Champagne, simply put, is a state of mind.
The name alone makes one think of a celebration, a victory, elegance and opulence.
Race car drivers pop champagne to crown a victory. Anniversaries and milestones achieved demand a bottle of champagne. Champagne is the drink associated with New Years Eve and other holidays. And who can forget the champagne toast?
In short, everyone loves champagne, but few really know much about it.
The name champagne is derived from campagnia, a Latin term for the countryside north of Rome.
What most people call champagne is actually sparkling wine. Only wines produced in the Champagne region 90 miles northeast of Paris can proudly use the name. Although effervescent wines are abundant throughout the world, true Champagne comes only from this region.
Legend has it that champagne was first made toward the end of the 17th century by a Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Perignon and the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers (property now owned by Moet & Chandon). The story goes that they invented the sparkling and foamy wine by accident. Because of the fact the region is the coolest wine-producing area in the world, wines were made in the fall and left to settle over the winter. The cold temperatures suspended the fermentation process by paralyzing the yeast before the grape sugar turned to alcohol. When the weather and yeast warmed up in the spring, the wine would referment and begin to sparkle, which was not taken very well by the local people and actually frightened the Champenois. Dom and the cellar master spent decades filled with frustration trying to produce wine like the rest of France. Eventually they gave up, embracing the bubbling wine that set them apart from the rest of the world.
In actuality, an English scientist named Christopher Merret was the first to document the intentional stimulation of the second fermentation process by English winemakers almost 30 years before Dom Perignon is said to have invented it.
Sparkling wines are made around the world by adding sugar to the bottle during a second fermentation called dosage. The amount of sugar added creates different levels of dry to sweet sparkling wine, with the driest being extra brut and the sweetest being doux.
The level of sweetness of Champagne is as follows:
- Extra Brut – totally dry to very dry
- Brut – very dry to almost dry
- Extra Dry – slightly sweeter
- Demi-Sec – sweet
- Doux – very sweet
Brut is by far the most popular worldwide and the most produced.
The region of Champagne has approximately 85,000 total acres. Of this, 75,000 are vineyard acres. The region is subdivided into five growing regions: the Cotes des Blancs, the Vallee de la Marne, the Montagne de Reims, the Cote des Bars (sometimes the Aube) and the Cote de Sezanne.
What is important to point out and what I find interesting is that wines that come from the five different subregions of Champagne all seem to share qualities and flavor profiles. Of course, the different terroir, microclimates and soil compositions of the subregions make the wines unique.
Champagne is made from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier grapes. Some of the Champagne subregions don't grow all three of the grapes, resulting in yet another subtle difference between the Champagne regions.
Champagne is the most difficult and complicated wine to make. All champanges are blends of still (non-bubbling) wines. Sometimes as many as 60 wines go into one blend. The goal is not to actually make a blend that tastes good right away, but to imagine how the blend will taste years later after the second fermentation, when bubbles have developed and dosage has been added.
Not all of the Champagne Houses, or makers, grow all of the grapes they use and need. There are more than 300 Champagne Villages, or Crus, that supply the houses with grapes.
In the world of wine, mass-producing wine companies sell their wines far less than small-producing boutique wineries. The small handmade wines demand much higher prices because of their quality.
In the world of champagne, the opposite is true. The big-name and mass-producing houses get much more for their bottle than the smaller-producing houses. The funny thing is that the smaller houses usually grow their grapes (called Grower Champagnes) and are better at a lower price.
How is this possible? Really it has to do with tradition and advertizing dollars. The 24 Grande Marques, or famous brands, such as Moet & Chandon, Perriet Jouet, Krug, Clicquot, Roederer, Tattinger, Mumm and Pommery, account for 60 percent of all champagne sold.
The age of the Small Champagne Grower is here. In part due to the shaky economy and to neglect of the terroir of the region, the big-name houses are facing hard times and are not adjusting to them as the small grower house have.
What this means to you the consumer is instead of buying the bottle of bubbly you always have on New Years or your anniversary at the same inflated price, try a bottle from a smaller grower house. The champagne will be amazing and you might be able to buy two for the same price.
In a near future blog post I will list some excellent small-grower champagnes to try as well as a breakdown of the 5 subregions of Champagne. I will also list an around-the-world account of sparkling wines from various countries including Spain, Italy, Chili, Argentina, United States and many more.