All aboard the Champagne train

After posting yesterday about Champagne cocktails, I realise that there is a lot more to discover about the famous fizzy stuff.

Here’s three key points to know about Champagne and what makes it unique:

  1. The area

Champagne is located in Northern France, just 90 miles Northeast of Paris and only sparkling wine made in this region may be called Champagne. It is the Northernmost appellation (fancy French word for region) out of the classic winemaking regions of Europe…apart from England, which is also making Champagne style wines. This means it’s pretty chilly, however, climate change means it’s getting warmer every year.

How does this affect the grapes?

In a cooler climate, grapes are able to achieve higher acidity due to their slow ripening whereas, warmer climates allow for faster ripening and less acidic grapes.

What about the soils?

Chalky soils are centre stage in Champagne, due to both drainage and for the region’s famous underground excavated cellars.

Vineyards in this region are some of the world’s most expensive although only a small percentage of Champagne’s made are grower…This means the grapes are grown and turned into wine on the same estate, however, the majority of the Champagne made is produced by negociant houses. This is when grapes are grown in different vineyards from all around Champagne and sold to larger Champagne houses, such as Moet and Chandon.

2. The Grapes

Although this infographic shows 7 varieties, it’s really just Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier that steal the show. These are planted in the largest quantities, with the rest only accounting for usually less than 1% of a Champagne blend. There are a few rare exceptions to this rule such as Duval Leroy making a Champagne from 100% Petit Meslier in 1998…good luck getting your hands on that one!

So as you might have guessed, Champagne is made from a blend of 3 main grape varieties, most of the time…

Bare with me, but there are just a few more exceptions to this generalisation.

Blanc de Blanc – translates to ‘white of white’ and is usually made with 100% Chardonnay grapes to create a lighter, racier wine.

Blanc de Noirs – translates to ‘white of black’ and will be made from only black grape varieties, mostly Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, to make a fuller bodied, fruitier wine.

3. The ways it’s made

Champagne must be made in the traditional method to be sold as Champagne. This method is unique because of one major fact, there are two fermentations of the wine.

This traditional method was actually created here in England way back when the Brits used to add sugar to the barrels of Champagne before bottling them for consumption. The added sugar would react with the naturally occurring yeast, creating more alcohol and CO2. The ‘pop’ noise appeared quite amusing with the English crowd, let alone unique!

So now we know where the fizz comes from, the second fermentation. So what happens in the first one? Well the base wine is made. This is just a highly acidic still wine made with any one of the permitted grape varieties, which then get blended together to the winemaker’s recipe.

Then the wine is bottled with additional sugar and yeasts, ready for the second fermentation. Here the wine spends time in the cellar, resting on it’s lees (basically dead yeast) which add the toasty, briochey notes you’ll be familiar with.

Those dead yeasts eventually get removed and then the bottle is recapped and ready for our consumption.

Pretty complicated process right…? Well, it all started as a happy accident. Good news for us clumsy lot…you never know where your little error might lead.

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