The Secrets Behind the World’s Most Famous Fizz
Famous around the world, the name ‘Champagne’ is irrevocably linked with luxury and times of celebration… but is it really any different from other sparkling wine? What is it that makes Champagne so special? In this article, we explore the unique production process behind the world’s most famous fizz.
A wine by any other name
Of course, people make sparkling wines around the world. Think Italian prosecco, Cava in Spain, various New World offerings from Australia and the Napa Valley, and the modern wave of sparkling wines hailing from England. However, a wine can only legally be called Champagne if it’s made from grapes grown in this region, just a one-hour drive east of Paris. It’s not all about location, either; in order to use the name Champagne, a wine producer must also work within very strict AOC regulations. These rules dictate permitted grape varieties and yields, pruning methods, winemaking methods, alcohol levels, minimum storage periods and more.
What grapes are used in Champagne?
In this region of France, the soils are chalky and mineral, lending a particular set of characteristics to the wine. Three grape varieties are grown here — chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier — and only these can be used to make Champagne. It’s interesting to note that both pinot noir and pinot meunier are black grapes, used to create a famously white wine; this is accomplished by ensuring minimal contact with the grape skins. The grapes are picked by hand, another requirement by law.
How is Champagne made?
The traditional way of producing Champagne is known as the Méthode Champenoise. First, the grapes are pressed and the juice fermented to make a still, dry base wine. Then, to produce Champagne’s distinctive fine bubbles, the wine undergoes a secondary fermentation process in the bottle. Every producer has their own particular recipe, but the basic premise involves adding a small amount of yeast and sugar. The carbon dioxide produced by this second fermentation is trapped to create those famous bubbles. A mist of very tiny bubbles, well dispersed throughout the wine, is a marker of a great quality Champagne. Some winemakers will incorporate additional stages. This can include removing the lees (yeast sediment) and/or adding extra sugar, giving them control over the final flavour profile and sweetness level.
The use of blending in Champagne production
You may have noticed that the labels of some Champagnes specify a year of production, while others do not. Some Champagnes are made using grapes from one particular harvest only, and these are the bottles on which you’ll see a year mentioned. However, this is a challenge, as it relies on ideal growing conditions throughout the growing season.
The majority of Champagnes are made from a blend of grapes harvested across multiple years. The practice of blending vintages requires great skill and allows the winemaker to achieve greater consistency in the end product. Producers can also blend carefully-selected vintages to create some top-tier blends, known as cuvée de prestige.
Once made, Champagne has to be aged in caves for a minimum of 15 months before it can be sold.
As you can imagine, this entire process is very labour-intensive. This is one good reason why Champagne carries a higher price tag than many other sparkling wines.
What does ‘Brut’ mean on a Champagne bottle?
‘Brut’ is one of a variety of label descriptors that tell you how much sugar or ‘dosage’ was added during production. While sugar has been getting some bad press in recent years, it’s an important part of the Champagne-making process. Champagnes can range from very dry (labelled as ‘Brut Nature’, ‘Extra Brut’ or ‘Brut’) all the way through off-dry styles to sweeter versions (look for ‘Sec, ‘Demi-Sec’ and ‘Doux’).
Champagnes on the sweeter end of the spectrum were in fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but dry wines are more popular than they used to be, and winemakers have adjusted their dosage to meet demand; today, Brut styles are the most commonly produced. However, there’s still a place at the table for sweeter Champagnes, and they work especially well when paired with desserts.
What does Champagne taste like?
Every Champagne has its own unique characteristics, deriving from the grapes used, the terroir particular to those vineyards and the influence of the winemaker. However, generally speaking, Champagnes are known for bright acidity and often have a nutty quality reminiscent of brioche, as well as an underlying fruitiness.
What foods work best with Champagne?
While you may think only high-brow foods will work, Champagne pairs well with most salty, fatty foods — which is why caviar is a classic match. Keep things elegant with oysters, pâtés, lobster, cream sauces or mature cheeses, or have a bit of fun with more casual pairings: think fried chicken, fish and chips, truffle-infused mac ‘n’ cheese or a toasted cheese sandwich.
Sweeter Champagnes will work with chocolate or lemon desserts, but are also a fantastic foil for spicy dishes.
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