In 1668, in the village of Hautvillers, the monk turned cellar master, Dom Pérignon, is said to have discovered how to make sparkling wine; while the same technique is used all over the world today, the region of Champagne continues to make some of the finest.
So what makes wine sparkle? Adding a solution of sugar and yeast to a white wine starts another fermentation in the bottle which results in the bubbles. Once the yeasts have done their job, a sediment known as ‘lees’ collects on the side of the bottle; contact with this deposit during maturation gives the wine its characteristic flavours of freshly-baked bread, toast and biscuit. Once this sediment is isolated (remuage) and removed (dégorgement), the Champagne is topped up with a sugar solution to make it dry or sweet.
The Champagne Wine Region
Champagne is the most northerly wine region in France and is situated north-east of Paris. There are three main vineyard areas: Côte des Blancs, Vallée de la Marne and Montagne de Reims.
Ripeness of the grapes is often a problem, which is one reason why a blend of grape varieties is usually used: the white Chardonnay to give fruit and elegance, and two reds – Pinot Noir (particularly to provide a ‘backbone’) and Pinot Meunier.
In Champagne there are around 15,000 growers and 290 Champagne houses. Traditionally, growers have sold their grapes to the Champagne houses which account for 70 percent of production and 90 percent of exports. Recently, increasing numbers of growers are making growers’ Champagnes themselves, using their own grapes.
The Champagne houses used to be organized into a Syndicat des Grandes Marques, which had 28 members, not all of them of equal quality. That has now been superseded by the Club des Grandes Marques, with 24 participants: Ayala, Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Canard- Duchêne, Deutz, Dom Pérignon, Heidsieck & Co. Monopole, Henriot, Krug, Lanson, Laurent-Perrier, Moët & Chandon, G.H. Mumm, Perrier Jouët, Joseph Perrier, Piper-Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Pommery, Ch. & A Prieur, Louis Roederer, Ruinart, Salon, Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin.
Made exclusively from grapes grown in a single year, this is produced only in the best years, and is released at about six years of age.
Most of the Champagne produced today is Non-Vintage, comprising the blended product of grapes from multiple vintages. Typically grapes from a single-year vintage will form the base of the blend, ranging from 15 percent to up to 40 percent.
Typically light in colour, Rosé Champagne is produced either by leaving the clear juice of black grapes to macerate on its skins for a brief time (known as saigneé), or by adding a small amount of Pinot Noir red wine to the sparkling wine cuvée. The saigneé method is more elaborate and costly, requiring highly-skilled winemaking, hence only a few houses still use it – among them Laurent Perrier and Louis Roederer.
Luxury (Prestige) Cuvée
Top of the range, this is vintage-dated. Famous examples include Louis Roederer's Cristal, Laurent-Perrier's Grand Siècle, Moët & Chandon's Dom Pérignon, Duval-Leroy's Cuvée Femme and Pol Roger's Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
Demi-Sec (Rich) Champagne
Demi-Sec or Rich is a medium-dry to medium-sweet style which occupies the other end of the spectrum from the standard dry "Brut" style. Brut Natural or Brut Zéro contains less than three grams of sugar per litre, Extra Brut has less than six grams of sugar per litre, and Brut less than 12 grams of sugar per litre.
Recently Disgorged Champagne
R.D. (Recently Disgorged) style was introduced for the first time by Madame Bollinger in 1961, on the 1952 Bollinger Grande Année vintage. Late disgorgement allows the Champagne to retain its freshness, vivacity and fruity expression, despite the ageing.
Blanc de Blancs Champagne
Blanc de Blancs denotes a Champagne made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes.
Blanc de Noirs Champagne
Blanc de Noir Champagnes are made exclusively from black grapes, Pinot Noir (typically) and Pinot Meunier grapes. Bollinger's prestige cuvée Vieilles Vignes Françaises is the lead example.