Champagne is made from chardonnay, pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes (there are one or two other permitted varieties but these are very rare) grown on chalky hillsides within a strictly demarcated region centred on the twin towns of Reims and Epernay, some 90 miles east of Paris. After hand harvesting, each grape variety is vinified separately, and in the following spring, the wines are blended unless a blancs de blancs is to made in which case any blending will be from parcels of chardonnay that were vinified separately. Yeast and sugar are added, and the wine is bottled for its second fermentation which creates the bubbles, or mousse.
The yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, which, with nowhere else to go in the sealed bottle, dissolves into the wine. Vintage Champagne must then mature for at least three years compared with a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage. Gradual turning of the bottles, remuage, brings the yeast sediment to the neck of the...
The yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide, which, with nowhere else to go in the sealed bottle, dissolves into the wine. Vintage Champagne must then mature for at least three years compared with a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage. Gradual turning of the bottles, remuage, brings the yeast sediment to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen to allow the yeast pellet to be cleanly ejected (dégorgement).
In some Champagnes the dégorgement is delayed, sometimes for years, to increase the depth and complexity of the flavours through more time spent on the lees. After topping up (dosage) with a little more wine and sugar (known as liqueur d'expédition), the bottle is sealed.
What marks the â€˜Champagneâ€™ method from other sparkling wines is the fact that this complex and gradual maturation process, along with the second fermentation, takes place in the same bottle as the wine is sold.
A recent study proved that Champagne may be stored equally well standing upright as horizontal. The pressure inside the bottle ensures the cork does not shrink and dry out for many years. Champagne is sensitive to light and warmth and should always be stored somewhere dark and cool.
The least planted of the three main grapes, chardonnay is still a crucial partner, bringing elegance and finesse to a blend. When grown so far north, acidity levels in chardonnay are high, but this is essential for wines to have longevity, and to ensure that the finished blend doesn't taste flabby. It is this acidity that marks the finesse and precision of these fine sparkling wines. Champagnes with a high proportion of chardonnay are generally the most elegant and pure styles and make wonderful aperitifs. Champagnes made solely from chardonnay are known as blanc de blancs ('white of whites').
Pinot noir offers complexity, fruit flavour and texture, which explains why it is the most planted Champagne grape. Acidity levels are not as high as chardonnay, but pinot noir offers weightier flavours, adding body and strength, and giving the wine structure. Bollinger is a good example of a classic pinot noir-dominant blend.
Softness and fruitiness are the hallmarks of pinot meunier, the least well-known of the three. Making up around one-third of all plantings in Champagne, it takes its name from the French word for 'miller', as the white underside of the leaves look like they've been dusted with flour. It has a little more acidity than pinot noir, and so gives Champagne a brightness that would otherwise be lacking. Blanc de noirs ('white of blacks') champagne contains just pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.
Most Champagnes are not the product of a small sub-region. Many houses buy grapes from growers from across the entire Champagne region, but as a generalisation, chardonnay works best in the Côtes des Blancs, near Epernay in the heart of the region, which contains a number of grand-cru villages: Le Mesnil, Cramant and Chouilly. Pinot meunier dominates the Marne Valley to the west, while pinot noir flourishes in the Aube region, which is closer to Chablis than Epernay or Reims. It is at its best on the Montagne de Reims in villages like Bouzy, Ambonnay, Aÿ, Louvois and Verzy, all of which are grand cru sites.
Non-Vintage is by far the most popular style of Champagne, representing as it does the producer's house style. The name is rather misleading; Krug's preferred term, 'multi-vintage', is perhaps more appropriate, since an NV will be a blend from a number of vintages. Consistency is crucial, and it is here that the skill of the blender comes to the fore.
Vintage Champagnes are not made every year, and only in exceptional ones. In contrast to the NV wines, producers want their vintage Champagnes to show off the quality and character of that year's harvest, rather than stick to their traditional style. Vintage Champagnes always benefit from cellaring, and develop beautifully for those with the patience to leave them. They can be drunk upon release, but the vast majority will improve immeasurably with five to ten (or more) years' ageing.
The very best Champagne that a house can produce is often referred to as a prestige cuvée. The best are sublime, with high prices as they come from very low-yielding sites and are made with exceptional attention to detail. Examples include Louis Roederer Cristal, Bollinger RD and Pol Roger Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
Rosé Champagne is unique in that it is the only rosé in France that is allowed to be made by mixing red and white wines, as opposed to the normal method of using dark-skinned grapes and macerating them for a short period, so a little of the colour is leeched. In the past some houses felt it rather beneath them to produce rosé Champagne, but almost all do so now.
Champagne sweetness: Champagnes, on the whole, are less sweet than they were 100 years ago, mainly as a result of consumer demand. Brut is by far the most common style.
â€¢ Brut Nature/Brut Zéro - Fewer than 3 grams of sugar per litre (1 on The Wine Societyâ€™s sweetness code)
â€¢ Extra Brut - Fewer than 6g/l (1-2 WS)
â€¢ Brut - fewer than 15g/l (1-2 WS)
â€¢ Extra Sec/Extra Dry - 12-20g/l (2-3 WS)
â€¢Sec - 17-35g/l (3 WS)
â€¢Demi-sec - 33-50g/l (3-4 WS)
â€¢Doux - more than 50g/l (5+)