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A toast to champagne
By Geoff Bland

Champagne invokes in all of us a sense of celebration and festiveness, whether it be New Year's Eve, a wedding, birthday, birth or graduation.

While we all understand the concept of Champagne, most of us are a bit sketchier on the nature of Champagne the wine - in particular how it is made and where exactly it's from. So to state the not obvious, all Champagne is bubbly, but not all bubbly is Champagne!

True Champagne, with all its sparkling deliciousness, comes only from the region of Champagne in France, about one hour  east of Paris. This rolling region, with its chalky soil and cool climate, is home to the finest sparkling wine in the world. The famous Benedictine monk Dom Perignon, from the Abbey of Hautville, is credited with discovering the process for making Champagne in the late 1600s.

Ironically, the process was first documented in 1535 in the Limoux region of southern France. This region still makes excellent sparkling wine, and though it is not technically Champagne, it is much more reasonably priced. Try the value-priced bubbles from St. Hilaire to see what I mean.

The three approved Champagne grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the latter two being black- skinned. Each of these grapes performs better in some parts of Champagne than in others, so depending on the region, various proportions of the grapes will be used in the wine. Champagne produced from 100 percent Chardonnay is known as Blanc de Blancs, or "white from whites." Champagne produced exclusively from black-skinned grapes is known as Blanc de Noirs. There is also a small amount of pink, or "Rose," Champagne produced, either by allowing extended juice contact with the skins of the black grapes or by adding some red wine to the white juice.

In addition to climate and soil, the magic of Champagne is the "Méthode Champenoise," or the technique used to produce the wine. Unlike inexpensive sparkling wine, in which CO2 gas is injected into still wine under great pressure, in Champagne the bubbles are produced by a secondary fermentation in the bottle.

First, the grapes are harvested, crushed and fermented producing the base wine then a mixture of sugar and yeast is added to the wine and it is bottled with a temporary closure, or a cap that we would associate with a beer bottle.

The wine is placed at an angle, cap down, in a rack known as a riddling rack. Once the secondary fermentation is complete, the yeast cells die and the bottles are turned a small amount each day, a process known as "riddling", encouraging the dead yeast cells to fall into the neck of the bottle by the cap. Depending on the producer, the wine will age for various lengths of time with the dead yeast cells, or "lees" in the bottle.

With longer aging on the lees, the wine develops a toasty, yeasty character. Some producers like a lot of this character; some prefer less. When the wine is ready to be released, the neck of the bottle is chilled in an ice bath and the cap is removed. The pressure expels the plug of frozen yeast cells, then a mixture of wine and sugar known as the "dosage" is added to top off the bottle before the cork is applied.

The level of sugar in the dosage varies from producer to producer and also varies with the style of Champagne being produced.

Ultra brut is the driest style of Champagne - often no sugar is included in this dosage. Brut is the most common style, but the amount of sugar in the dosage will vary from producer to producer. Extra dry is next up on the sweetness scale, followed by demi sec, which is usually enjoyed with dessert, though it's delicious with sushi.

While we often think of Champagne as a celebratory wine, it is also excellent with many foods; in fact, it is possible to design an entire meal around various styles of Champagne.

While Champagne comes only from Champagne, there is a great deal of excellent sparkling wine made with the same technique produced in France and other parts of the world. In France, sparkling wine made in this style but in other regions is known as Cremant.

Top regions to look for are Alsace, Bourgone, Bordeaux, Limoux and the Loire Valley. Many of these wines are first-rate, delicious and represent great value-while Champagne is the finest sparkling wine in the world, it also is the most expensive.

Many other countries produce sparkling wine made using the same method, although the name for the method may vary. In Spain, sparkling wine made in this style is known as Cava. In South Africa it is referred to as Cap Classique. New Zealand, Australia and Argentina also make excellent sparkling wine utilizing the Méthode Champenoise.

In all three of these countries, the impetus has come from French Champagne producers buying land and starting production.

California and Oregon are both homes to excellent sparkling wine made in the traditional style. In California, pioneers such as Hans Kornell and Schramsberg pioneered the way, to be followed by an influx of French and Spanish producers. Moet & Chandon opened Domaine Chandon, Champagne Mumm started Mumm Napa, Roederer founded Domaine Carneros and Cordorniu from Spain established Gloria Ferrer.

All of these producers make first-class bubbles at about half of the cost of the Champagne produced by their French owners. Be adventurous - try some of these great bubbles from around the world and don't wait for an excuse. Sparkling wine can turn any day into a special occasion. 


Story published Friday, December 5, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 7 )

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