This month, we celebrate champagne (as known as “vin de Champagne”), a world-famous sparkling wine produced in the northeast of France, approximately 90 miles from Paris. From the coronation of French kings to the consecration of international treaties, all historical events are celebrated with a glass of champagne and today, it is the symbol of celebration par excellence—in France and abroad.
How Champagne Came to be a Worldwide Symbol of Quality, Authenticity and Excellence
Grapes were first grown in Champagne in the third century AD., and were subsequently developed by the churches, monasteries and champagne houses. The name Champagne derives from the Latin “campus”, “campania”, meaning “field” and in old French, this became “Champagne”.
The maintenance, extension and improvement of the wines from Champagne continued until the end of the 19th century when the arrival of phylloxera and the battles of World War I ravaged the region. Understanding the importance of their collective heritage and their unique “terroir”, the “Champenois”, champagne inhabitants, rebuilt the vineyards and organized their community to protect their terroir under law. Thus, in 1936, Champagne became an AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlée), based on two key characteristics:
- The wine is developed and sustained in an authentic geographical zone, in this case the Champagne region.
- Produced under specific conditions, using the local producer’s traditional know-how.
Human and natural factors were linked to establish a product that cannot be produced outside this region or “terroir.” In 1927, the “Champenois” were among the first to apply for delimitation of their region and the exclusive use of its name.
Today, for a wine to bear the Champagne name, all the grapes used in its production must come from approved parcels within the appellation and this appellation has come to represent a worldwide benchmark for quality, authenticity and excellence. The special combination of the region’s climate, soil, and strict regulations that govern every step of production process ensure that when consumers see the word Champagne, they know where the wines come from. This focus on quality is integral to the importance consumers and connoisseurs alike place on a bottle of Champagne. Vineyards in the Champagne appellation cover around 34,000 hectares. The appellation counts 15,000 growers, 140 cooperatives and more than 300 houses sellers known as “Maisons de Champagne”.
Secrets of Elaboration
Three grape varieties (“cépages “) are cultivated to make Champagne: “Pinot noir” (39 % of the area of the Champagne vineyards), “Meunier” (33 %) and “Chardonnay” (28 %). These “cépages” are perfectly matched to the geographical area and a comprehensive regime of clone selection, density, grafting, pruning, etc… is needed to produce the grapes that make Champagne.
The grape harvest is an event in Champagne as all grapes are harvested by hand. A maximum yield per hectare is set every year before the beginning of the harvest (10,500 kilos per hectare in 2011). Every year for approximately three weeks (generally from the beginning of September), around 100,000 pickers, loaders and press operators descend on the vineyards. The newly picked grapes are immediately transferred to certified pressing centers located across the appellation to ensure the grapes are pressed promptly. For 4,000 kilos of grapes, only 2,550 liters of juice may be extracted.
After pressing, yeasts (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are added to the grape juice to initiate the process of alcoholic fermentation that will last 10-14 days. After resting the wines in stainless-steel vats (or occasionally in oak) until spring, the winemaker then performs the art of blending wines from different grapes, vineyards or vintages. This is called the “assemblage” and is a key element of the Champagne winemaking process, allowing for house styles to be preserved and wines made to highlight unique elements of the appellation to be crafted. Once blended and bottled, Champagne undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle where it is transformed into sparkling wine. This step is called the “prise de mousse” (“capturing the foam”) and lasts six to eight weeks, in the cellar. At the end of this fermentation begins the long period of maturation: The maturation on lees encourages the development of aromas while the yeasts gradually decompose and the released molecules interact with those in the wine. According to the regulation, this step usually lasts at least 15 months for a non-vintage wine and 3 years for a vintage one.
After the resting period, the bottles must be moved and rotated (“remuage” or riddling) to collect the sediment of lees in the neck and then disgorged to eject the sediment. The ultimate step is the replacement of wines that escape during the process with a dosage that consists in adding a small quantity of “liqueur de dosage”, a mixture of cane sugar and wine that will define the style of Champagne: Doux, Demi-sec, Sec, Extra Sec, Brut, Extra Brut and Brut nature—from the sweetest to the least sweet.
The bottle is then sent for corking immediately after dosage. Only if a wine has fulfilled all of the legal requirements of the Champagne appellation can it earn the label stating that it is “Champagne.”
The entire process is quite lengthy, at least 2 years between the harvest and the release onto the market.
The Ritual of Champagne Tasting
Champagne is a wine of celebration and can be served in a wide variety of occasions. “Champenois” like to say that it can make any moment into a celebration. Champagne should be served lightly chilled, never iced, to allow the perception of all aromas and flavors. In France, the Champagne is generally put in a bucket filled with ice and water.
To fully appreciate Champagne you must give it the glass it deserves: It should be large and high enough to allow the formation of bubbles and to prevent it from getting warmer. The tulip-shaped glass is ideal for the perception of the aromas.
Champagne is perfectly adapted as appetizer. However, it could also be served with fish, shellfish, meat or with the desert, if the association is made with the right Champagne. For Christmas, of course, caviar and extra brut or foie gras with pink or demi-sec champagne can make wonderful pairings.
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