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What you always wanted to know about Champagne, but were afraid to ask….

I am going to continue to share some information with you on the country of France and their wine laws. I am going to have you enjoy some information on one France’s most cherished of regions, Champagne
 
The Region
The Champagne region is located approximately 90 minutes northeast of Paris, France. In addition to the centuries-old method for making Champagne that originated in this region, its northern geographic position, harsh climate, chalky sub-soil, erratic sunshine, and limited harvest combine to create a one-of-a-kind terroir. That’s why Champagne wines can only be produced in Champagne, France.

Legally defining the Champagne appellation was a process that lasted more than 30 years, from 1905 to 1936, and included a step-by-step process for determining the Champagne vineyards boundaries, which finally occurred in 1927. Since then, the Champagne “AOC” (Appellation of Controlled Origin) has worked to protect the region’s name from misuse and ensure that the wine produced is of the highest quality. Regulations have been enacted by the appellation to regulate grape pruning, the height, the spacing and the density of the vines, to ensure harvesting by hand, and to govern the winemaking process, always aiming at improving Champagne quality.
 
The Process

The Champagne-making process is an intricate hands-on method, carefully developed and cultivated over hundreds of years.The Champagne-making process begins with the vines.

  • Harvest: Only three varieties of grapes are used in the production of Champagne: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. During the harvest, grapes are carefully picked by hand and sorted to remove any damaged fruit. As quickly as possible, the grapes are then pressed in large, low presses.
  • First Fermentation: After the grapes are pressed, they are stored in stainless steel vats – though occasionally this is done in oak barrels – to undergo the first fermentation. This process yields a still wine.
  • Blending: After the first fermentation is complete, the still wine is blended by the cellar master with various other base wines. This produces a blend that will match the house style, and can include as many as 70 different base wines – each adding a distinct quality to the blend. For non-vintage Champagne, a certain amount of reserve wine (wine set aside from previous harvests) is added as well. It is this carefully managed task that lends a consistent character to each Champagne house.
  • Second Fermentation: Once the blend is complete, it is bottled, and a mixture of sugar and yeast, known as the “liqueur de triage”, is added. The bottle is closed with a crown cap and laid down horizontally in a cool, dark cellar. The minimum amount of time the wine ages is 15 months for non-vintage and three years for vintage, but most Champagne is aged for longer than these minimal rules stipulate.
  • Riddling: After aging, the yeast deposit remaining from the second fermentation is encouraged down the neck of the inverted bottle through a series of quarter or half-quarter turns, during which the bottle moves from a horizontal position to an inverted one. This process, called riddling, takes an average of eight weeks by hand, or eight days by machine.
  • Disgorgement and Dosage: Once settled, the sediment is removed by immersing the Champagne bottleneck in an ice-cold brine that freezes the residue into a small ice block. It is then removed from the bottle, either by hand or mechanically. Then, a small amount of sugar dissolved in wine is added before the final cork is inserted in the bottle. This solution contains a specific measure of sugar that will define the sweetness of the wine.

A Note on Sweetness
In addition to classifying Champagne styles, classifications are also used to refer to sweetness. Producers can regulate the sweetness by controlling fermentation. For example, stopping fermentation early leaves some natural grape sugar in the finished wine. In general, there are five levels of sweetness:
•    Brut: dry, less than 1.5% sugar
•    Extra Sec: extra dry, 1.2 to 2% sugar
•    Sec: medium sweet, 1.7 to 3.5% sugar
•    Demi-Sec: sweet, 3.3 to 5% sugar (dessert champagne)
•    Doux: very sweet, over 5% sugar (dessert champagne)

The Grapes
The process of Champagne making begins with the grapes. To be in accordance with the Champagne cultivation regulations, only three grape varieties are allowed in the production of Champagne.

  • Pinot Noir: A black grape variety with white juice grown mainly on the slopes of the Mountain of Reims and Cote des Bar. It gives Champagnes their aromas of red fruits, as well as their strength and body.
  • Pinot Meunier: Another black grape variety with white juice. It is grown mainly in the Valley of Marne and is characterized by its suppleness and spiciness. It gives Champagnes their roundness and fragrance.
  • Chardonnay: A white grape variety mostly planted in the Cote des Blancs. It provides the wines with their finesse as well as their floral aromas, and sometimes mineral overtones.

Style, Style, Style
One of the beauties of Champagne is the remarkable diversity of styles that come from such a small corner of the world.

  • Blanc de blancs: Champagne produced from 100% Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de blancs have become very popular as an apéritif due to its light, dry taste. They are also ideal for light first courses including seafood and soups.
  • Blanc de noirs: Champagne made from 100% pinot noir and/or pinot meunier grapes. Typically, these wines are full-bodied and deeper yellow-gold in color. It is ideal for full-flavored foods, including meats and cheeses.
  • Pink or rosé: Champagne accounts for less than 5% of Champagne produced. Rosé Champagne is made through one of two methods. The first method involves adding a small amount of red still wine from Champagne to the original blend. The second method involves exposing the must to the skins of the red grapes when pressing.
  • Non-Vintage or “NV” : Champagne makes up 85 to 90% of all Champagne produced. Each is composed of several different years and different crus as well as different vintages, rather than from a single harvest.
  • Vintage: Champagne is one in which all grapes used have been harvested from a single year. There is no law governing when a year is a vintage. Instead, each house decides for itself whether it will produce a vintage Champagne in any given year, though it is only produced when the harvest is particularly distinguished. However, in a good year, only a fraction of the total Champagne made is declared as a vintage Champagne.
  • Cuvées de prestige: Champagne made from blends of the most subtle wines. Most Champagne houses consider their cuvées de prestige to be their top-end Champagne. Cuvée de prestige Champagne may or may not be vintage and is typically aged for an extended period of time.

Enjoying Champagne

  • Storing Champagne:  Just like any other wine, Champagne is sensitive to temperature and light. For that reason, it is typically bottled in a light-resistant, dark green glass. Champagne should be stored between 40 and 60 degrees.
  • Chilling: Ideally, Champagne should be chilled to a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees. This temperature can be attained by placing the bottle in a refrigerator for a couple of hours or by placing it in an ice bucket – half filled with ice, half with water – for 20 minutes.
  • Opening a Champagne Bottle: The trick to opening a bottle of Champagne, while maintaining its integrity, is to avoid “popping” the cork. Begin by scoring the foil around the base of the wire cage. Then, carefully untwist and loosen the bottom of the cage, but do not remove it. In one hand, enclose the cage and cork while holding the base of the Champagne bottle with your other hand. Twist both ends in the opposite direction. As soon as you feel pressure forcing the cork out, try to push it back in while continuing to twist gently until the cork is released with a sigh.