Champagne is commonly known as the celebratory sparkling wine for wedding toasts and ringing in the new year. It may come as a surprise that you may not be drinking actual Champagne unless the wine was produced in a small region of France that is located 90 miles northeast of Paris. That’s right – unless the bottle was produced in the Champagne region, it cannot legally be called “Champagne.”
The French are so obsessed with this rule that the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne has established the Champagne Bureau in Washington, DC, to protect the name. This obsession over protecting “Champagne” may seem extreme, but the traditions, regulations and climate of this region are what make Champagne unique.
There are three major grapes grown in the Champagne region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. A Champagne house can create a particular style by blending these grapes in different combinations. For example, if a lighter body is desired predominantly white grapes will be used in the blend. If a fuller wine is desired, more red grapes will be used. A wine label displaying “blanc de blanc” (“white from white”) indicates that the bottle is made solely from Chardonnay, while “blanc de noir” (“white from black”) indicates that the wine is made from red grapes. Champagne made from red grapes isn’t red because the grapes are carefully pressed so that the skins are not left in contact with the must, or juice.
The price of Champagne can range from affordable to incredibly expensive. The price point generally increases across three types of Champagne: non-vintage, vintage and prestige cuvée. Non-vintage Champagne is the most common and accounts for over 80% of the wine produced in the region. These wines do not have a vintage year stamped on their labels and are instead a blend of multiple harvest years. Blending years allows the producer to give the wine a consistent taste from year to year.
Vintage Champagnes are made entirely of the vintage year’s harvest and are only produced when a producer feels that a particular year’s harvest was exceptional. Prestige cuvée is considered to be the best of the best (and the most expensive). It is made in small quantities during the best vintage years and contains hand-selected grapes from the most prestigious areas within the Champagne region.
A rather unique tradition to Champagne is the method in which it’s made, known as Méthode Champenoise. The process begins when the grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented. The producer is left with several different wines of single-grape varietals and single-vineyard origins and must decide how to blend them to create the desired flavor profile. The wine is then placed in bottles and undergoes a secondary fermentation to produce Champagne’s signature bubbles.
The bottles then go through the very laborious process of remuage when the bottles are slightly turned several times over a period of weeks until all the leftover sediment rests in the neck of the bottles. The sediment is removed and sugar is added to the wine to determine the level of sweetness in a process called le dosage. This step is an important indicator of how sweet the Champagne will be, which varies from the driest, extra brut, to the sweetest, doux
Despite the rules regarding the use of the word “champagne,” there are other areas of the world that also produce sparkling wine. There is cava from Spain, sekt from Germany , spumante from Italy and sparkling wine from the United States. In fact, many French champagne makers own property in California and sometimes even share the same winemaker. But in order to give a true Champagne toast, the wine must be from Champagne.
Three major grapes grown in the Champagne region: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay.
“Blanc de Blanc” – wine made solely from Chardonnay
“Blanc de Noir” – wine is made from red grapes
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How to Open Champagne
Refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours or chill in an ice bucket for 15 to 20 minutes.
Hold the bottle by the neck while covering the cork with your thumb to prevent any surprise explosions.
Use your free hand to undo the wire and carefully remove it.
Grasp the cork in the palm of your hand and twist the base of the bottle.
Continue to twist until the cork gently comes out on its own.
If done correctly, the pop should be barely audible. There should never be foam-over.
Slowly pour down the inside of a tulip or flute glass.