Bring on the Bubbles!

Signs in Epernay, courtesy Christine Campbell
Signs in Epernay, courtesy Christine Campbell

Champagne.  I love a glass full of bubbles!  I was lucky enough to travel to the Champagne region of France last month to take in some of the big Champagne houses and learn more about how this beautiful miracle came to be…

Champagne is classified as a wine, in the sparkling category.  There are four methods used to make sparkling wine but only one region on the planet can claim their sparkling wine as Champagne.  It is the one region of the world that focuses solely on sparkling wine and has made famous a style that highlights their cool continental climate for growing grapes.

Of the seven permitted grape varieties under the appellation law, the three most used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.  Chardonnay, being the main white grape variety, produces Champagne that is lighter in body with high acidity and citrus and floral notes.  Pinot Noir, a black grape variety, produces wines with fuller body and a longer finish than a Chardonnay base wine and also delivers some red fruit notes.  Pinot Meunier, another black grape variety, again gives strength or backbone to a wine and it is best used for wines meant to be enjoyed young.

Champagne, in essence, is a still wine that has gone through a process of secondary fermentation, which produces the sought after carbonation – tiny bubbles.  The harvest of grapes for Champagne production is done entirely by hand as machines are simply not permitted under appellation law.  Blending is incredibly important in Champagne production due to the unreliability of vintages from year to year.  (Incidentally, a "vintage" means that all the grapes were harvested from a particular year.) Champagne houses (estates) keep up to five times the amount of wine they sell and export in their wine caves and cellars to ensure that house styles remain consistent from year to year.  No wonder they call ‘Avenue de Champagne’ the most expensive street in the world!

After the base wine is made, a small amount of liqueur de triage (a mixture of wine, yeast, sugar and a clarifying agent) is added before bottling.  Bottles are stored ideally at 10°C (50°F) for approximately two months while the secondary fermentation takes place.  The alcohol levels rise approximately 1.5% and the carbon dioxide, created by the yeast, dissolves making the bubbles.

riddling rack at Veuve Clicquot, courtesy Christine Campbell
riddling rack at Veuve Clicquot, courtesy Christine Campbell

You may have heard people describe Champagne as having ‘bread’, ‘biscuit’ or ‘brioche’ notes – this is due to the process called autolysis that occurs when yeast die and form a layer of sediment, also known as lees.  The breakdown of the yeast enzymes adds these ‘bread’ aromas and flavors and also adds a creaminess and complexity.

Once maturation has been completed, a process called ‘riddling’ removes the sediment from the bottle.  Riddling involves turning a bottle, resting on its side, by approximately a ¼ turn, while moving the bottle slowly over time from its horizontal position to a neck-down vertical position.  Riddling settles the yeast sediment into the neck where it is frozen and disgorged or removed – this is called the cap.  Once the frozen cap has been removed, the bottle is topped up with liqueur d’expédition and sealed with a cork held in place by a wire cage.  This liquid, the liqueur d’expédition, otherwise known as the ‘dosage’, is a mixture of wine and cane sugar.  The amount of sugar included in the dosage, is what determines the final level of sweetness for the wine.  ‘Brut’ is the most popular style of Champagne currently in the world and there can be a range from 0 – 12 grams of sugar per liter in this ‘Brut’ style.

Champagne is synonymous with celebration but more and more people are choosing to drink it anytime they can.  I am one of those people, especially after traveling through Reims and Epernay, France and observing how having a glass of Champagne is as ‘normal’ and usual as going into a pub and ordering a beer.  I say, “Bring on the bubbles!”

A few non-vintage champagnes to try:

Lanson Champagne Black Label

Champagne Egly-Ouriet Premier Cru Brut

Charles Ellner  Carte D’Or Brut (a medalist in the 2013 NY International Wine Competition)

Vilmart & Cie Grand Réserve