Let's Lift Your SpiritsThursday, October 21, 2021
With less than three months to go until 2022 (read that again), I thought I'd kick off our countdown on a happy note: with Champagne. After all, Champagne Day is tomorrow (Friday, October 22). To be Champagne, a wine must do more than sparkle. It's more than just sparkling wine; it is also a region in France — the country's northernmost winemaking region, to be exact — and it's an hour-and-a-half (maybe 45 minutes) by car, north-east of Paris. If you take the train, as I have done in the past, you can get there in under an hour. A visit to Champagne makes for a lovely day trip and is one of my top five things to do whenever I've found myself in Paris. For people who love bubbly, a Champagne tour is the ultimate bucket list trip! Interesting fact: The Champagne region has 43,680 acres of vineyards to explore!
Champagne is made by a process called méthode champenoise. The use of this method is not allowed in the European Union outside of Champagne. When a similar method is used outside Champagne, it is called méthode traditionelle. The best Champagne has a combination of freshness, richness, delicacy, and raciness. But first, we harvest! This usually takes place in late September or early October. Then we press the grapes. The grapes are pressed twice — only two are permitted. Note: Prestige cuvée champagnes are usually made exclusively from the first pressing. The second pressing, called the taille, is generally blended with the cuvée to make vintage and non-vintage champagnes.
Then we make wine! This is the first fermentation when the grape juice is converted into wine (takes about 2-3 weeks). Always remember Sugar + Yeast = Alcohol + CO2. CO2, otherwise known as carbon dioxide, is where the bubbles come from. The base wine for Champagne is typically a blend of three grape varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier — and is typically dry, high in acidity, and low in alcohol. Acidity in Champagne not only gives freshness but is also important for longevity. The balance of fruit and acidity, together with the bubbles are what make a good Champagne.
To instigate the second fermentation, sugar and yeast are added to the base wine. After the sugar and yeast are added, the bottle is sealed with a crown cap (to stop the CO2 from escaping (bottle fermentation)) and stored on its side. Bottle fermentation or the traditional method (méthode traditionelle) is the most common and highly regarded method used in Champagne AOC. During the second fermentation, the CO2 dissolves within the wine creating bubbles. This technique also adds extra flavours and a little more alcohol to the wine. Once the second fermentation is complete, the yeast forms a sediment of lees in the bottle. At this point some of you may be wondering what on earth are lees? Simply put, lees are leftover yeast particles and are responsible for Champagne's toasted bread and biscuity character. Over time the lees start to breakdown. The number of months or years that the wine spends in contact with the lees determines the intensity of these flavours.
Before the wine is sold the lees must be removed as it would end up making the wine hazy. The aim of riddling is to move the deposit of lees into the neck of the bottle. Riddling involves moving the bottle very slowly from a horizontal position to an inverted vertical position. This allows the lees to slide gradually into the neck. Traditionally, it was done by hand but today it is mainly automated using a gyropalette — a cube-shaped machine that can riddle hundreds of bottles at a time. Once riddled, the neck of the bottle is frozen trapping the lees in a plug of ice. When the crown cap is removed, the pressure created by the trapped CO2 forces the plug of ice and the lees out of the bottle (disgorgement).
Before it is resealed the wine is topped with a mixture of wine and, usually, sugar known as the liqueur d'expédition. The process of adding this mixture is known as dosage. The term is also used to mean the amount of sugar that is added at this stage. The dosage will determine whether the wine will be dry, sweet, or any style in between. At this point, the winemaker can decide whether he or she wants a sweeter or drier champagne. For wines labelled 'brut', a very small amount of sugar is added. These wines maintain their dryness due to the high acidity and lively bubbles. Extra dry is semi-dry, sec is semi-sweet, and demi-sec is sweet — the liqueur d'expédition will contain more sugar for these wines.
Once topped up, the bottle is resealed with a thick cork and wire cage.
There are two types of Champagne: Non-vintage/multiple vintage is more typical of the house style and is a blend of several vintages combining current and previous harvests. The least expensive champagnes usually spend the legal minimum amount of time ageing on their lees after bottling (12-15 months). Vintage Champagne comes from a single vintage and must contain 100% of that vintage year's harvest. In exceptional years, a portion of the best grapes are used to create a vintage Champagne. These wines are particularly complex. Wine aficionado Kevin Zraly posits that there is a third type called the prestige cuvée made from a single vintage but with even longer ageing requirements. These wines tend to be pricier for a number of reasons:
1. They are made from the best grapes from the highest-rated villages.
2. They are made from the first pressing of the grapes.
3. They've spent more time ageing in the bottle than non-vintage champagnes.
4. They are made only in vintage years.
5. They are made in small quantities, and demand is high.
Other interesting facts about Champagne
• “RD”on a Champagne wine label means the wine was recently disgorged
• Prior to 1850, all Champagne was sweet
• Champagnes labelled “extra brut” is drier than the brut
• Brut and extra dry are the wines to serve as aperitifs, or throughout a meal. Sec and demi-sec are the wines to serve with desserts and wedding cake.
• Blanc de Blancs are champagnes made from 100% Chardonnay.
• Blanc de Noir are champagnes made from 100% Pinot Noir.
• There are more than 4,000 Champagne producers.
• A general rule is the more white grapes in the blend, the fuller the style of Champagne.
• Some producers ferment their wine in wood giving the Champagne a fuller body and bouquet than those fermented in stainless steel – Bollinger does some, and Krug ferments all their wine this way.
How do I buy a good Champagne? Decide on the style you prefer — full or light-bodied, a dry brut or sweet demi-sec. If you are looking for a light to medium style, options that are available locally are Nicolas Feuillatte, Laurent Perrier, GH Mumm, Perrier-Jouët, and Taittinger. For medium to full styles grab Moët & Chandon, and Henriot. For fuller and richer styles try Bollinger, Krug, Veuve Clicquot and Gosset.
When is Champagne ready to drink? As soon as you buy it! You can drink Champagne right away. Non-vintage Champagnes are meant to be had within two to three years, and vintage and prestige cuvée can be kept longer — 10 to 15 years. Check on the fizzy friends in your wine stash, don't wait! Open them!
When opening a bottle of Champagne be very careful …it can be dangerous. The pressure in a bottle is roughly three times the pressure in an automobile tyre. This is the reason that it is put in heavy bottles, and why Champagne is more expensive than ordinary wine.
Make sure the bottle is well-chilled before you open it. Then remove the foil around the top of the bottle. Undo the wire from the metal cage with your hand firmly placed on top of the cork. To be on the safe side you can put a napkin over the cork just in case it pops. Then remove the cork gently, by slowly turning the bottle in one direction and the cork in another. You should hear a gentle hissing sound as you ease the cork out of the bottle. Though exciting, it does nothing for Champagne bottle to “pop”. Popping the cork makes the carbon dioxide escape releasing the sparkle from the bottle. And what is Champagne without its sparkle?
When thinking about Champagne cocktails a classic and a favourite is the Rémy 75 — a cognac riff on the infamous French 75. Rémy Martin 1738 and Champagne marry together perfectly for an effortless, effervescent, and elegant cocktail. You need 1 ½ oz of Rémy Martin 1738, ½ oz simple syrup, ½ oz fresh lemon juice, and of course Champagne. Combine Rémy Martin 1738, simple syrup, and fresh lemon juice in a shaker, then add ice. Shake and strain into a coupe then top with Champagne. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Let's lift your spirits! Find and follow me @raihndrops on Instagram