Just as not all that glitters is gold, not all that sparkles is Champagne.
Sparkling wine – wine with bubbles – is produced nearly everywhere that still wine is produced, but only that made in the Champagne province in northeast France can legally be called Champagne. All other sparkling wines are called just that or perhaps another regional name. For instance, depending on where and how they are made, some sparkling wines from Italy can be called Prosecco, while others are known as Asti Spumante. Sparkling wines from the Catalonia region of Spain are called Cava. In France, sparkling wines made outside of the Champagne province are given distinct names such as Crémant de Loire, Crémant d’Alsace or Crémant de Bourgogne to denote their origin.
Not all the distinction of Champagne is simply about the name of the place it is made; there are several other factors that give the world’s most famous sparking wine its prestige – and heftier price.
If the same viticulturist were to try and grow the same strain of Chardonnay grapes in Champagne, Burgundy, Napa Valley, Australia and Chile, and then the same winemaker were to use the same processes to make wine with those grapes, every one of those wines would still be significantly different. The difference comes from terroir, a French word that describes the growing place’s unique attributes created by a combination of climate, soil composition and even angle of the vineyard to the sun.
Champagne is Champagne partially because of the terroir of the cool-climate region, located near the northern limit of grape growing range, and the chalky soil that dominates the area. Grown in Champagne, grapes take on specific qualities that are ideal for the creation of a sparkling wine using the traditional method that includes a second fermentation in the bottle. That the characteristic acidity and minerality found in Champagne are different or even missing from other sparkling wines is a direct reflection of the terroir.
Varieties and blends
Sparkling wine can be made from just about any grape and in different places, different grapes are used – and sometimes required. In Italy, for example, Prosecco has to be made entirely from the indigenous Glera grape.
Seven different grapes are permitted to be used to produce Champagne, but the primary grapes used in production are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The latter two are black-skinned grapes that are pressed and the juice kept away from the skins so as not to impart color in the resulting wine. Each of these grapes provide specific attributes – like acidity and elegance from Chardonnay; structure and complexity from Pinot Noir; and fruitiness and aroma from Pinot Meunier. Most Champagnes are blends of wines made from these three grapes. There are, however, Champagnes made entirely of Chardonnay called blanc de blancs and others made entirely of one or both of the black-skinned grapes called blanc de noirs.
Because Pinot Meunier doesn’t age as gracefully as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it is better for non-vintage Champagnes, although some top producers still use it in vintage Champagnes because of its ability to add flavor.
Champagne, like all sparkling wines, gets its bubbles from carbon dioxide. Some industrial producers carbonate their still wine by injecting it with CO2 to make inexpensive and low quality sparkling wines. Most producers create the bubbles by forcing a second fermentation to take place, either in large pressurized tanks or in the bottle itself. This is done by adding a solution of wine, yeast and sugar to already fermented wine and then not allowing the carbon dioxide to escape when it is created as the yeast consumes the sugar and converts it to alcohol. For a sparkling wine to be called Champagne, this process has to take place in the bottle.
The in-bottle fermentation creates a sediment from the expended yeast – called lees – and Champagne must be aged with the lees for at least 15 months for non-vintage Champagnes and three years for vintage Champagnes. It is during this aging process that the acidic wine is softened and given the creamy nuttiness for which Champagne is known, along with developing baked bread-like aromas and flavors to go with the natural minerality and salinity Champagne gets from its terroir.
Champagne production regulations also limit the yield of grapes per hectare that can be harvested for production and limit the maximum amount of juice that can be pressed from a specified amount of grapes.
Unlike Burgundy, where winemakers try to keep their influence on single-varietal wines to a minimum, Champagne winemakers get more involved, and not just in choosing the grape blend.
The big producers – and even some of the smaller ones – blend several different vintages of wines together for their non-vintage Champagnes to get consistency of flavor year after year. This is where the real art of making Champagne comes into play and why producers prefer to be judged on the quality of their non-vintage Champagnes.
Climate conditions are beyond the control of winemakers and if a particular vintage is poor because of poor weather, then most producers simply won’t make a vintage Champagne that year. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t use wine created in the less-than-ideal conditions for blending in their non-vintage Champagnes.
Winemakers can then age their still wines in a variety of ways, with some producers using techniques that others don’t. One prominent Champagne House, Bollinger, does a lot of things differently from other Houses and is a good example of how art comes into Champagne making. For one, it ferments and then ages its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines in used oak barrels for eight months.
Bollinger then bottle ages its non-vintage Champagnes on lees for at least three years – twice the minimum required – and its vintage Champagnes for five years – two years more than required.
Bollinger also uses a percentage of reserve wines, which it keeps for 15 years, in its blends, and some of those reserve wines are cellared in magnum-sized bottles because the wine ages best in that size and shape of bottle. Bollinger recently changed the shape of its non-vintage bottle to mimic that of a magnum as a way of improving the bottle aging of its Champagne.
After a bottle of Champagne has aged for the minimum amount of time required – or to the standard of the House if longer – the dead yeast sediment must be removed from the bottle so that the Champagne is clear instead of cloudy in a process called disgorgement. Before the yeast can be disgorged, however, the lees must be slowly pushed down the sides of the bottle by putting the bottles on a 45 degree angle with the neck pointed downwards. The bottles are then rotated a quarter turn, something which when done manually happens every other day. Eventually the bottles are moved to a vertical position, with all the lees in the neck. This process, called riddling, takes a long as 10 weeks when done manually, but can be done mechanically in about a week. Despite the additional labor required, Bollinger still does riddling manually.
Once the riddling process is complete, the lees are disgorged by putting only the necks of the bottles in a solution of salt and water that is cooled to -27C. This freezes the lees in a small amount of wine. The bottle is then opened and the pressure pops the frozen plug out of the bottle. The bottles are then topped up with a little wine to replace what was lost in the plug. That wine contains some sugar. This addition of sugar – known as dosage – helps balance the high acidity naturally present in wines produced in the cool Champagne climate. Bollinger adds 8 grams of sugar per liter for its brut and rosé Champagnes and 6 grams of sugar for its “La Grand Année” vintage Champagnes. Other Champagne Houses use more or less sugar in their dosage to create their house styles.