WineInk: Tiny Bubbles — The Unique Nature of Champagne
Champagne is one of those things where if you had a glass on a given day, it probably was a pretty good day. It is the drink of celebration and it is the drink of love.
Interestingly, it is perhaps the only wine we choose to drink because of where it is from and the way that it is made. That is to say, the unique manner in which the production process occurs gives us the thing that is most distinctive about Champagne: the bubbles. While most wines are simply fermented grape juice, Champagne goes an extra step to provide for what some call magic.
Champagne is a wine that appeals to the geekiest elements of a wine geek’s soul. Arguments can range for hours over which wines are the frothiest or have the creamiest texture. But it is clear that a well-made Champagne will provide not just a palate-pleasing experience, but an undeniable tipsy feeling bequeathed by bubbles that make it the perfect medium for a toast.
While you may not need to geek out there are a few things about Champagne that everyone should know.
First and foremost, for a wine to be called Champagne it must — and this is a legal definition codified in French law, certified by the European Union and a strict part and parcel of various trade agreements — be made in the Champagne region of central France using only grapes that are grown in that region using the méthode champenoise. Period. A wine made in the same way in another place from the same grapes cannot legally use the name Champagne. Just ask the region’s lawyers.
For nearly two centuries now, the growers and producers of Champagne have relentlessly and systematically protected their special status as a unique entity on Earth. As far back as 1843, lawsuits were filed by the makers in the Champagne region to guard what they consider to be a name that reflects the care and quality of their unique product.
It all starts with the grapes. The vast majority of Champagne today is made from a trio of approved grapes — chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier — grown in the Champagne AOC, or appellation. These grapes form the triad of the sparkling beauties, though there are four other more obscure grapes that can be legally grown and used in Champagne production, pinot blanc, pinot gris, petit meslier and arbane.
Most Champagne is a cuvee, or blend, of the two red grapes, the pinot noir and the pinot meunier, and the white grape, chardonnay. There are exceptions, however. A Blanc de Blanc Champagne is made from 100 percent chardonnay grapes, while a Blanc de Noir is made from just the two red grapes.
Each of the three main grapes brings something different to the party. The chardonnay is the beauty, the finesse, the fresh taste of the sun, the pinot meunier brings the florals and fruit to the nose, and the structure and backbone are found in the pinot noir. It is the way in which a winemaker uses the varieties that makes a great Champagne.
THE TRADITIONAL CHAMPAGNE METHOD
But perhaps the most unique element of Champagne has to do with the aforementioned méthode champenoise. This time-tested way of making wine involves the use of a “secondary” fermentation, which takes place in the bottle after the still wines have been made and blended.
To begin, the grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented separately to make still wines, just like regular non-sparkling wines. The winemaker then makes decisions on blending those wines together for the Champagne style to be produced.
It is here where the magic begins. The blend of wines is bottled and a mixture of yeast and sugars are introduced into each bottle to start the secondary fermentation. The bottles are sealed with a cap and, over time, the chemical interaction of the yeast, the sugar and the wines produce carbon dioxide, which create the bubbles in the blend. Yes, it is magic, but it is very much based on nature and science.
There are dozens of other sparkling wines in the world, ranging from Italian Prosecco to Spanish Cava to Australian sparkling shiraz to the great sparkling wines made by outposts of French Champagne houses in places like Argentina and California. All can be wonderful in their own right and many use the same “méthode champenoise,” which calls for a secondary fermentation of the grapes in the bottle, that is both the tradition and the law in Champagne.
But Champagne only comes from Champagne.
In last week’s Wine Ink I said that Leslie Rudd had purchased “Rutherford Dust.” The RUDD Oakville Estate property is, in fact, in the Oakville Appellation.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.