Champagne is a unique, incomparable wine born in the old French province that gave it its name. It is a name that conveys pleasure and festivity… sparkling elegance and gracious charm… luxury and grandeur.
Champagne’s well-deserved reputation for perfection is based on the strict regulations under which it is made. Rooted in tradition, proven over centuries of wine-making, today they have the force of French law.
We will explain how Champagne is produced, and why it is most honored among the world’s great wines.
In the Champagne Region, achieving the finest quality has always been a tradition, There is ample evidence that vineyards existed during the Tertiary period and that the vine is intimately intertwined with the history of France. According to written records, vines covered the slopes of the Marne River at the time of the Roman conquest and were cultivated through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period.
However, Champagne as we know it today dates from the 17th century, the Grand Siècle when it was the favorite wine of French and English royalty and a brilliant feature of aristocratic gatherings. Praised and lauded by high society in these countries, Champagne’s reputation spread to the rest of the world and it became internationally known for its sparkling qualities.
To maintain the centuries-old tradition of quality and distinction, Champagne is produced only from certain grapes, grown in a precisely delimited area. The vineyards of this region potentially cover a surface area of 85,000 acres, but at the present only 75,000 are under cultivation. The delimited zone encompasses Reims, the Valley of the Marne, and the Côte des Blancs (slope of whites). Each district has its own micro-climate in which the grapes achieve their special character and subtle nuances of flavor and aroma.
No wine produced outside the delimited Champagne Region can properly claim to be Champagne.
The sparkling wine of the Champagne Region derives many of its characteristics from a unique combination of soil, climate, and grape varieties. At an average annual temperature of 50 degrees F, and under the different growing conditions found in the region, the vines fight for survival. Paradoxically, these adverse conditions give vigor and nobility to the grapes.
Most of the vineyards are situated on hilly slopes, the roots of the vines grow deep into a chalky sub-soil covered by a thin layer of loamy topsoil. The porous subsoil not only provides nutritious substances, it also assures perfect drainage and humidity by allowing excess water to seep through. Moreover, the chalk stores and gently redistributes warmth, thus regulating the elements essential to ripening plants.
The sub-soil, which extends down for hundreds of feet, also provides ideal cellars for storing the wine. These chalk galleries remain at the constant temperature and humidity needed for making Champagne, and are dug under the cities of Reims, Épernay, Ay, Châlons-sur-Marne and others.
Through years of experience, three noble varieties of grapes – and only three – have been found to yield superior wine in the soil and climate of the Champagne Region. These are:
Pinot Noir: A red grape which gives the wine body, strength and fullness of flavor.
Chardonnay: A white grape which gives lightness, elegance and finesse to the final blend.
Pinot Meunier: Another red grape which contributes freshness and youth.
Meticulous Care and continuous effort…
Patience, hard work, and fastidious attention to the vines are required in order to grow maximum quality grapes in the climate and soil of Champagne. The uncertainty of the elements, the needs of the soil, the stringent legal restrictions demand a continuous effort from the vine-growers.
The work is performed at a craftsman’s pace throughout the year. Growers cultivate their vineyards with the same devotion they would give to a family garden: ploughing, fertilizing, weeding, composting and spraying the vines at prescribed intervals. Pruning the vines, a particularly difficult operation, is done in accordance with precise rules which deliberately limit the yield of the grapes so they will be of the highest quality.
Grape-picking starts towards the end of September or early October, about 100 days after the flowering of the vines.
The exact date when picking begins is determined by the Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), the industry’s governing body, and coincides with the full ripening of the grapes.
Harvesting operations are carried out under the strict regulations established by the CIVC. Picking must be done by hand; mechanical harvesting is forbidden. Irrigation is not permitted. Grape bunches are examined individually, and unripe or damaged grapes are discarded.
Not all of the annual harvest is allowed to go into the production of Champagne. A maximum yield per acre is fixed to ensure that the quality of the wine is maintained.
In the Press House…
Grapes destined to become Champagne are pressed during the several hours immediately following the harvest. They are transported with utmost care so as not to bruise the skins, and placed in wide, shallow presses.
Pressing takes place rapidly and the juice or “must” is separated from the skins to avoid unwanted coloration from the red grapes. According to regulations, each press is loaded with 8,800 pounds (4,000 kilos) of grapes from which only 2,666 liters of must can be produced. The first 2 or 3 quick pressings yield 10 casks of juice. The next pressing yields two casks, called première taille and the final pressing yields one cask known as the deuxième taille. Any surplus is distilled into alcohol.
The must is transferred to purifying vats for 10 to 12 hours so that seeds and other solid particles can settle. It is then transported to the Champagne firms in the nearby towns where the juice will ferment for several weeks and become wine. Throughout the winter months the wine is decanted and clarified several times. The wine from each vineyard is identified and isolated so the cellar master can periodically evaluate it prior to preparing the blend, or cuvée.
With the arrival of spring, the most difficult and demanding step in the making of Champagne takes place. This is the preparation of the cuvée, or blend, which gives each Champagne producer its distinctive house style.
Following age-old principles and traditions, the cuvée is made up of 20, 30 or more still wines. These wines may come from a single vineyard or from different vineyards within the Champagne Region. They may come from one harvest or from harvests of different years. They may be produced from red grapes or white grapes.
In most instances, the cuvée is a blend of wines obtained from both red and white grapes. However, if only white Chardonnay grape wines are used, the Champagne will be a blanc de blancs. When a harvest is exceptional, only the wines of that year are used in the blend in order to produce a vintage Champagne.
The cellarmaster’s objective is to create a harmonious wine that will reflect the reputation and wine-making philosophy of the firm whose name appears on the label. Blending is a fine art, and the secret of each cuvée is jealously guarded by its producer.
After the cuvée has been completed, natural fermenting agents (yeast) and a small quantity of cane sugar are added to the blend before bottling. This liqueur de tirage is what causes the second fermentation within the bottle, the mèthode champenoise. The wine is drawn off into bottles, which receive their cellar corks and are stock horizontally in the famous Champagne cellars dug into the chalky subsoil. These galleries extend for hundreds of miles beneath the surface and can accommodate hundreds of millions of bottles.
Long aging is essential…
In the cool, dark, chalk cellars of the Champagne Region, the blended wines slowly marry to develop a new wine of great complexity and excellent balance. During this aging period the wine ferments a second time, creating the sparkling effervescence which is the hallmark of Champagne.
Within the stoppered bottle, yeasts act on the sugar to produce carbonic gas (carbon dioxide). The gas remains imprisoned in the bottle, gradually mixing with the wine. Later on, when the bottle is opened, it will appear as streams of tiny bubbles in the glass.
To achieve full maturity, delicacy, and the nuances of flavor for which Champagne is famous, the bottles age in the cellars for an average of three years. Second fermentation causes the formation of a deposit (spent yeasts) which adheres to the inside surface of the bottle. This sediment must be removed in order that the wine be clear and limpid.
Using a method known as remuage, the bottles are placed in special racks with their necks slightly tilted down. Every day, for a period of several months, the expert remueur shakes, turns and tilts each bottle. Gradually, the sediment slides into the neck of the bottle where it is deposited against the cork. When the process is completed, the bottles are vertical, upside down, and the sediment is ready for disgorging – one of the most unusual steps in the production of Champagne.
Disgorging, dosage, dressing…
When the sediment of second fermentation has been collected in the neck of the bottle, it is removed by dégorgement. The bottle is placed upside down in a freezing solution to form a small block of ice which contains the sediment. Turning the bottle upright and removing the cork causes internal pressure to eject the ice pellet and with it the sediment. The wine is now clear, golden and translucent.
A small quantity of wine is lost in disgorging. It is replaced by a mixture of cane sugar and Champagne. This is called the dosage. And the proportion of sugar used determines if the Champagne will be brut, very dry, dry, semi-sweet or sweet.
Final steps include inserting the cork, adding a wire muzzle to hold the cork securely in place, and dressing the bottle with its foil, label and neck label.
Note: After a Champagne has properly aged, it can be one of the finest beverages known to man and can be served with almost any course. No beverage is used to celebrate more special occasions than Champagne.