All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne. In order to be classified as true Champagne, the sparkling wine must be made in the Champagne region of France. Any other sparkling wine that comes from another place is not true Champagne. If you would like to brush up on your Champagne knowledge, then you’ve come to the right place.
What Is Champagne?
Did you know Champagne is a place? It is located about ninety miles northeast of Paris, France. While vines have been producing wine in this region since the Roman era, it was only in the past 100 years that they started producing it in the technique associated with it today (sparkling wine).
Within this region, chalk and limestone soils are dominant, which result in wines very high in acidity (this is a key aspect of making good quality sparkling wine). The northern location, about as north as grapes are able to ripen, is actually what allows for higher acidity and lower alcohol levels.
It's generally the soils, vineyard conditions, and how the Champagne is made, that all have an effect on the final product.
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What is Champagne made of?
You will find 3 primary grapes used in Champagne production - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. While you will find a couple of other grapes allowed in the region, they account for a tiny proportion of the total plantings.
How is Champagne made?
The French have very strict regulations on how Champagne is made, unlike in the U.S. where methods of sparkling wine making are not regulated. They need to follow these steps:
Primary Fermentation: The grapes are traditionally harvested the same as other wines and begin their primary fermentation process. Afterwards, the wine contains between 10.5-11% alcohol and is very high in acid; you wouldn’t want to drink this yet! There are no bubbles in it yet.
Assemblage: Now the blending will begin. Wines from different vineyards and different grapes are blended together. The purpose is to produce a consistent, unmistakable flavor so that the consumer knows exactly what the wine will taste like each time you buy a bottle. Some wines can taste very different year after year, but Champagne makers aim to produce a ‘house style’ that is the same each year. Once they are blended thoroughly, they are bottled.
Liqueur de Tirage: Now, a precise amount of cane sugar and yeast are added into the bottle to being the second fermentation process. The bottle in which the process takes place has a long neck, and a dark green color.
Second Fermentation: Over the course of 1-3 weeks, the second fermentation process takes place. Afterwards, the bottles are laid on their side to rest and mature. According to French law, the bottles are required to age for 15 months for non-vintage Champagne, and at least 36 months for a vintage Champagne.
Remuage: During the aging process, yeast cells have settled at the bottom of the bottle. To remove them, the bottle must be carefully twisted by hand or with a machine. It can take up to two months if done by hand, or a week if done wit a machine. The idea is to get all of the sediment to the tip of the bottle to easily remove it.
Disgorging: Now the yeast must actually be removed. This is done by flash freezing the neck of the bottle so the yeast can carefully be removed. When the bottle cap is opened, the CO2 pushes the frozen yeast right out of the bottle.
Addition of the Liqueur d'Expedition: Because some of the Champagne was removed during the disgorging process, it is now topped up with a small amount of additional Champagne.
Re-corking: The final step of the Champagne making process, the bottle is now corked with the famous Champagne cork and sealed with a wire cage. After a few months of resting time, the Champagne will be ready to be sold.
What are the different styles of Champagne?
Not all Champagne is the same. Depending on the grapes used, each Champagne will have its own unique characteristics.
- Blanc de Blanc: Blanc De Blanc means 'white of whites' and if refers to Champagne that is made exclusively from white Chardonnay grapes. This type of Champagne has a more crisp citrus flavor due to the white grapes.
- Blanc de Noir: Literally means 'white from black.' This Champagne uses black grapes, but still produces a white Champagne.
- Rosé: Is made by blending white wine and red wine together.
- Non-Vintage (NV): The wines are a variety of blends from different years. Champagne makers do this to achieve a consistent 'house style' for their consumers, so they can expect the same tasting Champagne each year.
- Vintage: Only produced during the grapes most exceptional years. All of the grapes used must come from the year stated on the bottle. Under 10% of the Champagne that is produced each year is vintage Champagne.
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