Choose a bottle of champagne is never easy for the amateur without having special knowledge about wines, terroir, grape varieties or manufacturing techniques. This shopping guide allows you to become familiar with the words of champagne, which are not necessarily the same as for wine, and make an informed choice according to your tastes, dishes and of course depending on the price.
In order to be labeled as “Champagne,” it must be produced in the Champagne region in the Northeast of France. Champagne is the only wine for which the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) appellation of origin indication is not mandatory. However, the label must indicate the name of the producer and the municipality where it has its headquarters.
The different types, or “crus” of champagne
“Brut” non vintage
It is a champagne made from grape varieties, years and different regions to maintain the typical taste of the mark as constant as possible; hence the importance of the dosage, the brand signature. Combining typically a third of Chardonnay, a third of Pinot Noir and a third of Pinot Meunier, it is aged for 18 months in the cellar before being sold.
Composed exclusively from grapes of the same year, combines different grape varieties and regions, and must have been aged at least three years in the cellar. Its taste can vary from one year to another. Depending on the brand, only the good years are “millésimé”.
Champagne made 100% from grapes in a single classified municipality, typically those with the best soils.
Champagne made from grapes of which between 90 and 99% are from a single municipality.
“Cuvée spéciale”, “Brut reserve”, “Brut premier”, “Grande reserve”
These classifications have no regulatory significance. They correspond to a purely commercial approach of the great Champagne houses.
“Blanc de blancs”
Champagne made exclusively from “Chardonnay” grapes (white grape with white juice). The taste is generally lighter and the price is higher.
“Blanc de noirs”
White Champagne, more structured, from black grapes with white juice (“Pinot Noir” and “Pinot Meunier”).
It is made by adding a red wine from the region (usually from the village of Bouzy) to ordinary champagne or by leaving the macerated skins of the pinot noir grapes in the juice for period of time during the winemaking.
“Brut”, “sec” or “demi-sec”
Almost all champagnes are ”brut.” To earn this designation, they must no more than 15 grams of sugar per liter. The proportions are 17 to 35 g / liter for “sec” (dry) and 33-50 g / liter for “demi-sec” (medium dry). A “doux” (sweet) champagne contains more than 50 g / liter of sugar.
In order to forge a brand identity, essential in Champagne, that ensures the consumer a consistent taste, Champagne producers combine different wine-producing areas and various vintages. The downside of smoothing tastes, the differences between the “terroirs” (soils) and the sense of belonging to a particular appellation has been systematically erased.
Fortunately, some growers have taken up a search party for the expression of their terroir. After the overhaul of the geographical area of the appellation, renewed requests for classification of hills as UNESCO World Heritage sites from Champagne houses and cellars in 2014 have put the rediscovery of these lands back on the agenda.
The approximately 33 500 hectares of the Champagne appellation are divided into four main areas whose topography combined with one of the authorized grape varieties gives wines at very characteristic aromatic profile: in the center, the famous “Côte des Blancs;” in the northeast, the mountains of Reims; to the west of Epernay, the Marne valley; and in the South, the department of Aube.
Only three grape varieties are allowed in Champagne:
“Chardonnay” (white grape with white juice, comprising 30% of the plantings), mainly on the Côte des Blancs south of Epernay;
“Pinot Noir” (30%) in the Montagne de Reims and the coast of Bar;
“Meunier” (or “Pinot Meunier”), a rustic grape capable of giving the best results during difficult years. “Pinot Noir” and “Pinot Meunier” are both black grapes with white juice.
The different stages of the manufacture of champagne
After the harvest (hand picking because harvesting machines are prohibited), the grapes are gathered in batches of 4000 kg and quickly pressed in three successive phases. The first ten units of 205 liters that flow in the first pressing are called "cuvée ". The "marc" is then subjected to a second pressing which is allowed to obtain 410 liters of "première taille ". The third and final pressing of the "marc" gives 205 liters of ”deuxième taille” , intended for sub-brands because the quality decreases.
The must is fermented, typically like a still white wine (not sparkling), and left to rest for several months in vats.
The different grape varietals from different vintages and are then tasted and blended together with previous vintages of wines called "reserve wines" so that the result is harmonious and match the taste wanted by the brand. The quality and character of the wines are carefully overseen to preserve their highly distinctive style.
The wines are then bottled in the spring following the harvest. Before bottling, is the “tirage” whereby the “liqueur de tirage” is added: a mixture of wine, sugar (24 g per bottle) and yeast. The yeast will transform the sugar into alcohol and producing carbon dioxide responsible for the bubbles.
Secondary fermentation (aging on slats)
This secondary fermentation in the bottle is done in a low temperature cellar (11 ° C) and lasts from six weeks to two months. The bottles are then stored on horizontally on racks for at least fifteen months if a non-vintage brut or at least three years for vintage.
Riddling and Disgorging
After aging, , the bottles are disgorged , that is to say, purged of deposits due to the second fermentation. For four to six weeks, the bottles are placed upside down on riddling racks where they are rotated regularly to gradually let the deposits settle into the neck of the bottle against the cap. The neck of the bottles are then lowered into an ice solution and frozen, such that when the bottles are turned back upright and caps removed, the frozen deposits ejected from the bottles with the force of the built-up carbon dioxide.
Once the impurities are evicted, the bottles topped up with “liqueur de dosage” (prepared by melting sugar cane into wine and brandy). According to its sugar concentration, the champagne will be classified as brut, dry, semi-dry ... It only remains to reseal the bottles with cork and wire cage, before retaining about two to three months in the cellar before being sold.