The world of wine can be intimidating. There’s a lot to know—vintages, varietals, growing conditions, appellations, fermenting processes. But the good news is that if you know just a little bit, you can make rather informed decisions (and also impress your friends who know less than you!).
Ever since I started this blog I’ve been tossing around in my head ideas for a post on Champagne because I think it is a particularly intimidating wine, and people make many common errors when discussing it. So this is an entry-level discussion into the basics.
The Name Champagne
First things first: unless the wine in question was made in the Champagne region of France, it is NOT Champagne! The term “Champagne” is what’s called a Geographical Indication (GI). It’s similar to a trademark. [Quick trademark 101 discussion: A trademark is owned by a particular company and is used to indicate to the marketplace that the item bearing that mark was made by the company that owns the mark. For example, Rice Krispies cereal is a trademark owned by the Kellogg Co. Consumers have come to expect a certain level of quality from Rice Krispies, and they want to know that when they buy Rice Krispies, that quality is going to be there. Kellogg Co. has an interest in protecting that consumer expectation, so they have trademarked the term Rice Krispies, and no one else can manufacture and sell a cereal with the same name. Others can call their cereal Crisped Rice, or Rice Puffs, or something else not trademarked. A geographical indication operates on the same principle, but it belongs to a region, rather than a company.]
GIs are registered with the country in which they are located, much like trademarks. GIs are also an issue for the World Trade Organization, and you can read about their involvement here. Champagne should always be spelled with a capital “C” to indicate that you are talking about true Champagne (and also to indicate that you know what you’re talking about). It once was common to refer to non-Champagne sparkling wine as champagne with a small “c,” and you will still see that occasionally. But Champagne has been more diligent in enforcing the proper use of its GI in the past few decades. The proper way to refer to Champagne and non-Champagne collectively is “sparkling wine.”
Champagne is a region in northeastern France, about 90 minutes by car or train from Paris. The sparkling wine called Champagne is the only wine produced in Champagne. (Note: there is a very small production of still wines, but it is almost negligible.) Some people refer to Champagne as a white wine, but that is not entirely correct. Champagne is made from three different types of grapes: Chardonnay (a white grape), Pinot Noir (a red grape, also sometimes referred to as a black grape), and Pinot Meunier (another red/black grape). (There are a few other grapes allowed to be used, but their use is negligible.)
A Champagne can be 100% of any one of those grapes, or it can be a blend of two or more. The type of grape is called the “varietal.” Champagne made of 100% Chardonnay is called “Blanc de Blancs,” (“white from whites”) and one made solely of red grapes is called “Blanc de Noirs” (“white from blacks”). A Blanc de Noirs could be 100% Pinot Noir, 100% Pinot Meunier, or a blend of the two. Most Champagne is made with a blend of Chardonnay and one or both of the red grapes. Champagne producers do not typically state the percentages on their labels. If you want to know how much of each grape type is in your Champagne, you can sometimes find the information on the Champagne house’s website, or a wine website such as wine.com.
All grapes, even red/black grapes, are white on the inside and produce a white/clear juice. The color is contained in the grape skins. With a white grape like Chardonnay, there is no color even in the skins, so a Blanc de Blancs will always be white/yellow in appearance. As with still white wines, as the wine ages, the yellow color will become deeper. Most Blanc de Noirs is also white/yellow in appearance, but if the skins are left on for a short period during the maceration process, the resulting wine can have just a hint of pinkness to it. A Rosé can be created in one of two ways. The less common, more difficult way is called the saignée method. In this method, the red grape skins are left on during the maceration period. The longer the skins remain in contact with the juice, the deeper the pink color becomes. The more common way to produce a Rosé is to blend a small amount of still red wine (generally Pinot Noir) with the white sparkling wine. The saignée method takes longer, and Rosé made in this way generally costs more.
For wine, the year in which the grapes were harvested is the vintage assigned to the wine in the bottle, even though the wine is not ready to drink or sell until some later year. The French term for “vintage” is “millésimé” (pronounced “mee-lay-see-may). Whereas the majority of still wine is released as a vintage bottling, the majority of Champagne is not. This is why you will not find a year designation on the label of most Champagne. If the house determines that a particular vintage was exceptional, then it will release a millésimé for that year (and generally charge a premium for it). Otherwise, Champagne is made from a blend of grapes from different vintages.
What makes the Champagne process special, and produces the bubbles, is the secondary fermentation in the bottle. When making still wine, the grapes are fermented in large vats, then transferred to barrels or stainless steel tanks for aging before bottling.
With Champagne, after the first fermentation process is done, a blend will be created from different vintages of wine (unless the house is making a millésimé). Once the desired blend has been achieved, the liqueur de triage is added, which is a mixture of yeast, sugar, and still wine. The blend is then bottled and capped with a crown cap, which is similar to a beer or soda bottle cap. The secondary fermentation begins, producing the carbon dioxide in the bottle that creates the bubbles. This fermentation process takes between four and eight weeks, after which the yeast dies and settles to the bottom of the bottle.
The dead yeast is now referred to as “lees,” and the wine continues to age in the bottle, which is known as “resting on the lees.” French law requires non-vintage Champagne to age on the lees for at least 15 months and vintage Champagne for at least 3 years, but most houses age their Champagne far longer than that–anywhere from 3 to 10 years. Once the aging is complete, the bottles must be “riddled” to move the lees and sediment from the bottom of the bottle to the top of the bottle so they can be removed. The bottles are placed in racks in a horizontal position. Gradually, the bottles are turned and angled downward slightly more so they eventually end up nearly vertical and upside down.
This process can take up to two months if it is done by hand. In order to remove the yeast and sediment (“disgorgement”), the necks of the bottles are placed in a solution that quickly freezes the sediment plug. The bottles are uncapped, the sediment plug is expelled by the pressure in the bottle, the “dosage” is added, and the bottles are corked, caged, and foiled. The dosage is a sugar/wine blend that determines whether the finished product will be Brut (dry) or Sec (sweet). Most Champagne is Brut. For an even more technical explanation of the process, see here.
Champagne is not released to the market until the producer believes it is ready to be consumed; therefore, you can be comfortable drinking Champagne immediately upon purchase, knowing that it reflects what the winemaker intended. However, Champagne can be aged further after purchase, which can result in a more intense color and taste. As with all wine, storing it in a cool, dark, humid environment is best.
Champagne, to be truly appreciated, must be drunk from a stemmed, fluted glass. If anyone says otherwise, they’re crazy and not to be trusted! Under no circumstances should you drink Champagne from a coupe. And forget about a Champagne tower of coupes. A thousand times no!
People think coupes are cool and retro, but they are terrible for Champagne. The flat, shallow bowl causes rapid dispersement of the bubbles, ruining the proper enjoyment of the Champagne. If you want to drink flat Chardonnay, just buy Chardonnay and be done with it! Either a tall, straight flute or a tulip-shaped flute is the correct stemware choice because it contains the wine in a narrow vertical space and allows the bubbles to flow upward in a column. A tall glass also concentrates the aroma (the “bouquet”) upward so your sense of smell is engaged in the sensory experience of drinking Champagne. The full experience encompasses taste, smell, and the feel of the wine on your tongue.
As for stemless wine glasses, I don’t believe in them except for camping. (And you can’t really drink Champagne when camping because you can’t chill the wine to the proper temperature.) The biggest problem with stemless wine glasses is that you must hold the glass by the bowl, which invariably results in premature warming of the wine by the heat emitted by your hands. If you’re in a position to put down your glass after every sip, then stemless can work, but I still prefer stemmed glassware.
Visiting The Region
My husband and I traveled to Champagne for a portion of our honeymoon, so I can recommend it first-hand as a must-see destination for fans of sparkling wine.
The two largest cities in Champagne are Reims and Épernay. Multiple trains per day run to both cities from Paris. We stayed at the Hotel Castel Jeanson in the village of Aÿ, which is just a few miles from Épernay, and a great home base location for touring Champagne. A car, either rented or hired, is necessary for getting around in Champagne, but traffic is light, and with a GPS, the area is easily navigable.
We toured four Champagne houses during our two-day stay and did just a tasting at one more. I had set up appointments for two of our tours before we left the States; the other two tours we joined as walk-ins. Many of the houses have links on their websites allowing you to submit a tour request which will then be finalized via email. (Some of the houses do not offer tours to the public, only to wine industry personnel. You can generally find this on the websites.) I think all of the houses offer tours in English, and many of them offer other European languages as well. (Obviously they all offer tours in French, but our French is not that good.) At Nicolas Feuillatte we essentially had a private tour because we were the only couple signed up for the English tour that morning.
We also visited the shop/tasting room of one producer whose Rosé we had at a local restaurant. One of the greatest things about Champagne (the region) is that all of the restaurants have extensive offerings of Champagne (the wine) by the bottle, half-bottle, and glass. Another great thing about Champagne (the region) is that the food is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve traveled throughout the U.S., France, and Italy, and the food in Épernay is hands-down the best I’ve ever had.
We toured Taittinger (walk-in), Charles de Cazanove (walk-in), Moët et Chandon (appointment), and Nicolas Feuillatte (appointment). [Side note: Moët is pronounced “mow-ette” rather than “mow-ay.” Mr. Moët was Dutch, although he founded a French Champagne house; thus, the pronunciation includes the “t.” The word “et” which means “and” in French, is pronounced like the letter “a.”] Taittinger and Moët are two of the oldest houses in Champagne, and their cellars are spectacular. The cellar tours take place hundreds of feet underground, and you see their wines at various stages in the process. Both houses have collections going back over 100 years.
The accumulation of dust on bottles that haven’t been moved in many decades is impressive. The guides thoroughly explain the Champagne process, and what’s truly amazing about Taittinger and Moët in particular is that they still do everything by hand. Nicolas Feuillatte, on the other hand, is a marvel of technological innovation. We did tastings at Pommery and Vincent d’Astrée. We arrived at Pommery too late in the day for a full tour, but I got the sense that their tour groups are much larger than some of the others. At both Taittinger and Moët we were in groups of about a dozen, and at Cazanove there were about eight of us. I personally prefer a smaller tour group. Vincent d’Astrée has a small shop and tasting room in Pierry, which is not far from Épernay. We didn’t have a single bad experience at any of the places we visited.
One caveat about visiting Champagne: they are prohibited by French law from shipping outside of France. If you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of Champagne, you can take home as much as you can fit in your car. We had to limit ourselves to buying only seven bottles, which we wrapped in bubble wrap and brought home in our checked luggage. (They all survived, thankfully.) But we took extensive tasting notes while we were there, so now we know what to look for when we’re in a wine shop. Not everything you taste at the end of your tour is necessarily available in your home country because the houses do not export everything they make. Nicolas Feuillatte gave us the contact information for their New York importer so we could inquire about a particular wine we liked that is not typically exported.
Contrary to popular belief, when opening a bottle of Champagne (or any other sparkling wine, for that matter) the goal is to create as little of a popping sound as possible. Champagne should generally be served at a temperature of about 45 degrees. After removing the outer foil covering, untwist and remove the wire “cage” holding in the cork. Do not remove the cage until you are ready to open the bottle, because an uncaged cork can be expelled from the bottle by the pressure inside. Place one hand firmly on the cork (using a towel, if desired) and grasp the base of the bottle in the other hand. Slowly twist the bottle while holding onto the cork, until the cork eases its way out of the bottle. When pouring Champagne, it helps to tilt the glass at an angle to cut down on the amount of foam. Take a moment to look at the color of the wine, examine the tiny bubbles, and breathe in the bouquet. Then enjoy the result of many years of labor by a number of Frenchmen and women.
Champagne is extremely versatile and can be enjoyed with just about any type of food. It is especially wonderful with seafood and with vegetables that are otherwise difficult to pair with wine, such as asparagus and Brussels sprouts. The crispness of Champagne will offset the heat of spicy dishes, such as Thai and Indian cuisine. The French often drink it as an aperitif (before-dinner drink). It’s delightful with charcuterie and cheese, or with chocolate and strawberries. Many people are inclined to save Champagne for a special occasion, and it certainly works for those too, but sometimes it’s nice to have a fantastic bottle of Champagne just because. Champagne is undoubtedly more expensive than other sparkling wines, but after seeing first-hand the process and the effort that goes into making it, I feel better about spending the money to get something fabulous. And if you know the right places to look, you can find a number of quality Champagnes for under $50. Look for a future post on which Champagnes to buy, and where.
A votre santé! [To your health!]