The wine that comes from a defined area in the north of France, around the valley of the River Marne and Reims, Epernay and Ay. It has a proud history, and it was the wine offered to the Kings of France at their Coronation. But, although the wines of the Champagne region were known since at least Roman times (the Romans built many of the great galleries cut out of the chalky limestone, where the cellars are now), they were not fully sparkling until the 18th century. The then cellarmaster at Hautvillers, Dom P6rignon, discovered both how to make up the blend of wines from different vineyards to preserve their quality and how, helped by the rediscovery of cork, it was possible to seal wine in bottles and thus to preserve the natural vivacity for which the region’s wines were already famous. The evolution of the Champagne method has produced the wine as we know it today, but it is now made within a smaller area than that used in the last century, and quality control is very strict. Even on a B.O.B., a code number enables the source of the wine to be quickly traced should there be any query about it.
There are many styles of Champagne and most of the great houses, including the grandes marques, have several. Until comparatively recently it was only the British who liked a really dry wine, but now various types are usually made: brut or ‘nature’ means that the wine contains little or no added sweetening; extra sec, extra dry, tressec mean that it is slightly sweetened; dry or sec will be sweetish; demi-sec is sweet; and doux very sweet. The latter is seldom seen today – it used to be popular in Imperial Russia – but some of the great houses make a ‘rich’ Champagne which can be a delectable wine. It is admirable for dessert or for times, such as late afternoon or if somebody is tired, when a bone-dry drink is not as enjoyable.
The wine, made from one year, although it is permitted to add up to 20% of the wine from another year to assist the quality.
The greater part of all Champagne made. By judicious blending of wines from different years, quality is maintained, although it should be remembered that often a Champagne establishment will make several qualities of wine, even of non-vintage.
Made either by allowing the skins of the black grapes in the vat to remain until they have just tinted the wine slightly, or else by blending in some of the red wine of the Champagne region. Champagne rose is usually non-vintage, but some houses do make a vintage pink.
Blanc de blancs:
Blanc de blancs literally means ‘white from whites’.
Most Champagne is a blend of the Pinot Noir (black) and Chardonnay (white) grapes. The white grapes give the wine finesse and delicacy, the black grapes give body and fragrance. But sometimes a Champagne will be made from white grapes only – this is usually very delicate and light. In spite of James Bond, it is by no means ‘the best’ Champagne: only a type which, in some circumstances, can be delicious (see below). There is also a blanc de noirs. from black grapes only, which is rarely seen outside the region.
Many of the great Champagne houses select an especially fine cuvie (vatting) to be kept apart when the wine is made. This is later presented as a supreme wine. It is, of course, more expensive than ordinary Champagnes, and may be put into a special, decorative bottle – there are even some matured in elegant decanters. Such wines are very fine and definitely in the ‘special occasion’ category. They are meant to be appreciated and it would be foolish, and indeed ostentatious, to serve them when a generally acceptable ‘party’ sort of wine is what is required. Among the better-known luxury winesare: Dom Perignon, Dom Ruinart, Diamant Bleu, Roederer Cristal, Mercier Reserve de 1’Empereur, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, and Chasteau de Irroy.
Although some of these are blanc de blancs, not all luxury Champagnes are; but most are labelled with a vintage. An additional explanation is required for Bollinger R.D.: the initials stand for ‘recently disgorged’, the wine being matured on its first cork for longer than usual, and the date of the disgorging being stated.
Champagne without a vintage date is ready to be enjoyed as soon as it is offered for sale. With vintage Champagne, it is generally true that the wine begins to be at its best from 7 to 12 years from its vintage, once it has been disgorged and is on its second cork. Wine left on its first cork can remain in good condition – in the cellars where it was made – for much longer than this. But once it is on its second cork, the wine begins to change and, eventually, decline so that, once it has been moved from its original cellars, its age must be observed because age alone is not necessarily a good thing in any wine. Old Champagne tends to darken in colour and lose its sparkle; it can still be a very good drink for those who like it but this is a personal preference.
They are the still wines of the region. These were known as vins nature de la Champagne; but the correct name now is Coteaux Champenois.
Champagne should be served at a refreshingly cool temperature, but not so chilled that it is impossible to enjoy the bouquet. Many authorities agree that the temperature of a cool cellar – about 37-46°F (5-8°C) – is ideal, except on a very hot day, when a slightly lower temperature may be more acceptable or on occasions when a sweetish wine may call for an even lower temperature. The wine should be chilled in either an ice-bucket, containing a mixture of ice and water (never ice alone, which will have little effect), or in a refrigerator. The former will chill the bottle faster as a rule. Do not keep wine long-term ‘on ice’ or in the refrigerator, as after some time it deteriorates and will taste and smell strange if left indefinitely.
The most important thing about Champagne or sparkling wine glasses is that they should be either goblet, tulip or flute shaped, and of reasonable size. The ‘saucer’ glass is always bad, with the possible exception of the type that is fairly deep with a hollow stem, within which the bubbles can rise. Champagne cocktail There are many variations on this, but basically it is usually made by rubbing a lump of sugar on the skin of an orange, to take on the ‘zest’, then adding a couple of drops of Angostura bitters to this. Put the sugar in a glass with a tablespoonful of brandy, and top up with Champagne. Variations include frosting the glass, using orange Curacao or strawberry vermouth instead of brandy. A surprising difference – and improvement – is achieved by allowing the sugar-Angostura-brandy mixture to stand for an hour before topping up with the sparkling wine.
This is the means whereby the greatest sparkling wine in the world – Champagne – is made, and is also the process used to make fine sparkling wines in other regions. If the Champagne method is used for sparkling wines in France – and in many other countries too – the fact will be stated on the label. Such wines cannot be cheap and, even though they may not all be of outstanding quality, none will be less than very good; in 8 years (from 1986) the term will not be permitted on any wines that are not actual Champagne.
Each of the great Champagne houses and establishments making sparkling wines by this method will have its own individual procedures but in general the process is essentially as follows. The base wine should be one with a fairly high degree of acidity (which is why most quality sparkling wines are white, and from northern vineyards), and be at least of moderate, but preferably of high, quality. The wine is made in the usual way. the various types of grapes being selected and blended according to the skill and experience of the maker. Then. in the spring, the various wines are made into the different cuvtes and the wine is bottled before the second fermentation can take place, and the prise de mousse (taking on of the sparkle) occurs when this fermentation begins in the bottle. The carbon dioxide cannot be given off and so is retained in the wine.
In former times, the first cork, made of cork, was fastened on to the bottle and held there by a metal clip, called an agrafe. But the rising price of cork has resulted in the increasing use of a crown cork for the first cork, which is clipped on to the top of the bottle; it contains a sliver of cork, plus a small plastic cup. into which the deposit drains. Use of the crown cork, originally much frowned on by many Champagne establishments, seems perfectly satisfactory, since a neutral plastic (lining the metal cap) has been perfected and the majority of Champagnes receive a crown cork as their first stopper today. It has been pertinently commented that there are far fewer corked bottles recently, because it is possible to achieve a more thorough sterilisation with a crown cork than an ordinary cork. Some houses, however, continue to use cork for the first corks of their luxury and vintage Champagnes. It is possible to see which type of cork has been used by looking at the neck of the bottle: if the agrafe has been put on, the neck will have a squared-off flange on to which the clip can be attached. If a crown cork has been used, the neck will have only a rounded flange.
Any sediment left in the wine is then made to adhere to this first cork by turning the bottle almost upside down with its neck in a rack (called apupitre). A band of men go round, shaking each bottle regularly by the base and giving it a slight turn, both to one side and so that it is progressively turned upside down. It can then be binned, still upside down, with the neck of one bottle resting in the punt of another; and can remain like this, with the wine still on its first cork, for years without deterioration. When required for selling the bottles are ‘disgorged’: that is, the agrafe and the first cork are removed – taking with them the sediment adhering to the cork – and the second cork is put in, together with any dosage, or sweetening, according to the type of wine it is wished to make (see brut). In former times, this was done by hand, very quickly, so as to lose as little as possible of the wine. Nowadays the process is simplified in most establishments by freezing the necks of the bottles. Thus the little lump of ice that comes out with the cork contains the sediment, and the bottle can then receive its dosage and any necessary topping-up. The second cork is topped by a metal cap, which prevents the wire muzzle that holds it down from biting into the cork. Then the bottle is ‘dressed’ with a foil capsule covering the cork, with its label, any neck label and/or back label. Finally, covered in tissue, it goes to be packed in a wooden case or strong carton. With the finer Champagnes, a further period of maturation in the cellars then takes place to ‘marry’ the wine with the dosage after the operation of degorgement, as previously described.
It is the skill of man and the amount of time involved that make the Champagne method lengthy and costly, and why it is not worth while applying it to a wine of inferior quality. Essentially, it is because wine made in this way spends most of its life in bottle that it must be expensive. As well as the huge corks used and the elaborate ‘dressing’ of the bottles, the bottles themselves have to be extra thick to resist the internal pressure, and the packing and carriage adds to the expense involved.