What is Champagne?
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced only in the Champagne region of France. It is made from specified grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier sourced from its villages.
Where is the Champagne Region?
It is found about 140 km west of Paris near the northern limits of of vineyard plantings (along the 49th parallel).
How is champagne made?
Grapes are hand-harvested in the beginning of September and transported immediately to the pressing stations where they are carefully “pressed.” Only the first pressing, the “cuvee” is used.
The juice is then stored for about a day or so in large vats for settling out of large solids.
The settled juice is then stored in oak barrels, large oak vats or “Foudres” or stainless steel tanks for the first fermentation.
Assemblage: The blending of the juice which is now called the “Vin Clair” occurs in the first few months of the year following the harvest. The “Chef de Cave” the blending expert, will choose which grape juice types and from which vineyards he or she wishes to combine into the specific champagne cuvée.
One of the ways a house maintains consistency in its cuvées is to use a solera system. This is the repetitive process of adding a portion of the annual vintage wine to the previously saved vintages while withdrawing the same amount from the blend.
The second fermentation now takes place which produces a fully sparkling champagne wine.
The wine is placed into the champagne bottle and the “liqueur de tirage,” a mixture of champagne wine, sugar and yeast is added and the bottle is capped. This fermentation occurs over 3 weeks to 3 months but the aging process continues in the cellars. The spent yeast sediment is then encouraged towards the bottle cap by certain manual or mechanical movements (Remuage).
In a special process called Disgorgement, this sediment is expelled from the bottle and the lost volume is replaced with “liqueur d’expedition” which is a mixture of still champagne and a variable amount of sugar known as Dosage. This will play a part in the residual sugar, which one of the determinants of the “Style.”
A cork, muselet (wire cage) and foil wrapper are applied.
Non vintage (multi year cuvées) must age at least 15 months while vintage (single year cuvées) must age at least 3 years. Most champagnes are in fact aged for longer periods.
What information can be found on a label?
A label is placed on the front of the bottle, and sometimes on the back too, stating specific mandatory items and other consumer information. The following is information presented on a Champagne label:
- The words ‘Appellation Champagne’ (clearly displayed)
- The style of wine as defined by level of sweetness or dosage (Brut, Demi-Sec, Sec…)
- The brand of Champagne.
- Percentage of alcohol by volume (% vol).
- Bottle capacity (l, cl or ml).
- Name of the producer or company name, followed by the name of the commune where that producer is registered (plus the trading address, if different) and the country of origin (France).
- The registration and code number issued by the Comité Champagne, preceded by two initials that indicate the category of producer – see abbreviations below.
- Batch code (sometimes stamped on the bottle itself).
- Allergen content (eg sulphur dioxide, sulphites, etc – sometimes mentioned on the back label).
- The warning ‘Drinking even small amounts of alcohol when pregnant can harm your unborn child’ or the symbol (required by certain countries).
- The Green Dot symbol indicating that the collection and sorting of packaging waste is financed by producers and retailers.
- Where appropriate, the vintage and specific details relating to the type of cuvee (whether Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Blanc de Noirs, etc.),
- Optional information included at the producer’s discretion (the varietals used, date of disgorgement, sensory characteristics, suggested food-and-wine pairings, etc).
(Image and label contents sited from Champagne.fr)
Who Makes Champagne?
Champagne makers can be categorized in many different ways. The following are designations that can be found on the label that can inform the drinker of how the champagne is composed and/or produced.
NM : Négociant manipulant. A person or legal entity that buys grapes, grape must or wine to make Champagne on their own premises and market it under their own label.
All of the big Champagne Houses belong in this category.
RM : Récoltant manipulant. A grower who makes and markets Champagne under their own label, from grapes exclusively sourced from their own vineyards and processed on their own premises.
RC : Récoltant-coopérateur. A cooperative-grower who markets co-op produced Champagne under their own label.
CM : Coopérative de manipulation. A wine co-op that markets Champagne made from members’ grapes.
SR : Société de Récoltants. A family firm of growers that makes and markets Champagne under its own label, using grapes sourced from family vineyards.
RC : Récoltant coopérateur. Un récoltant coopérateur reprend de sa coopérative des vins en cours d’élaboration ou prêts à être commercialisés à la clientèle.
ND : Négociant distributeur. A distributor who buys in finished bottles of Champagne for labelling on their own premises.
MA : Marque d’Acheteur. An ‘own brand’ wine label produced exclusively for one client (supermarket, celebrity or other).
(Abbreviations sited from Champagne.fr)
Blanc de Blancs
“White of whites,” that is white wine made only from white grapes (Chardonnay). Young wines tend to have significant brightness (acidity) and mild citrus notes. Upon maturing, more fullness to the fruit comes forward and notes of toast or biscuit appear.
Blanc de Noirs
“White of blacks,” that is white wine from dark or black grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier).
Pink champagne is generally made by blending a small amount of still red champagne wine into the cuvée. An alternate method (Saignee) is to “bleed” the red color of crushed black grapes into the cuvée.
The level of sugar added after the disgorgement effects the final sweetness or lack thereof. Low or zero dosage provides a “dryer” style is called Brut Nature or zero dosage. Brut is an intermediate sugar level. Finally, sweeter styles include Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-sec and Doux.
- Brut Nature or zero dosage: 0-3
- Extra brut 0-6 g/l
- Brut 0-12 g/l.
- Extra dry 12-17 g/l
- Sec 17-32 g/l
- Demi-sec 32-50 g/l
- Doux 50+ g/l