Champagne

How is it made? Is it any good? Is there any good news?

Champagne cork

Champagne cork

This is a difficult subject if you’re a fan of champagne, whether that’s the region, the wine, or the symbolism associated with the wine. But read until the end, it gets better.

The process of making champagne is well-known, and widely used throughout the world.

Mostly, it isn’t any good. We’ll look at the reasons why, but basically the structure of the wine-making industry in champagne, the colossal yields, and the tradition of blending fly in the face of traditional quality wine-making.

But there is good news. As the climate has become a little warmer, and the ripening season lasts a little longer, some growers – increasing numbers of growers – obey conventional wine-making rules, by allowing their grapes to ripen, which means more sugar, which means they are able to minimise, or even eradicate, the process of ‘dosage’.

The origins of champagne.

Map of French wine regions

Map of French wine regions

Champagne is the most northerly wine-making region of France. And more than anything else, this is at the root of everything about champagne, the most famous sparkling wine in the world. Although champagne growers traditionally competed with growers in Burgundy, their climate meant that often their grapes would not fully ripen. As a result their wines were often acidic, low in alcohol, and they were inconsistent.

They were familiar with sparkling wine, because sometimes the cold autumns would interrupt the alcoholic fermentation, which would begin again the following spring when temperatures rose. But this was an accidental characteristic, and regarded as a mistake.

The process of ‘secondary fermentation’ was known in the UK from the 1620s. Once fermentation is complete, a small amount of sugar and yeast is added to the wine, causing a second alcoholic fermentation, producing carbon dioxide. If the wine is in an air-tight bottle, this CO2 is absorbed into the wine, and gives it the fizz that we’re familiar with.

But even if they had wanted to use this technique in Champagne, the bottles that were available were not strong enough to withstand the pressure, and were prone to explode under pressure – one reason why Champagne winemakers tried to avoid producing a sparkling wine.

A number of innovations occurred which bring us to the point of a deliberate, sparkling wine in Champagne. Firstly, British glass-making techniques, using coal instead of wood, creating hotter temperatures and stronger glass, meant that bottles could take the strain.

Muselet capsule with cap

Muselet capsule with cap

Cork became more widely available – before this, wine was often stored in barrels, and they’re not airtight enough to retain the carbon dioxide. Monks in Limoux, neighbouring catalan cork forests, had been using cork to seal their sparkling wine (made by the ‘methode ancestrale‘, whereby the fermentation is stopped prior to bottling, and a secondary fermentation takes place in the botttle) for some time. In 1844 Adolphe Jacquesson invented the ‘muselet, the wire cage that keeps the champagne cork in place, making it more secure under pressure.

Riddling, or remouage, racks in Champagne

Riddling, or remouage, racks in Champagne

Thirty years previously, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot (better known to you and me as Widow Clicquot, or Veuve Clicquot) had invented the process of ‘remouage‘, or riddling. After the second fermentation, champagne wine was cloudy with dead yeast, or ‘lees’. Winemakers would clarify their sparkling wine by decanting their wine from bottle to bottle, a process that was time-consuming, wasteful, and damaging to the wine. Mme Clicquot came up with the idea of of the remouage table. The first one was made from a draining board, so picture a draining board. With holes drilled large enough to accomodate the neck of a champagne bottle, the bottles could be agitated a little each day, and tilted a little more each day, until after several weeks you had an upside-down bottle of wine with all the sediments collected in the neck.

Champagne Guy Charbaut - Mareuil-sur-Aÿ ©E. Vidal-Coll. ADT Marne7

Champagne Guy Charbaut – Mareuil-sur-Aÿ ©E. Vidal-Coll. ADT Marne7

The neck of the bottle is then frozen, and the bottle opened. The frozen plug of ice and sediment would fly out under pressure, and the bottle could be re-sealed with a cork, a muselet, and a foil collar (to hide the irregular levels following disgorgement). At the point of disgorgement, typically a small amount of sugar solution is added, known as ‘dosage’, to affect the level of sweetness of the wine. Even ‘Brut’ wine has a ‘dosage’ added at bottling; ‘dry’ champagne only tastes that way because it’s been sweetened! And because of the ‘shock’ to the wine during disgorgement, champagne was typically stored for many months at a steady temperature, often in underground caves and quarries, before being sold.

I set out the process in some detail so illustrate how, in Champagne, uniquely among French wine regions, the process of wine-making following the first fermentation is much more of an industrial process than in, for example, Burgundy or Bordeaux. This was important because it led to the widespread differentation between grower and ‘negociante’, or producer. Grapes would be grown within the geographic boundary of Champagne, and sold to the négociantes in the towns and villages, overwhelmingly in Épernay and Reims, where the process of secondary fermatation, remouage, disgorgement and storing would take place.

Champagne bottles at Lanson - Reims ©S.-Millot-Coll

Champagne bottles at Lanson – Reims ©S.-Millot-Coll

Although many champagne producers grow their own grapes,the larger marques complement their own production by buying in grapes, or grape juice, even the finished wine in bottle. This is called buying wine ‘sur lattes’, and their only role is the disgorgement, the dosage, the bottling and the labelling. This is one explanation for the standard bottle – for example, remove the label from Moet & Chandon Imperial, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label and Taittinger, and the bottle is the same. So the best-known producers are heavily into blending, to try and maintain a consistent house style. They’ll blend from different growers, different grape varieties, even different years. Vinography.com explain the point better than I could: “most of the people in Champagne that own vineyards don’t actually make wine, any more than avocado farmers usually make guacamole.”

In order to call their wine champagne, the grapes, as well as being one of the 7 permitted varieties, must be grown within the geographic boundary of the AOC area of champagne.

Such is the succses of champagne, demand for grapes far outstrips supply, so there is a sellers’ premium for the grapes. Permitted yields in champagne, to comply with the AOC restrictions, are huge – the second highest permitted yields of any AOC wines in France. Grape growers are rewarded for the volume of grapes, or grape must, rather than the quality.

All of the Grand Marques have prestigious champagnes, grown from single village Grand Crus or Premier Crus, or single year (vintage) wines, but their most commonly available wines (the biggest of the lot is Moet & Chandon, producing over 30 million bottles a year) will be made from any permitted grape juice they can get hold of, blended to their house style, and dosed to world-market tastes.

This just cannot be spun as a commitment to quality. We buy these wines to celebrate occasions, not for wine-tasting.

So, let’s move on. What’s the good news?

Champagne De Telmont - Damery © E.Vidal-Coll ADT Marne 1444

Champagne De Telmont – Damery © E.Vidal-Coll ADT Marne 1444

More and more growers are bottling and producing their own champagne. They conform to the traditional French wine-growing mantra that wine is made in the vineyard. Warming climate and better viniculture technology means that growers can ripen their grapes, vinify varieties and parcels separately, and go through the blending process just as growers in Bordeaux would, seeking the best combination of wine, rather than trying to maximise volumes of a house style.

The extra ripeness means these wines sometimes need only minimal dosage, or even none at all. So you’re tasting their wine, not the dosage. And good champagne is typically aged for several years following disgorgement.

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