“The wine of Kings and the King of wines!”
By my friend Christina Christodoulidou
Preferred drink of any celebration Champagne has often been associated with monarchy and nobility since the Clovis’ baptism in Reims in the fifth century. His coronation marked the birth of the kingdom of France and established Champagne as the wine of coronation. Nowadays it is considered the wine of celebration “par excellence” linked to all high society social events.
Is champagne a sparkling wine? It certainly is, however NOT every sparkling wine can be called champagne (common mistake that always gets my blood pressure to hit the roof!). As a matter of fact Champagne only comes from the Champagne region in France and its AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) comes with quite some restrictions.
Main rules of the Champagne AOC:
- Strict delimitation
- Approved grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, Petit Meslier
- Method of pruning: Royat, Chablis, Guyot, Vallée de la Marne
- Maximum permitted yields per hectare
- Maximum permitted press yield
- Minimum potential alcohol content of newly harvested grapes
- Secondary fermentation in the bottle, and minimum periods of maturation on lees: 15 months for non-vintage Champagne and three years for vintage Champagne.
Once upon a time……
Come brothers, hurry! I am drinking the stars!
Contrary to popular belief the French monk was not the inventor of Champagne. It is actually impossible to date the appearance of the first sparkling wine. Effervescence was considered as a fault in fabrication, one the producers were trying to eliminate and certainly not reproduce never mind care to document in writing.
The first written mention of effervescent was found in an Egyptian papyrus document dated 23 October 522 AD!!
In a more modern era the English Restoration dramatist Sir George Etherege is the first to mention sparkling wines, in his comedy of manners, The Man of Mode (1676). Within just a few years, sparkling wines were all around England, with the French following close behind in the 1700s
From the earth to the glass
- 34,000 hectares of vineyards are used for the champagne production
- 15800 wine growers
- 300 Champagne Houses
- 309 000 000 annual bottle production
The Champagne Region is located east of Paris.
4 main growing areas in Champagne
- The Montagne de Reims.
- The Côte des Blancs
- The vallée de la Marne.
- The Côte des Bar.
How is this magical wine produced? La Méthode Champagnoise in brief.
1. Vinification en Blanc
- Picking of the white or Black-skinned grapes
- Pressing (low juice extraction to avoid colouring)
- Débourbage – elimination of impurities
- First fermentation (3 weeks)
2. Cuvée – Blending of different crus and or different vintage according to the champagne style required
- Non vintage
- Single Varietal (i.e.blanc de blancs, blanc de noirs)
- Single Vineyard
3. Second fermentation in the bottle by the addition of Liqueur de tirage (sweet solution of cane sugar+natural yeast + wine (still champagne) in order achieve the presence of carbon dioxide in the bottle and transform the still wine to sparkling (prise de mousse). This operation lasts 2 to 3 months
4. Remuage – Riddling process involving both the turning and tilting of bottles neck-down (sur pointe), in an upright rack (pupitres) , to collect the sediment which was created during the second fermentation at the neck of the bottle in preparation for disgorgement. This process can be manual (by the remueurs/riddlers) or automated (using a gyropalette)
5. Maturation on Lees
All Champagne wines must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months maturation on lees is required for non-vintage cuvée. The minimum for vintage cuvée is three years. In practice, most Champagne wines are cellared for much longer: 2-3 years for non vintage and 4-10 years for vintage Champagne.
6. Dégorgement – Disgorgement
The process of removing the yeast sediments after fermentation and aging in the bottle. The sediment must be collected in the neck of the bottle through riddling, the bottle of the neck is then frozen to collect the sediment into a solid mass, and then this mass is ejected when the capsule is removed.
Sugar added to champagne after disgorgement, through a liqueur d’expédition, which is a solution of cane or beet sugar and wine. The level of dosage determines the category of champagne (i.e. Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Demi-Sec, etc.).
8. Final corking, labelling, and return of the bottle to the cellar before release to the market for sale.
Trivia – Did you know?
- The classic Champagne coupe was adapted from a wax mold made from the breast of Marie Antoinette.
- There is about 90 pounds per square inch of pressure in a bottle of Champagne. That’s more than triple the pressure in an automobile tire.
- A Champagne cork reaches a velocity of about 64 kilometers per hour if popped out of the bottle.
- The longest recorded flight of a Champagne cork is over 54 meters
- Actress Marilyn Monroe took a bath in 350 bottles of Champagne (champagne temperature unknown)
- In the movie adaptations of 007 James Bond drinks Champagne more than any other beverage, with Bollinger Champagne being the preferred brand in 15 movies (starting with Diamonds are forever)
- A Champagne riddler can turn roughly 40000 bottles in a single day.
- The largest bottle size for Champagne is called a Melchizedek (or Midas, Biblical, King of Salem) and is equal to 40 standard bottles or 30 liters.
- Cristal was first created in 1876 for Tsar Alexander II of Russia who commissioned Louis Roederer to develop and exclusive cuvée for him. The champagne was contained in a transparent crystal bottle which made the Tsar’s cuvée instantly recognizable and it was given a flat base to ensure that no bomb could be hidden under the bottle; this greatly reassured the Tsar who was worried about assassination attempts.
- Madame de Pompadour ordered Champagne by the gallon for her parties alfresco – her expenditure on bubbly says it all: at least 1,800 bottles of Champagne were consumed in the course of one masked ball at the Hôtel de Ville in 1739.
- How many bubbles are there in a standard sized bottle of Champagne (750ml)
- According to Beekmanwine.com, scientist Bill Lembeck estimated 49 million.
- A joint project between Moët & Chandon and Heineken between 1986 and 1989, estimated 250 million
- Champagne producer Bollinger, says Karen MacNeil in “The Wine Bible” (Workman, 2001), also calculated the number of bubbles in a bottle of Champagne, and came up with 56 million, give or take a few.
In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it (Napoleon 1769-1821)
Sabrage: The technique of opening a bottle of Champagne by sliding a saber along the body of the bottle to break the top of the neck away, leaving the neck of the bottle open and ready to pour. The technique became popular in France during the French revolution. The saber was the weapon of choice of Napoleon’s light cavalry (the Hussars) and their spectacular victories across all Europe gave them plenty of reason to celebrate. During these parties the cavalry would open the champagne with their sabers.
At the end of the day who cares?…..They are all magical!
So when should one drink Champagne? I would personally go with Madame Lilly Bollinger’s (1899-1976) words:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty”