Champagne 101: Up Your Bubbly Game
Okay it’s the one week of the year when I can talk Champagne for days on end – hallelujah! And I know the issue with Champagne beyond this week is that it’s pricey. And you need a primer to read the labels!
Well, what if I told you that the price is mostly related to the complex process behind this flashy bubbly. And this complex process indeed adds complexity to the wine! So, yes, it’s worth the splurge!
And what if I give you the primer right here? Just promise to treat yourself to a bottle of real deal Champagne sometime soon!
Firstly, Champagne is a region in northern France, and technically any bottle labeled Champagne must come from this region. It is a cool region and located on an ancient seabed that has created magical chalk soil. The climate and soil are two key factors in the loveliness of Champagne (versus quality sparkling from other regions.)
Second, there is a lengthy process that creates Champagne. It starts off as a still wine but then is bottled with a bit of sugar and yeast to ignite a secondary fermentation in the bottle. This creates the bubbles, and Champagne remains in contact with the yeast for quite a while giving it that trademark buttery pastry quality.
One of the last steps in the Champagne process is the beautification – i.e. removing those murky yeasts – in a process known as disgorging. You lose a little wine in this process and so it is necessary to top off the bottle before corking. You can top off with wine or with wine mixed with a bit of sugar, which determines the Champagne’s final taste profile. You see appropriate labeling on the bottle. Brut Nature designates no sugar. Next levels up are Brut and Extra Brut, which are still quite dry. Beyond this, Extra Dry and up could have a touch of sweetness.
Other labeling terminology will point to grapes. The three star grapes of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (now usually referred to as simply Meunier.) There are four other allowed grapes, but they are rarely seen. Champagne can be made from a blend of all allowed grapes or from just one or two.
When a Champagne is made from all white grapes it is labeled as Blanc de Blancs; when a Champagne is made from all red grapes it is referred to as a Blanc de Noirs.
Most Champagne is non-vintage and will be listed as NV on a restaurant wine list, but in the very best years producers will make vintage Champagnes. This is a tradition that is changing a bit with global warming as there are more vintages that can be “declared.” But that’s for your Champagne 2.0 Primer!
Fancy names like Dom Perignon and Cristal are actually vintage Champagnes from houses you have probably heard of – Moet & Chandon and Roederer, specifically.
Speaking of the big houses – like Moet, etc. – these ruled the Champagne trade in near totality until more recent years when small “grower-producers” began making Champagnes from their own grapes. (Most big houses have traditionally bought grapes from small farmers around the region.)
While I certainly have my preferred big houses (Roederer, specifically), I have to admit that I am a huge proponent of these smaller, grower Champagnes. With the growers there just seems to be an added layer of complexity. Most growers are making more site specific wines that truly reflect their place in the universe.
Of course, the issue is finding grower Champagne in smaller markets. But it’s worth a trip to your local wine shop for a chat! Look for names like Pierre Gimonnet and Pierre Peters (to name two growers that are not total unicorns.)
Most importantly, find a Champagne that speaks to you and promises to ring in a great 2019. Here’s to much peace and happiness in the new year! Cheers!!