The story of Champagne goes all the way back to the 14th century when monks produced wines for church ceremonies. It is disputed whether champagne was made intentionally or if the golden bubbles came about by accident.
Either way the first bubbles were a result of dormant yeast being reactivated, when – after bottling and cellaring in autumn – temperatures sprung up in the spring causing a second fermentation in the closed bottle, leading to carbonation. And voila! Méthode Champenoise was “invented”.
The art of Champagne promptly became fashionable due to the coronation of French royals and other celebrations in Champagne’s regional capital of Reims – and visiting royal guests spread the word about the majestic French bubbles to the rest of Europe.
Today Champagne continues to be associated with celebrations – and for good reason. Any proper celebration deserves some great bubbles!
Champagne enjoys a unique terroir with oceanic influences causing mild winters and cool – but sunny – summers. Hills provide just enough warmth for ripening the fruit and the soils with widespread limestone provide both excellent drainage and the ability to retain water throughout the growth season. With excellent fruit in hand the winemaking can begin.
The art of making Champagne starts with making a “normal” wine, called a base wine. This is done by fermenting part of the wine in steel vats.
Unlike in “normal winemaking” this new vintage wine is then blended with reserve wines from previous vintages matured in oak. So, the final wine becomes a mix of current and previous vintages and as a result the final Champagne becomes “Non Vintage” or “NV”. If the wine is only from the same vintage, the Champagne becomes a Vintage Champagne.
From this drawing of wines comes the “Tirage” (pronounced Ti-ra-sh) which is when a solution of wine, sugar and yeast is added to the bottle of still wine. This is when the traditional method of making Champagne begins. A capsule is added to seal the content in the bottle. The sugar added in this part of the process has no influence on whether or not the final Champagne will be dry, semi-sweet (demi-sec) or sweet (sec).
Sugar is added as part of the Tirage to cause a reaction with yeast, a reaction that produces a by-product of CO2, yes, the stuff that sparkles. Without sugar and yeast in a closed environment, no bubbles. Usually, 20-25 grams of sugar will produce about 6 bars of pressure, which is more or less what the winemaker is aiming to achieve.
Then comes a waiting game of at least 12 months, but often longer. 18-36 months of cellaring in the bottle is common when making quality Champagne. A steady temperature is instrumental in this part of the process. The famous cellars in Champagne are ideal, keeping a year-round temperature of 12-13 degrees.
After the wait comes “La Remuage” (pronounced Re-my-a-sh). In this part of the process the trick is to get the dead yeast and residuals out of the Champagne bottle. This happens by turning the bottles little-by-little over a period of time, until at the end they are positioned top side down and all “debris” is collected near the cap.
Dégorgement and dosage
Dégorgement (de-gor-sje-ment) is the next step. Here the neck of the bottle is frozen with dry ice and the capsule is removed together with the frozen residual or debris.
The final step is the “dosage” (do-sa-sh). It is the process wherein the bottles are topped up – because you always lose a little in the dégorgement step. It is at this stage the winemaker decides whether the final Champagne shall have a style of dry or brut (adding only a tiny bit of sugar), semi-sweet aka demi-sec (adding a bit more sugar), or sweet aka sec (adding even more sugar).
Sometimes you find “Zero Dosage” Champagne. These are extra dry, with no added sugar (no dosage).The bottles are then corked and let to rest a few months before they are released for you to enjoy.
Brut reserve, Blanc-de-Blanc, Blanc-de-Noir and Rose
Beyond styling Champagne by adjusting the dosage of sugar, Champagne is made on different grape varieties – with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier being the most common.
A Classique Brut is a white Champagne made from a blend of several grapes, both white and red. While a Blanc-de-Blanc is solely made from Chardonnay, a Blanc-de-Noir is solely made from red grapes, and a rose' is made on a blend of white and red grapes – using either a method of blending white and red wine, or by extracting colour by allowing the red skins to infuse in the clear juice.
The area the wines are made from is quite unique. It's the most beautiful of sparkling wines, and the most popular.What are the most popular grape varieties in Champagne?
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Other grapes are less than 1% of plantings.What types of food works well with wines from Champagne?
Foods and snacks that are fatty, fried and salty. Cheeses, the sea and Desserts.