MONTREAL, October 3, 2018 — So often, champagne is used to celebrate the seminal moments in our lives: weddings, anniversaries, New Year’s Eve, job promotions, but the celebratory bubbles’ origin is more contentious than you’d think.
The Romans were the first to plant vineyards in the region now known as Champagne. Their version of the wine however, wasn’t the light and effervescent product we’re familiar with, but a pale, pinkish still wine made from Pinot Noir.
Those from the Champagne region were envious of the red wine produced by nearby Burgundy. The cold winter months made it difficult to produce high-quality reds. Grapes from the north of France struggled to ripen and rendered thinner, lighter bodied wines containing bubbles – an epic faux-pas in viniculture at this time.
Eventually the region developed a signature brand of sparkling wine that grew beyond France and was enjoyed by members of high society across Europe, and even Russia.
Once established as a premier luxury item, producers in the Champagne region sought to keep their brand undiluted by winemakers making bubbly with grapes from other parts of the world.
In 1919, the first official boundaries were drawn delineating the area in which a vineyard could produce true Champagne. Champagne’s Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) was established by French law excluding anyone from outside the region to call their wine, champagne.
The age-old question: Champagne or sparkling wine?
The Comité Champagne, the trade association representing the interests of independent champagne producers, has outlined a list of principal rules that must be followed when making champagne wine:
- Just three authorized grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
- Short pruned vines (Cordon de Royat, Chablis and Guyot pruning)
- Capped grape yields per hectare
- Juice extraction strictly limited to 102 litres of must per 160 kilos of grapes
- Minimum annual required alcohol levels by volume
- Dedicated Champagne wine-making and storage premises
- A natural winemaking process known as the ‘Méthode Champenoise’
- A minimum 15 months storage period for bottled wines prior to shipping
Is there a shorter answer?
Determining whether or not you’re about to toast with a glass of champagne or sparkling wine is fairly simple. Thanks to a nifty marketing campaign and the aforementioned French legislation, true champagne must be produced by grapes grown and harvested within the Champagne region of France.
That means all champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is champagne.
If it’s all coming from the same place, why does it all taste so different?
Two major elements contribute to the taste of champagne: crus and grape variety. The seemingly endless variable combination of these two ingredients plays a huge role in determining a champagne’s taste.
The Comité Champagne explains:
‘Cru’, the French term for ‘growth’, refers to a certain winegrowing location with a particular growing environment, especially soil and climate, which favours a particular grape variety. Champagne is represented by 320 crus and 275,000 individual vineyard parcels, each with its own specific profile.
Each Champagne grape variety has its own unique personality, which expresses itself differently depending on the complete environment in which the wine is produced.
So how do they get all those bubbles into one little bottle?
Step 1: Creating the base wine
The base wine for most sparkling wines tastes much tarter than standard still wines – this is because grapes destined for sparkling wines are picked earlier than standard still wines. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes are pressed creating juice from the pulp, rich in sugar and acid.
Step 2: Fermentation and bottling
In this step, additional yeast and sugar is added to the base wine. As the yeast eats the sugar it produces alcohol and releases carbon dioxide along with other by-products that contribute to the common characteristics of the wine.
After this phase, base wines are blended, bottled and capped with a crown cap.
Step 3: Aging
Lees are flecks of dead yeast cells left in a bottle, barrel or tank of fermented wine. A wine that is aged ‘sur lies’ (‘on the lees‘) will taste a little bit richer on the mid-palate (i.e. in the middle of your tongue).
Riddling is the act of rotating a sparkling wine bottle upside down over a period of time to slowly collect the dead yeast bits into the neck of the wine bottle.
Step 4: Disgorging, dosage and corking
Once the lees is collected into the neck of the bottle, the neck is put headfirst into a frozen brine bath freezing the neck and turning the lees into a cube. When the cap is popped off, this cube flies out and leaves clear sparkling wine in the bottle.
After disgorgement, one last mixture of wine and sugar is added for flavor. This last step is called dosage or ‘liqueur d’expédition’.
The bottle is then corked and wired down to contain the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide. The sweetness levels of champagne range from very dry (ultra brut) to very sweet (doux).
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