Everything you wanted to know about Champagne

Photo by Gaetan Lee
Image via Wikipedia

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Just saying the word, "Champagne" is enough to make someone smile.  As a style of wine, sparkling wines have gone through various levels of popularity over the ages.  In today's world of wine, sparkling is on an upswing as wine lovers discover sparkling wines from all over the world, not just Champagne.  This primer should give you everything you could want to know about this wonderful wine.

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History

Dom Pérignon is not only the name of a Champagne, it's also the name of a Benedictine monk who stumbled across secondary bottle fermentation in the late 17th century.  In Champange, France wine makers were making wines such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, however, the winter temperatures would cause wines to stop fermenting because the yeast only does its thing at certain temperatures.  In the spring when temps began to rise, the yeast woke up and started fermenting again (changing sugar to alcohol) in the bottle.  The fermentation process released carbon dioxide gas, which created bubbles in the bottle.  Back then, glass bottles weren't perfected and were too thin so Dom found bottles exploding in the cellar from the pressure.

He and other wine makers probably exclaimed something like, "oh SHIT!!" but in French.  You can imagine the problem you'd have on your hands with bottles exploding all over the place.  Over time, glass bottles were blown to be thicker to handle the pressure.  No one set out to create sparkling wine, it happened by accident.  It wasn't until around 1715 after the death of Louis XIV that the royals began asking for this new sparkling wine.  Wine makers began intentionally making and perfecting the Champagne method, which later became known as methode champenoise when the house of Veuve Clicquot began making Champagne production scalable.

The Champagne region has a unique combination of chalky white, limestone soils that provide the desired acidity you want in sparkling wine.  The region also benefits from a more northern latitude.  Cold temps = higher acidity in wine.

Champagne Styles:

Non Vintage (NV) - often 30-40% pinot meunier

Vintage

Rosé - made either by maceration or blending in pinot noir for color

Blanc de Blancs - clear wine made from white grapes

Blanc de Noirs - clear wine made from red grapes

Single Vineyard

Cuvée de Prestige/Tete de Cuvée - this is the good stuff!

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How it's made (methode champenoise)

Primary Fermentation: wine is made like a regular wine with one exception, the wines are high in acidity and would be too harsh to drink.  Bottles are capped with a beer bottle looking cap so they can open up the bottles later.

Assemblage: Lots of wine are blended together to make things like Cuveés.

Secondary Fermentation: A little mixture of yeast, sugar and wine are added to each bottle.  The yeast are like little Pacman's eating up all the sugar molecules converting them into alcohol and releasing gas that creates bubbles.  Bottles sit 4-8 weeks.

Lees Aging: This is where sparkling wines start to get their "nutty" flavors.  Dead yeast cells aka "lees" sit with the wine for a while, often years to give the wine a complex flavor.  The problem is these lees look like a glob of crap in the bottle, so you need to get rid of the glob.  That's why you have....

Riddling (or Le Remuage): The gradual process of giving each bottle a little twist every day while gradually tilting the bottle until it ends up upside down.  Over time, that glob of yeast eventually ends up in the top of the bottle so you can remove it.  Ever see those riddling racks at Pottery Barn and think they're cool?  That's what they're used for in sparkling production.

Degorgement: When I'm eating and drinking, this is usually called engorgement :)  Joking aside, the tip of the bottle is dipped in freezing brine solution that literally freezes the glob of yeast in the top of the bottle.  Under controlled pressure, that glob is removed.

Dosage: This is where Champagne and sparkling wines get their sweetness level.  The wine that's lost in degorgement is replaced with little mixture of wine and sugar, which ultimately determines if the wine will be a Brut or a Demi-Sec.  The bottle is sealed with a cork, cap and cage until you open it.

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Things to Know

+ Champagne can only be called Champagne when it comes from the Champagne region of France + Champagne is made primarily from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes + Sparkling wine made elsewhere in France (outside Champagne) is called Crémant + Sparkling wines are made as regular wine first, with very high acidity.  Sweetness is added at the very end

+ Sparkling wines should be served cold, like around refrigerator temperature

+ Sparkling wines pair with many foods

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Sparkling wine around the world

Spain: More sparkling wine comes from Spain than any other country in the world.  They make a wine called Cava, which is made in the same method as Champagne, but uses different grapes like Xarel-lo, Macabeo, Parellada, Monastrell as well as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.

Italy: I've recently been falling in love with Italian sparkling wines.  Look for Spumante, which is a term for sparkling.  Also, Frizzante is a semi-sparkling wine.  The Asti DOCG (Piedmont) is home to wines like Moscato d' Asti and wines using the Charmat process.  In the Franciacorta DOCG (Lombardy) they make sparkling wines using the classic method, also known as metodo classico or tradizionale.

Australia: a little known sparkling wine region is Tasmania.  The Aussie's have been quietly been making great sparkling wines from this island that is located south of Australia's main continent.  Temperatures are colder, which means better wine grapes for sparkling!  The Yarra valley and higher elevations of Victoria also produce decidedly Australian sparkling.  Domaine Chandon has a winery in Yarra Valley producing sparkling thanks in part to Yarra's great Pinot Noir growing.

US: here in the US we have all sorts of different methods.  We made sparkling wines from classic grape varieties as well as Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Muscat and others.  New Mexico is a great place for sparkling wines as well as California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia and Idaho.

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Sweetness Levels

Brut Zero (the most dry)

Brut

Extra Dry

Sec

Demi Sec

Doux (sweetest)

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HOW TO open the bottle safely or with a saber:

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10 sparkling wine picks to check out

Domaine Carneros Blanc de Noir $35 - Napa Valley This is the every day sparkling we drink at Chéz Bakas.  It's made from Pinot Noir and has a rich, fruity character.  Domaine Carneros is owned by the French Champagne house, Tattinger.

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Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve $55 - Champagne, France The standard house style of Heidsieck is a good example of what Brut can (or should) be.  Nice for the price yo.

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Arras Grand Vintage Sparkling Chardonnay 2003 $65 - Tasmania, Aus The secret's not out yet about Tasmania, but when you factor in the cold weather sparkling grapes like, I suspect more bubbly lovers will start exploring the great wines from Australia's smallest state.

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Mondoro Asti $13 - Italy This isn't your parents Asti.  Sadly, Asti got a bad name in the '70s but this little QPR has some nice notes of honey, orange peel and honey.

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Marquis de la Tour Loire Valley Brut Rose NV $9 - Loire Valley, France You don't have to spend a lot to get a lot.  At a price point under $10 it's not hard to love this Brut rosé.  I don't remember where or when I tried it this year, I just remembering it was going to be on some sort of Top 10 list for the value, so here it is.

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Tattinger 1998 Comtes de Champagne $200 - Champagne, France Pretty much my favorite sparkling this year.  If you really want to geek out on bubbles, this is where you start getting into the good stuff.  At this level, you really start to appreciate the intricate notes like brioche, hazelnuts and honeysuckle from extended time on the lees.

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J Vineyards NV Brut Cuvée $20 - Russian River Valley What can  you say about J sparkling?  It's consistent, it's well priced and it's a great value at twenty bucks.  Notes of almonds, nutmeg and green apple.

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Segura Viudas Brut Reserva NV $23 - Spain This Cava never disappoints.  The bottle is cheesy, but the wine is not.  Such a great value made in the traditional method with traditional Cava grapes.   Sweet and floral meets chalky and sturdy.

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Salon Le Mesnil-sur-Oger Brut 1997 $500 - Champagne If money is no object and you buy Champagne like Salon, let me know where you live so I can come over.  Salon is only made in the best vintages.  It's a wine for bubbles' sluts who just can't geek out enough on Champagne.  Pull out a bottle of Salon if you really want to impress someone.

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Krug Brut 1985 $350 - Champagne, France For me, the best sparkling I've ever tasted and the one that turned me into a bubbles slut is the 1985 Krug.  It just makes you feel silly about yourself.  There's no describing this wine, you just experience it and try to explain it to the next schlep who wasn't there.  If you can get a vintage Champagne built to age, you'll see why the French royals originally wanted to serve Champagne.

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