A little history of Champagne
Champagne has long been known as a wine-growing region. Originally it was mainly monks who tended the vines and pressed the wine that the church needed for the holy mass. However, the region first received special attention with Bishop Remigius von Reims, who baptized the Franconian King Clovis I on Christmas 496 - with wine from Champagne. Later it became a tradition that the kings of France were crowned in Champagne, in the city of Reims. Of course, the celebration was followed by champagne wine.
Around 1200, the famous sparkling wine is actually mentioned in a play, but the production is still surrounded by great difficulties, since it was not yet understood how the second fermentation of the wine occurs. All too often there is no second fermentation at all or the wines explode under the excessive pressure.
The book “The Man of Mode” was the first to mention Champagne wine as sparkling fun in England, and champagne quickly enjoyed growing popularity. French winemakers then began to refine their methods, making more and better wine and gaining control over the second fermentation. At that time, champagne was the only real wine with mousseux - i.e. foam.
At the Federation Festival, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, champagne was reserved to act as a worthy drink for the revolutionaries, and later at the post-Napoleon Congress of Vienna, it was champagne again that cheered the feasts and banquets .
The Congress of Vienna is now more than 200 years in the past and since then there has hardly been a major treaty or major event in world history where champagne has not played a role. Ships are christened with champagne, champagne can be found at topping-out ceremonies, in short: the achievement of a great deed and a new common future is celebrated with champagne.
The rules of champagne
Champagne is a protected designation of origin, in French Appellation d'Origine Controlée or AOC for short. In order to be able to call themselves champagne, the grapes must be planted, harvested and also processed in Champagne.
But there are other regulations. Only certain grape varieties may be used. Also, only certain prunings may be carried out. There is a limit to how many vines can grow per hectare and how much product can come out of a press. A minimum alcohol content and a maturation time of at least 15 months in the bottle are specified for the champagne. Of course, the champagne must also be made according to the so-called "Méthode champenoise".
This is only the minimum of regulations that champagne is subject to. Higher qualities of liquid gold, such as a vintage champagne, require an even stricter corset and, of course, controls.
The Pinot Noir is a grape variety for the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bar. The cool limestone soils of this region are perfect for the grape and offer the red wine aroma and a distinct character. The Pinot Noir brings power and volume to the champagne. The Pinot Noir occupies about 38% of the acreage.
The Meunier grape is also red. It drives out late and is therefore not as susceptible to frost. This grape also masters other climatic challenges. It thrives primarily on the clayey soils of the Vallée de la Marne. In terms of taste, the Meunier grape is soft and fruity and therefore goes well with the Pinot Noir. Meunier is grown on about 32% of the area.
With the Chardonnay, a white grape can finally be found in champagne. These vines, which also gave the region its name, are found primarily in the Côte des Blancs. The Chardonnay grapes offer the champagne floral notes and perhaps a hint of citrus. Chardonnay is grown on about 30% of the area
Other varieties include Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane and Petit Meslier. However, they are only cultivated on around 0.3% of the area and thus play a rather subordinate role.
Terroir describes the geography of a wine-growing region and the terroir of Champagne is probably unique. At 49° or 49.5°, Champagne is very far north for a wine-growing region. From the 50th degree of latitude, an area is considered difficult for viticulture.
Thanks to some unique factors, Champagne has nevertheless managed to establish itself well. The climate is a unique blend of continental and maritime climates. There is the regular and reliable rainfall of the maritime climate as well as the pronounced seasonality of the continental climate. The northern location offers the Champagne with about 1650 hours of sunshine a rather manageable solar power and with an average temperature of 11°C the area is rather cold when compared to other wine-growing regions. As a result, the vines grow rather slowly and the ripeness of the grapes is shown by a special finesse.
The soils of Champagne are characterized by their high lime content. This has a very good effect on the drainage of the soil and, in combination with the almost ideal precipitation conditions, leads to a fantastic water balance in the region. This interplay gives the grapes a distinctly mineral note.
The relief is the third part of the terroir description. The Champagne is characterized by distinctive hilly landscapes. Almost the entire viticulture takes place on slopes and therefore knows how to use the sun's rays optimally.
The terroir of Champagne is divided into the areas of La Montagne de Reims, La Côte des Blancs, La vallée de la Marne and La Côte des Bar, each with their own subtleties and characteristics.
The production of champagne
After the harvest, the processing of the grapes begins. The winegrowers have to comply with strict rules. The type of pressing, the amount of grapes in the pressing, the origin of the pressed grapes and, last but not least, hygiene are subject to strict regulations. Every winemaker keeps a cellar book in which for each "Marc", i.e. a pressing, it is precisely recorded which grapes were pressed from which location. The pressing is sorted.
Only 25.5 hectoliters of must can be obtained from 4 tons of grapes. Most champagne grapes are colored and release their color into the must when pressed intensively. The first part with less coloring is called the cuvee. It takes up most of the pressing. The cuvée produces particularly sweet but also acidic wines with great complexity and subtle aromas. The tails obtained later, although also very sweet, are less acidic and cannot be stored for so long. It also contains significantly more dyes.
The pressed juice is then mixed with sulfur dioxide. This sulfur treatment has an antiseptic effect and ensures good processing by keeping unwanted bacteria and fungi and other germs away. The antioxidant effect ensures that the ingredients of the wine do not change through contact with the air and ensures the quality of the champagne.
The must is then fermented and the wine is produced. The alcoholic fermentation converts the sugar in the must into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Many other elements and aromas are created as by-products of this fermentation, which represent the sensory profile of the wine.
Some winemakers go through a second fermentation, malolactic fermentation. Here the malic acid is converted into lactic acid, which means that some aromas can develop even more intensively. Malolactic fermentation is not mandatory and some winemakers deliberately forego it in order to preserve the freshness and floral notes of the champagne.
After fermentation, the wine is clarified and filtered so that any solids and suspended matter are not included in the final product. The so-called "Vin clair", base wine for further processing, is created. Of course, it is also precisely recorded here which must from which grape from which terroir found its way into the wine, so that the origin can be traced.
Only now does the assemblage take place, the union of wines from different locations, vintages and grape varieties. In the assemblage of the different Vins Clair, the character of the champagne is formed and various complementary properties are combined to create the desired champagne. This is where it is decided whether the champagne will be, for example, a Blanc des Blancs, a Blanc des Noirs, a vintage champagne or a Grand Cru.
The champagnes are now being bottled and stored. A mixture of yeast and sugar is added to the wine, which will unfold during storage. The sugar often comes from sweet wines or from the grapes in the champagne production itself. Only here do the typical champagne notes and the fine perlage come into the champagne. The bottles may not be stored before January 1st, which gives the winemaker enough time between harvest and storage to process the wine into such a high-quality product.
Now follows the long maturation period that makes the champagne so unique. The champagne has to mature on the yeast for at least 15 months. During this time the yeast will work, die off and be completely decomposed and the typical aroma will develop. a vintage champagne even has to be stored for at least 3 years. Many champagne producers also voluntarily wait longer to give the champagne more time to develop.
By the way, EU legislation provides for a maturing period of 90 days for sparkling wines. It quickly becomes apparent again why champagne and other sparkling wines such as Prosecco or sparkling wine are so different.
The types of champagne
A brut champagne is a classic champagne in many ways. The French word brut means tart and characterizes a wine or champagne with very little residual sweetness. They may contain a maximum of 15 grams of residual sugar per liter. The “Extra Brut” award is even harsher.
A champagne demi sec is significantly sweeter than the classic brut champagne. It may contain a residual sugar of 32-50 grams of sugar per liter. If the champagne contains even more residual sweetness, then it is called a Doux.
A rosé champagne is particularly noticeable because of its color. It can range from a delicate touch to a strong pink. It is created by combining dark, red grapes with delicate whites. The taste ranges from very light to full-bodied.
Blanc de Noirs
A Champagne Blanc de Noirs is a white champagne made from dark grapes. Pinot Noir and Meunier varieties are often used for it. The red color of the berries is often in the skin and can be retained by the right pressing process before it ends up in the must. Blanc de Noirs champagnes combine the fruitiness and richness inherent in these grapes.
Blanc de Blancs
A Champagne Blanc de Blancs consists only of white fruits. For classic champagnes, the Pinot Noir and Meunier grape varieties are mainly used, which are deliberately avoided here. The Blanc de Blancs therefore often consists of Chardonnay. The assemblage is particularly difficult here, but worthwhile. A Blanc de Blancs is a very subtle champagne.
A cru refers to a wine-growing community. It is a unique combination of grape variety and terroir. With Grand Cru, the highest quality Crus are awarded, which are particularly popular and expensive due to their special quality. A Grand Cru Champagne contains only grapes of this special quality.
Vintage or Millesime
A champagne vintage 2006 is a champagne whose grapes were harvested and processed in 2006. The word Millesime, French for vintage, is also often used. A vintage champagne is often of a higher quality than a classic champagne because it has been matured for at least 3 years. There is also a champagne vintage only in special years - years with favorable weather conditions.
Tasting and enjoying champagne
The shape of the glass has a significant impact on the taste of the champagne. Like other wines, champagne interacts with the oxygen in the air and only develops its full aroma after breathing a little. On the other hand, there is only a limited perlage until the carbon dioxide has balanced out. Various glass shapes have been developed to do justice to these two opposites.
First came the champagne glass. This is a wide, rather flat glass, often elaborately designed. The champagne glass exudes the charm of the "Golden 20s" and the love of life after the great war. The champagne can breathe well in it and is therefore often perceived as mild and aromatic. Unfortunately, the champagne quickly loses perlage due to the low height of the glass. The bubbles can hardly unfold and cannot transfer their effect to the wine. Nowadays it is therefore hardly recommended to choose this glass shape.
In order to preserve and develop the perlage for longer, the second glass shape was developed: the champagne flute. It is a very tall, narrow glass with thin walls and a tall stem. In the flute, the champagne is only exposed to the air to a small extent and the perlage is therefore preserved for a long time and really comes into its own.
However, a slightly modified flute is considered to be the optimal glass shape. The glass should be shaped like a tulip: slightly bulbous in the middle and slightly tapered again at the rim. Of course, the high and elongated shape of the flute is retained. Perlage and aroma can only unfold to the same extent and fully in this glass shape.
Preparation is almost more important than presentation, because only with the right preparation can the taste of the champagne really come into its own. The champagne should be stored cool in the dark at 10-12°, but served chilled at around 8°. A cooler with ice and water is ideal for this, in which the bottle is stored for about 20 minutes before the wine is tasted.
Glasses should be hand washed without soap. Soap residue from the hand sink or the dishwasher can have a negative effect on the perlage of the champagne. The head of foam may then form only briefly or not at all. The taste can also be influenced by this and not develop or, in the worst case, be overshadowed. After washing by hand, the glasses should be air dried upside down. A towel can leave fibers and other marks that unnecessarily affect the experience.
The bottle is opened
A noble bottle of champagne also deserves a high-quality presentation. That starts with the right uncorking. The cork should be gently gripped and rotated. The rotation gives the hand more control over the cork and can react well when the cork comes loose. When pouring, the bottle is held by the lower, bulbous part and the indentation on the bottom serves as a holding point for the thumb. This allows great control in the tipping process.
An alternative opening option is the champagne saber. This sabrage comes from the Napoleonic Wars, when cavalry officers began to behead champagne bottles with their sabers at victory celebrations. What began as a sign of skill with the saber is no less practice-intensive today and is not a matter for beginners.