Ask any Frenchman (or woman) and they’ll tell you that Champagne can only come from France. No, they’re not just being patriotic – by European law only sparkling wines from a small region in northern France which are made in a specific way can bear the illustrious name “Champagne”.
At this point you might be thinking, “so Champagne is just a fancy name for a sparkling wine from France?” The truth is that Champagne has a number of unique characteristics which make it taste completely different from, for example, Prosecco or sparkling wines made in the U.S.A.
How Is Champagne Made?
First of all, Champagne must be made according to a strict set of rules and regulations. All Champagnes have to be produced using the “méthode champenoise”, a special technique for making sparkling wine which has been used for centuries in the region. According to legend, the method was accidentally discovered by a 17th century monk called Dom Perignon who was in charge of the cellar at Hautvillers. “Come quickly, I am tasting stars!”, he is said to have cried out when he tasted his very first glass of bubbly.
Today the story is viewed as a marketing spiel created in the 19th century, but the process of crafting Champagne is still full of romance and beauty. The first step is to create a still wine which is then blended to create the perfect cuvee. The winemaker then adds what is called “liqueur de tirage” which contains water, yeast and sugar. This combo kickstarts a second fermentation process.
While the first fermentation is usually done in a stainless steel tank, this time round the fermentation is carried out inside the sealed bottle. This makes sure that the carbon dioxide gas which are naturally produced during fermentation are trapped and creates those delicate bubbles which we expect in our glass of Champagne!
Lengthy Ageing Process
Another way in which Champagne is different from many other sparkling wines is the long ageing process. Champagne must be aged on the ‘lees” or the dead yeast cells for at least 12 months, followed by an additional 3 months in the bottle. Many top quality producers, like Paul Michel whose Champagnes we recently brought over in a special shipment from France, age their Champagnes for far longer than this.
Although this might not sound very appetising, the lees give Champagne its characteristic biscuity or toasty flavours and complexity. In comparison, Prosecco producers are only required to age their wines for 90 days which creates a much simpler style of wine.
You don’t need to worry about having dead yeast cells floating in your glass, though. Before the Champagne is released for sale it undergoes what is called “degorgement” or “disgorging”. Over the course of several weeks the bottles are slowly turned upside down so the lees collect in the neck of the bottle. The winemaker then freezes the neck of the bottle so that when the bottle is opened the frozen yeast cells fly out under pressure.
The final stage is to add a bit of wine to replace the amount lost during disgorging. At this point there is also the option to add a bit of sugar. This is optional and determines how sweet or dry the finished Champagne will be. Then the bottle is sealed up with the classic mushroom-shaped Champagne corks and held in place with a wire muzzle.
A Cool Northerly Climate
Another key factor that goes into making top Champagnes is the cool northerly climate of the Champagne region. The relatively short ripening season and possibility of cool days even in summer make this ideal territory for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The cool conditions also help to preserve acidity and limit the amount of sugar that will be found in the grapes. This is ideal for making light and elegant sparkling wines with a good balance between freshness and the rich toasty flavours from the ageing process.
How To Serve Champagne
The best way to serve Champagne is to chill it in your fridge for at least a couple of hours. Today there are a whole range of different Champagne glasses available depending on your exact preferences. If you want to emphasise those pretty bubbles, try serving it in a tall flute. If you’re more interested in the flavours and aromas of the Champagne, try the broad and shallow coupe glass. You can also serve Champagne in normal wine glasses if you don’t have flutes or coupe glasses and you don’t want to buy extra glassware.
So now you’ve learned what makes Champagne so special, you need to pour yourself a glass or two and enjoy it for yourself! We highly recommend trying Paul Michel’s Premier Cru Champagne which has just arrived in the somMailier office direct from France. This top family-owned Champagne house was founded in 1847 and boasts 20 acres of predominantly Premier Cru and Grand Cru vineyards. This particular Champagne is a Blanc de Blancs which means it is only made from Chardonnay grapes. It’s the perfect light and elegant sparkling wine to serve as an aperitif or with fresh seafood.