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Champagne

It is said that champagne is a wine that has no rules. It can be drunk at any time of the day or night; some even drink it out of actresses pumps. The only sale is that it should be chilled down. It is a superlative drink that almost everyone enjoys but do you know how it came to existence?

Geography And The Origins

As almost everybody knows, Champagne is a province of France, north-east of Paris. The capital of Champagne is Remiss and the Champagne district includes all the hills south of Remiss up to the Marine River 30 kilometers south (where you find the second town of Champagne called Epernay). Despite its extremely northern situation (at the limit of where grapes will grow), the Champagne soil made of chalk and silica has been found very propitious for the Pinot Noir, the famous red varietal of Burgundy (located 70 miles further south). Grapes were already grown in Champagne during the Roman conquest and from Roman times until the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, Champagne reds were in strong competition with Burgundy reds. The chalky terroir of Champagne gave lean reds that probably kept a little better than the more fruity Pinots of Burgundy.

How The Bubbles Arrived

Of course, it was by accident. In the mid 1600's, Champagne reds, which were very clear and of a rosé composition, were shipped in casks (there were no bottles then) to the court of the young King Louis XIV in Paris (not yet in Versailles since the palace was under construction). Given the cold weather of the Reims region, the grapes harvested in mid-October (to acheive optimal maturity) were stored in vats in cellars where they started their fermentation. The cold weather of approaching winter stopped the fermentation and it is only in April or early May of the following year when the temperature rose again that the fermentation process started anew and suddenly turned the inside of the casks into a frothy wine for a few weeks until the fermentation would be terminated. Meanwhile, the wine had been sold and the casks were in the cellars of the consumers. Nobody could explain at the time why this frothiness appeared in the Spring but the Champagne wines became known for this particularity. Louis XIV became quite fond of this bubbly liquid and would drink it with glee in the Spring and also during the later months when the wine was still. Since the King liked it... everybody at court liked it... and it is only because one of his favorite courtiers got disgraced that this fad was exported. The Marquis de St. Evremond, having wrought the displeasure of the Sun King, was exiled to England. He brought with him a few casks of Champagne wine just at the time when the spring fermentation was taking place. The English courtiers of Charles II loved it and St. Evremond spent most of his time in exile trying to organize transport of Champagne casks from Reims to England, something that was not easy since there was very little inter-nations trade in the 17th century. Besides drinking it, the British contributed to the Champagne we know today. Unlike France at the time, England already manufactured bottles to transport Ale. Very quickly, some English merchants tried to conserve the bubbles of the spring fermentation by enclosing them in a bottle with a cork that was attached either by string or with thin wire. That way they could sell frothy Champagne all year round. Champagne as we know it was born.

We have not mentioned Dom Perignon yet! Dom Perignon as the inventor of Champagne is a myth. Pierre Perignon, a Benedictine monk of the Abbey Hautvillers, appeared much later (1685) when bottle Champagne was already in existence. His biggest contribution was to blend the juices of different vineyards to make a more complex Champagne.

The French and English Courts' passion for Champagne spread to other courts of Europe and the Champenois learned to bottle the product at the production site. Bottles were shipped in large wooden cases with lots of straw between each bottle. What the producers could not control, however, was the amount of sugar imprisoned in each bottle and continuing to ferment. In some bottles, the level of pressure of carbon dioxide (the gas that makes the bubbles) would raise to 3 or 4 atmospheres and frequently the hand blown bottles would explode. For most of the 18th century, Champagne remained a royal product because it cost so much due to the high rate of self destruction (frequently up to 80%). It is only in the early 19th century that a pharmacist called François invented a tool to accurately measure the amount of residual sugar inside each bottle, thus limiting the amount of pressure that would build. The rate of breakage plummeted and Champagne became a more democratic drink.

How Champagne Is Made Today

Champagne production is now a big industry since at least 200 million bottles are produced every year. Most of the process described above has been rationalized. To start with, all the vineyards of the region have been graded according to a percentage rating system. The grades vary from 80% to 100%. Only 17 vineyards out of about 400 have a 100% rating. These are the "grand crus" of Champagne reserved for the top Cuvées. Most modern Champagnes are a blend of red and white grapes. The 3 most frequent varietals are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The "Blancs de Blanc" Champagnes, grown mainly along the Marne Valley, are made of Chardonnay exclusively.

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At harvest time, the grapes are picked and quickly pressed. The juice of first pressing goes to make the top cuvees, while the second harder pressing will produce regular blends. Since the juice is quickly isolated from the skins (in case of Pinot Noir) it remains white. It is put in stainless steel vats for the first fermentation. It may stay there for a few months; it is a still wine. Then comes the "assemblage" which is the blending of many wines coming from various vineyards and from different vintages (for a N.V. Champagne). This will make a more complex Champagne. There is some similarity here with the perfume manufactures who blend a large number of essences to make a new and unique perfume. All the chosen ingredients selected in the "assemblage" are blended in large vats and poured in bottles. Then begins the bottle fermentation which will create the bubbles. For this, a little yeast and sugar are added in the bottle. This is a slow process that will take years. The bubbles (Carbon Dioxide) are trapped in the bottle as well as some sediments which are collected in the neck of the bottles which are stored upside down.

When the Champagne is ready, the necks of the bottles are quickly frozen, the temporary cork is removed and a little block of ice containing all the sediments is pushed out of the bottle by the inside pressure. A few chops of similar Champagne are added and the definitive Champagne cork that will stay on the bottle until an inexperienced hand sends it flying into a crystal chandelier. Bottles are sent back to the cavernous cellars from one to five years to reach perfect maturity. They are then washed and "dressed" with label and the characteristic aluminum foil. The large number of operations, plus the fact that each Champagne firm has at least 5 years of inventory slowly aging in its cellars, makes this product expensive. The process described above is the natural method also called "methode champenoise." There are sparkling wines made more economically but they are not Champagne. Most inexpensive sparklings are made with white wine and with direct introduction of industrially made carbon dioxide in the bottle. Usually it is characterized by big bubbles when the bottle is opened and frequently it is accompanied by a headache the next morning. Such sparklings rarely age more than a few months. But there are also manufacturers who use the méthode champenoise and who make excellent sparklings which cannot be called Champagne since they are not made in that region. California, Australia and South Africa in particular make a product close to Champagne in terms of quality (but not much cheaper if they use the same natural method). In fact, quite a few are made by the international arm of traditional Champagne companies. The weakness of all New World top quality sparklings is that they often come from areas where relatively few vineyards are used to make such a type of wine. The possibilities for blending to make a more complex product are more limited. In this regard, top Champagnes, which can have as many as 30 or 40 ingredient wines of different origins and ages, are still ahead of all others. Contrary to other sparkling wines, Champagne can age for 10 or 15 years.

The Various Types Of Champagnes Offered By Most Houses

The large Champagne houses usually offer four types of Champagnes:

Non Vintage: (NV) The least expensive, made usually with fairly young wines but blended in such a way to offer through the years, a consistent House Style. Non vintage Champagnes can usually be obtained as Brut (very dry) or demi-sec (sweet), all the other superior levels of Champagne are always "Brut" only.

Vintage: A good quality Champagne only made and offered in the good years. Aged longer in cellars until it reaches a certain full body.

Rosé: Always a premium Champagne made from top vineyards and usually blended with a small quantity of still red wine or made by "Saignée" when the white juice is allowed to stay with the skins for a while to gain color, fruit and body.

Prestige Cuvèes: The best made only with 1° Cru or Grand Cru grapes. Only the first pressing of such grapes are used (Tete de Cuvée). The bubbles are very fine and the taste is ethereal. Prestige Champagne usually has a vintage.

The Champagne Growers

It is fascinating that only about 25 Champagne brands are known around the world while there are more than 4,100 Champagne producers. Of course, some are very small and sell only locally, but there are also some mid-size forms that make superlative Champagnes and that should be better known. It takes a very large advertising budget to launch a Champagne brand (once again quite similar to perfumes) and only the houses that have developed a large export business throughout the last 100 years can afford it. The better known brand Champagnes are usually quite good, particularly their top cuvées, but they all suffer from their own success. Since the demand for their wines greatly exceeds the capacity of their own vineyards, they rely on thousands of small growers to sell these grapes. They are not in control of their production, particularly for their basic Champagnes. The top French restaurants (those that have 2 or 3 stars in Michelin Guide) often promote small producers that can offer really superlative Champagnes to their clientele of gourmets. Such Champagnes are rarely found in the USA. The ABC Wine Store took the risk to import one of these gems (Cuvée Divine, Top Cuvée from Leclerc-Briant, rated 92 by Wine Spectator higher rating than Dom Perignon), and will continue to do so in the years to come.

"Here's to Champagne, the drink divine that makes us forget our troubles; It's made of a dollar's worth of wine and three dollars' worth of bubbles" -Anon

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