- Q & A
France - Champagne
Champagne is both an area and a method. Though Champagne is mostly white, red grapes dominate here with Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier taking up 70% of the blends. That's because the juice of those grapes is white, so by crushing the grape and leaving no contact with the skin, the resulting wine is white. Chardonnay is the only white.
Champagne is the northernmost premium grape-growing region in France. It features unique soil composed mainly of chalk, which runs 650 feet deep with just a touch of topsoil. This helps retain moisture from June to harvest when irrigation is prohibited.
Champagne is divided into four zones:
Reims-A plateau with vines growing all around it.
Marne-To the south has the city of Epernay at it's center. Both
grow mostly Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier.
Cote de Blancs-Mostly Chardonnay, due west of Marnes.
- Aube- Southwest of Epernay.
A blind Monk, Dom Perignon purportedly invented Champagne, in late 17th Century, though there is evidence that others had figured out the process 20 to 30 years earlier. No matter, Dom Perignon's story is the one everybody likes to tell. He succeeded in making pure white wine from black grapes by separating the skins from the fermenting juice. He had been experimenting with Spanish corks as a bottle stopper because it was already widely known that wine goes bad which it comes in contact with air. His discovery of getting bubbles in the wine was probably an accident. Most likely, he poured wine that was still fermenting into a bottle and sealed it with a cork. A byproduct of fermentation is carbon dioxide gas, which typically escapes into the air. When the bottle is sealed however, the gas goes back into the wine, thus producing bubbles.
Growers who, in turn, sell their grapes to Champagne houses own most of the land. The price of a ton of grapes is decided by Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne CIVC. Depending on the quality of the vineyard, the grower gets a percentage of that figure for his grapes. Grand Cru vineyards get 100% of the price. The owners of the 41 Premier Cru vineyards get 90% to 99% and remaining get 79%-89%. Of the 140 firms, many exist in name only. They own no vineyards
Yields are strictly controlled by law. From 4.4 tons of grapes you can yield only 638 gallons of wine, of which:
- 488 gallons are first pressing. This is the best lot, called the cuvee´.
- 100 gallons from second press called premiere taille.
- 50 gallons from third press called deuxieme taille.
Many firms only make cuvee and sell rest.
Because of variable vintages (only one in three is normally a "declared" a vintage) many firms hold back cuvees for blending. Think of it as an insurance policy against bad vintages.
The critical path for Champagne firms is consistency to a house style. Each firm trys to differentiate itself from the rest by making a certain style of wine. That is why the large firms can have as much a 100 different lots of wines to choose from to make their blend. This is one of the most difficult procedures in winemaking.
All Champagnes start out as still wine. They are blended and bottled with a touch of sugar and yeast which starts the secondary fermentation in the bottle. This is what produces the bubbles. When this part is finished, the bottles are uncorked under pressure so no wine escapes and a tiny amount of wine and sugar are added. This is called the dosages. Most Champagne has some sugar added because the grapes are picked at such a high acid level, the resulting wine would be too tart for most palates.
A Champagne winemaker must blend from many different lots of still wine and have the vision of knowing what the final product will taste like with the bubbles and some sweetness added to it, not to mention 1-3 years in the bottle. This is definitely an art.
Non vintage Champagne must spend at least 1 year in the bottle. Vintage Champagne, 3 years.
Brut - .5 to 1.5% sugar, Extra Dry 1.2-2.1, Demi-Sec 2.1-3.4. Normally 70lbs per sq. in. or 6-7 atmospheres. If labeled "Vintage" must be 80% from the year stated.