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What exactly is this stuff called Champagne?
Champagne is more than a style of wine, it is a region, and only grapes grown and vinified in la Champagne can wear the le champagne label on the bottle. It is the northernmost wine-growing area in France and gets its name from a combination between champs, for field, and campagna for open. The Romans were the first to spread word of Champagne’s vines and thankfully ignored the first century imperial edict that all vines in France were to be pulled out. The capital is Reims (or Rheims if you’re English) and pronounced by starting with an “R” and following with a growl. The not so picturesque city (at least when compared to Paris) is the great center of the champagne biz.
What are the grapes?
There are three, one white and two red (yes red, read on to learn more).
Pinot Noir: Famous for producing the great reds of Burgundy, along with delicious wines from such far-flung outposts as Santa Barbara, Germany’s Rheinpfalz, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Chardonnay: We all know it well, but what’s not obvious is that in Champagne, Chardonnay produces admirable acidity, which encourages the fleshier Pinot Noir to have a more eloquent expression in the blend.
Pinot Meunier: PM is a little further off the beaten track: its name—meunier means ‘miller,’ and refers to the folksy notion that the white dappling of the vine-leaves looks like a capricious miller has been dusting them with flour. Not only is Pinot Meunier a sponge for soaking up terroir, but unlike the other two members of the champagne committee, this vine will produce a second crop if the first one is killed by spring frost.
How do they make Champagne?
The méthode champenoise, which is French for “making bubbly”, is a complex process that dates back to roughly 1660 when the Benedictine monk, Dom Pierre Perignon at the abbey of Hautvilliers, introduced using cork stoppers and glass bottles, which promoted the retention of the naturally occurring sparkle caused by Champagne’s secondary fermentation.
Champagne is first made as a still wine, one that is markedly high in acid, and bottled. A mixture of sugar-syrup is then introduced, which works with the yeast to produce the secondary fermentation.
When fermentation takes place in a closed space, such as a champagne bottle, the carbon dioxide is captured and produces enough pressure to fill a truck tire, which is why the champagne bottle is made from heavier glass than a Bordeaux or Burgundy bottle; anything less and the glass would shatter.
After the second fermentation occurs, the bottles are shaken, turned and tilted, so that the dead yeasts (a product of fermentation in all wines) are persuaded down into the neck of the bottle, which has been sealed with a crown cap like beer. This remuage was once performed by trained, and brave, cellar workers, but nowadays the riddling is mechanically done on large mechanical gyropallettes that resemble missile batteries.
Before the bottle can be sent on its way to you, the dead yeast (the lees, pronounced leez) must be removed from the bottle.
This once was done à la vollée—on the fly—by an extremely dexterous individual, but now the preferred practice of disgorgement involves freezing the neck of the bottle in an extremely cold saline solution, which composes the dead yeasts into an ice-pellet, which slides handily out. The bottle is topped up with some liqueur d’expedition (a blend of fine cane or beet sugar that determines the sweetness or lack thereof) and closed with cork and a muselet (the wire muzzle).
What are the styles of Champagne?
Brut: Dry, with less than 15 grams of sugar per liter.
Extra-dry: Less dry, with between 12 and 20 grams of residual sugar (notice the overlap.)
Sec: Noticeably sweet, possessing between 17 and 35 grams.
Demi-sec: Good-n-sweet, with between 33 and 50 grams residual sugar.
Doux: More than 50 grams per liter.
What are the basic types of Champagne?
Non-vintage (or for the truly snooty, multi-vintage.) This is the most important steed in the stable of a champagne producer, for it’s the wine that determines their “house style”. It’s a blended wine, made from a variety of vineyard sites, and at least a couple of different vintages. By French law it must be aged in bottle for fifteen months before leaving the house, although better houses leave it in the cellar longer.
Blanc de blancs: Made solely from Chardonnay. These wines do not often exhibit the robust fruit of the Pinot Noir-based wines, but often achieve a memorable elegance.
Blanc de noirs: Made entirely from red grapes. These wines are comparatively rare. Most notable is Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Française, made from old, un-grafted vines in Bouzy.
Rosé: What gets the red in red wine is contact between the juice and skins during fermentation. What gets the pink in rosé wine is limited skin contact. Most rosé champagnes, however, are made by blending a bit of red wine (always from Champagne and often from villages like Bouzy and Ambonnay) with the Champagne.
Tête de Cuvée: This is the general term for a Champagne house’s luxury blend. For Veuve Clicquot it’s La Grande Dame, for Moët & Chandon it’s Dom Perignon, for Louis Roederer it’s Cristal, and for Pol Roger it’s Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill. Tête de Cuvées are often vintage dated, but can also be non-vintage cuvées.
RD: This is a spécialty of the Bollinger house, although it’s been observed at other addresses. It means récement degorgée, or recently disgorged—the Champagne has spent an extra long time on the lees before being finished and sent out to the market.
Vintage: A wine of a single vintage—although not every year yields a wine deemed to be of sufficient quality to be bottled unblended with wine from other years. Often a blend of many different vineyard sites, vintage Champagnes must be aged in bottle for three years before the winery will release them.
What is Grower Champagne and the meaning of those two small letters on the bottle?
Grower Champagne is made by the growers themselves, rather than a large house, which typically sources its grapes from multiple growers. Grower Champagnes tend to be small production and distinctive in style, reflecting the character of the producer. Their wines also tend to be more variable and show more personality from year to year than the big houses, who are able to maintain a consistent style through blending a variety of vineyard sites.
NM: Means that the brand is a négociant/manipulant, who has purchased at least some of the grapes, then made the wine. These include major Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Taittinger, and Piper-Heidsieck.
RM: Means that the brand is récoltant/manipulant, who has grown all of the grapes themselves before making the wine. These wines are typically termed “Grower Champagnes.”
RC: Means récoltant coopérateur, and refers to growers that make and sell their wines with the aid of grower’s cooperatives. These wines are also typically termed “Grower Champagnes.”
CM: This is cooperative-manipulant, a crew of growers who bottle their own product together, although these wines can include purchased grapes.
MA is marque d’acheteur, what the British call ‘buyer’s own brand’ champagnes.
So there you have it. Simple, no? Well Champagne is complex, expensive, and one of life’s little treats that we all need to indulge in every now and then, or if you are like Madame Lily Bollinger, perhaps more often. We think she put it best when she said: “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 I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.” We know what you mean Lily.