The Essence of Champagne
By W. Peter Hoyne
Since 496 AD, wines from the vineyards of Champagne were poured during the coronation of the kings of France, as it was the beverage of French nobility. Although Englishmen had documented adding fizz to their sparkling wine in 1662, it was the Benedictine Monk and cellar master, Dom Perignon who achieved recognition for pioneering improvements made to Champagne. There are 340 Champagne houses in existence today.
The chalky sub-soils remain part of Champagne’s identity, providing nutrients for varietals that dwell deep into the landscape. Only those sparkling wines that adhere to the strict standards of the Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC) are allowed the protected name of Champagne. The cool moderating weather, moisture retaining calcium soil and high annual rainfall provide sustenance for the vines while preserving the freshness and vibrancy of the grapes. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier dominate this terrain and are the backbone of Champagne. Distributed across this region are 320 villages referred to as cru’s with 17 ranked as the most prestigious Grand Cru and 42 at the next lower tier of Premier Cru.
After grapes achieve their optimum ripeness during harvest, whole clusters must be hand-picked and gently pressed. When the first fermentation is complete, it is the task of the cellar master to compose the blend “assemblage” of finished wines. Different vineyards, vintages and varietals of reserve wines are selected to create a style that represents the distinctive personality and signature of the champagne house. A higher percentage of Chardonnay will create a caressing and elegant personality, while a greater proportion of Pinot Noir yields a firm and heady champagne that flaunts its strength. Blanc de Blancs, or white from white, is a designation used for champagne made primarily from Chardonnay. Blanc de Noirs is made from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier, creating a fuller expression with a textured mouth-feel. The Cuvée de Prestige are the luxury bottlings and the ultimate expression from each house including the names of Krug, Dom Perignon, Roederer, Cristal and others.
The wine acquires its bubbles during the second fermentation as it ages in a sealed bottle with yeast cells and sugars. This is referred to as “Méthode Champenoise” or the traditional French method. Twelve months of aging on the yeast cells called “lees” is required in non-vintage years and three years in vintage years. As the wine spends more time in the bottle on the lees, it develops complex yeasty aromas and subtleties. After the aging process is complete, the dead yeast cells are extracted and drawn off during disgorging. The neck of the bottle is placed in an ice bath and frozen yeast cells are extracted and released from the bottle. An additional mixture of wine is added to replace the depleted volume and afterwards the bottle is corked with a wire closure.
Each bottle will be labeled according to the amount ‘dosage’ or sugar that was added to the final bottling. The levels of sweetness range from Brut Naturel, or bone dry, with no sugar; to Brut, which is very dry with unperceivable sugars; to Extra Dry, which has a hint of sweetness. Demi-Sec champagnes are noticeably sweet and can be paired with a pastry or with dessert.
The style you choose depends on your personal preference. If you’re a novice, you may want to introduce yourself to the Non-Vintage Extra Dry styles or perhaps those champagnes that have a higher percentage of Chardonnay in their blend. Over time, you will become a pro and acquire a taste for the more assertive and heavily toasted vintage dated Champagnes. Given time in the cellar, some of these Champagnes will evolve into glowing works of art. It is now time to relish the holidays and savor a glass of Champagne.