages good bubble creation and aeration, which helps reveal the aromas, which are then concentrated within the tapered bulb. With a tulip glass, you’ll be able to appreciate the aroma’s subtle complexities without losing the bubbles.
Now that the Champagne is in the glass, how does it look?
Older Champagnes are usually denser and more opaque. Much younger Bruts are lighter and can border on transparent depending on the blend.
A Champagne’s colour will evolve over time as it ages and matures. Younger Champagne’s will often be a pale yellow. As they get older, the will develop a straw-like texture until beginning to adopt deep golden colours like honey or amber.
Coarser Champagnes will have big and rough bubbles. Superior Champagnes create many small and refined bubbles. However the taller the glass, the bigger the bubbles as they effectively snowball on their way up.
The number of bubbles dwindles with age, also a colder Champagne will be “closed up” with fewer bubbles produced. Bubbles help aerate the champagne and release aromas when they pop to the surface. Smaller bubbles in greater quantities are more effective in creating the bouquet.
What aromas does the Champagne give off?
The bubbles do all the work in creating aromas, therefore you don’t need to swirl the glass. Is the bouquet’s intensity delicate, mild, medium or full? This is usually a prelude to determine the flavours. How about the Aromas? Aromatic, floral, fruity, minerals, yeasty?
How does the Champagne taste?
Try inhaling gently to take in some aromas as you take a light sip. Some professionals will swish it around their mouths which is an efficient way for saliva to quickly bring out all the flavour.
relates to the amount of sugar dosage added. A high sugar content will reveal more fruity notes.
this can be felt by the wines weight and consistency against the tongue. Younger Champagnes are light, whilst vintages may be thick and syrupy.
they often complement the bouquet and will reveal alot about the Champagne’s origins. For example Chardonnay provides mineral notes reminiscent of the chalky slopes of the Cote de Blancs.
how long do the flavours endure and which notes have a greater longevity? Quality Champagnes will have a superior length and accentuated flavours that linger.
If you ever need to keep a bottle once open, then use a special champagne sealer like a “bubble stopper”. This will keep the remaining Champagne for a day or more. Putting a small spoon in the mouth of the bottle is thought to help conduct cold air from the refrigerator down into the bottle. The jury is still out on this!
There isn’t a single way to best store Champagne, it depends on the circumstances and when you plan consuming it. If you’re keeping Champagne for a special occasion, you may want to consider long-term solutions.
Leave Champagne to rest for a few weeks before consumption – if you can! This ensures that the Champagne reestablishes its molecular balance after transit.
By respecting the proper storage conditions, it will need little time to reach the right temperature for serving.
Short-Term Storage (i.e kept in the refrigerator after purchase) – 1 month
A standard refrigerator is often too cold as an appropriate serving temperature for serving Champagne. If you are serving it directly from the refrigerator, let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes before opening.
Long-Term Champagne Storage – 2-3 years Non-Vintage, 5-10 years Vintage
Keep in mind that a house will only release their Champagne once it’s reached what they consider to be perfection. Also the conditions at home are somewhat different than the Champagne caves. To best replicate the conditions of a deep underground cellar you need a dark, humid and cool place for your Champagne.
Keeping Champagne cool is ideal but it’s most important that the temperature is consistent. A brief increase during short transportation is less of a problem. However if the Champagne heats up over summer, the bottles contents will expand. This may cause Champagne to break the seal of the cork and turn the wine into flat vinegar.
Excessive light causes “lightstrike”, which leaves a taste that the French call “gout de lumiere”. Therefore it’s important to keep it away from direct sunlight and ideally in complete darkness.
Even with the bottle lying horizontally, the cork can dry from the outside. Therefore it’s important to ensure that the room is relatively humid (ideal 70%). However if the environment is too humid, the cork can get mouldy and disintegrate.