The image of a bubbly wine, in a flute, inevitably evokes an association with one particular wine: Champagne. The wine that we usually uncork on special occasions to celebrate the good in life. The wine that is cherished by both wine aficionados and wine newbies for its fine bubbles, beautiful perlage, seemingly endless nuances, and exquisite taste.
Can you tell? We love champagne! But do we really know everything there is to know about Champagne? This fascinating wine can only be called Champagne if it is made using a special process that requires a lot of dedication and patience: the Champenoise method. Thanks to it, Champagne obtains not only its characteristic bubbles, but also its complexity in aroma and flavor.
In this article, we will not only tell you about the Champenoise method. You will also learn about the different classifications of Champagne, and what are the major differences between this sparkling wine, Cava and Prosecco, two wines that share similarities with Champagne.
Champagne is a sparkling wine made in France. Of course, not all sparkling wine can be called Champagne. A sparkling wine must have a number of characteristics to have the Champagne appellation:
The Champagne region covers an area of about 35000 ha, spread across 319 villages. The climate, soil, subsoil and topography create a very distinct terroir which gives the wine unique characteristics.
The subsoil is limestone, predominantly chalk. Chalky soil is stony and free-draining. Deposited organic matter can decompose rapidly, making them difficult to keep fertile. Exactly the harsh environment needed to produce wines of distinction and high acidity making them easy to pair with many foods.
The Champagne region is influenced by both Oceanic and Continental climates offering regular rainfalls throughout the year. The chalky soil, coupled with abundance of sunshine, provide the ideal condition to drain the excess water in summer. But those same conditions present a bug threat for growers in winter and spring. Especially in the last few years, Champagne growers have lost as much as 50% of their yields to late frost in Spring. This is putting an upward pressure on prices.
The most important areas for the cultivation of grapes for Champagne are:
This region is located between the Marne and Vesle Rivers, extending 30 km from east to west and 6 to 10 km from north to south. The most predominant plantings in this region are of the Pinot Noir variety, although Chardonnay can be found in Trépail and Villers-Marmery. The Champagne wines produced in this region have a very particular appeal, as they are robust, have a crispy palate and are very fragrant.
Vallée de la Marne (Marne Valley)
The Vallée de la Marne (the Marne Valley) region extends from Tours-sur-Marne and Epernay to the city of Paris, mainly along the right bank of the Marne River.
This region has two grand cru regions: Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne. But undoubtedly where the best quality Champagne is produced is in the grand cru Aÿ. In this area, the most delicate sparkling wines are produced, with an exceptional body and a very delicate nose.
This region is located a few kilometers from Epernay, and borders the Brie de Champagne plateau, covering 10 to 15 km. White grape varieties are usually grown here, the most cultivated variety being Chardonnay, with 95% of the production.
The champagnes produced in this region have the term “blanc de blancs”. Côte des Blancs´has 6 grand cru regions:
Côte de Sézanne is a region located southeast of Étoge. Although it is technically an extension of the Côte des Blancs, it is considered an independent sub-region. Côte de Sézanne has 1417 hectares of vineyards, of which 75.1% are devoted to Chardonnay, 18.6% to Pinot de Noir and 6.2% to Pinot Meunier.
This region, located 40 km northeast of Chablis, accounts for 1/5 of Champagne production. Aube is made up of Cotes des Bar, Bar sur Aube, Bar sur Seine, the Montgueux mound and a small portion of vineyards located south of Sezanne.
The main grapes grown in this region are:
The Cru classification is a scale used to establish the quality levels of the different Crú (on a village rather that site level) in France. It takes into account factors such as:
In an effort to not repeat the Champagne riots of 1910–1911, a classification system was designed that assigns a rating to the vineyards, in the Champagne region. This classification is composed of the following levels: Autre Crú, Premier Crú and Grand Cru. A percentage based system, known as the Échelle des Crus (“ladder of growth”), acts as a pro-rate system for determining grape prices. According to this classification, the price per kilo of grapes will be more or less negotiable at the time of the transaction between the winegrowers and the Maison de Champagne (buyers).
Although there are 7 different types of authorized grapes, the most commonly used ones are:
These three varieties account for about 99% of the region’s plantings.
The above grape varieties play an important but more of a support role. Winemakers use them judiciously to accentuate a desired taste or flavour profile.
Champagne can be of 3 types depending on the grape varieties used in its making:
Also, during the second fermentation of Champagne, sugar and yeast are added, in a procedure known as Dosage. Depending on the amount of sugar added in the Dosage, it is possible to obtain different sweetness levels:
As the name suggest, Grower Champagne is crafted by grape growers and their families. These are the independent vignerons and vigneronnes that are crafting artisanal, highly coveted Champagne wines. They grow grapes in their own vineyards and produce cuvées that reflect their distinct vineyards and style.
Our favourite grower champagne comes from a small winegrower, Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot. Champagne Lelarge-Pugeot dates back to 1799, an eighth-generation winery in the Premier Cru village of Vrigny on the rolling slopes of the Montagne de Reims. They’re a true family operation, led by parents Dominique Lelarge and Dominique Pugeot and their children, Clémence and Valentin.
Lelarge-Pugeot has been certified organic since 2014 and Demeter-certified biodynamic since 2017, farming 42 distinct parcels of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay at elevations of roughly 400 ft. Lelarge-Pugeot’s wines are styled in a minimalist fashion that brings a bright freshness teeming with energy while also delivering developed tertiary toasty and nougat nuances. This family is producing bubbles as juicy and immediately rewarding as they are age worthy. Truly distinct Champagne all around, earning The Independent’s Best Overall for their top Champagnes of 2021.
The other two types of champagne producers are:
Making champagne is as much as art as it science and blending is at its epicentre. Champagne, as mentioned above, is made using the Champenoise method (aka traditional method or the Champagne method), a method very similar to the one used in Cava. This consists of a series of steps, which we will explain below:
1_First fermentation: In the first step of the Champenoise method (or the Champagne method), still wine is produced. This wine does not yet have the characteristic bubbles of Champagne, but it will be the basis for a good final result.
Generally, white grapes such as Chardonnay are used to obtain a Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and black grapes such as Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier to make a Blanc de Noirs style Champagne. After selecting the grapes, they are pressed to obtain grape juice. This is how the still wine is obtained.
2_Blending: In this step, the particular blending of the wines of each Champagne house is carried out. For this, still wines from different vintages are usually blended to achieve a wine with a unique profile. A small amount of stillred wines can also be added to white wines to obtain a Rosé champagne.
3_Second fermentation: In the second fermentation the magic happens: here the characteristic bubbles appear. For this, the wine is first bottled, and then a small amount of sugar and yeast is added. After this, is placed a crown cap in the bottle and the bottle is left to settle horizontally. The second fermentation starts when the yeast begins to convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since it cannot leave the bottle, the carbon dioxide remains inside the bottle, in the form of bubbles
4_Lees aging: At this stage, the Champagne remains in contact with the lees (a by-product of secondary fermentation) for a period of time. The time will vary depending on the type of Champagne to be made:
This process is key to giving Champagne bread dough notes in aroma and flavor, as well as adding complexity to the wine.
5_Riddling: After the wine has been in contact with the lees for some time, they are expelled from the bottle. But before that, the Riddling process must be performed.
6_Disgorgement: Through this process, the yeast cells and sediments are removed from the Champagne. In the particular case of Champagne, this process is usually done manually, unlike what happens in Cava.
7_Dosage: Here, a small part of wine is added to replace what was lost in the previous step, with a particular amount of sugar. This amount will depend on the type of wine you want to achieve (Extra Brut, Brut, Sec, Demi Sec…).
8_Corking: After the dosage is added, it is time to place the champagne corks in the bottles. The corks are then covered by a wire cage, which prevents the champagne corks from coming out of the bottle despite the internal pressure. Once the bottle is corked, it is usually left to settle for a few weeks to several years, depending on the winery and the desired style of Champagne. This process is key to giving Champagne bread dough notes in aroma and flavor, as well as adding complexity to the wine.
Vintage Champagne demotes a wine that is made from the grapes in a single year. It does not denote that the Champagne is old. Non-vintage Champagne, on the other hand, is a blend from harvests from different years. In addition, vintage wine must be aged for a minimum of three years in the bottle, as opposed to 15 months for non-vintage wines. Typically, wine producers opt out for vintage wine in exceptional years. Aging, requires both time and space and adds cost to the wine. Then, there is the prestige factor. As such, expect to pay more for vintage wine.
One of the wines that share many similarities with Champagne is Cava. However, they also have some differences that will help you distinguish them:
Champagne is a fantastic sparkling wine associated with elegance, originating from France. Despite the similarities it has with wines such as Cava, Champagne wines are more expensive due to the method used and the factors that influence their production. In addition, the type of grapes used in each wine ends up giving a distinctive flavor profile, although both will have a strong citrus presence in flavor and aroma. Despite the differences, both wines are a great option to enjoy sparkling wines, with great presence of bubbles, and combine them with a delicious meal. In the particular case of Champagne wines, they pair very well with a wide range of foods, including mushroom dishes. Finally, if you want to build or strengthen you Champagne Brand, then our articles about how to develop your authentic brand history and how to create your own wine brand will be really helpfull.