Posted on December 29, 2016
Around New Year’s Eve and every Sunday morning, there’s one question we get more than any other: “Where’s your Champagne?” While this is always an exciting question because it inevitably means someone is either celebrating or brunching, we counter with, “Our sparkling wines are right over here.” Because it’s inarguable fact: Champagne is more than just sparkling wine.
But why? Let’s start with the basics. In true French fashion, the name is tied to the land. A sparkling wine cannot be Champagne if it does not come from Champagne, France. Even most French sparkling wines are not Champagne. For that matter, you could theoretically make a sparkling wine in Champagne that is not Champagne. And here’s why.
First of all, there are only three grapes allowed in a Champagne blend: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier (a traditional grape rarely seen outside the region and rarely used for anything other than sparkling production). These grapes come primarily from the three main growing regions of Champagne: Cote des Blancs, Montagne de Riems, and the Vallée de la Marne, which each have their own reputations and styles. The climate is so cool in these regions that the grapes are rarely suitable to producing quality still wines, and the chalk soils result in the high acidity needed to sustain multiple fermentations and dosage.
Though the region has its own sub-appellations and crus, much like Burgundy to the south, the wines of each are then blended by larger houses to achieve balanced, well rounded wines. In such a liminal climate, as in Bordeaux, the ability to blend ensures consistency and quality even in vintages when conditions limit the size or integrity of the harvest. Still, even with hundreds of villages and thousands of producers, it can be difficult to acquire enough fruit to fulfill demand.
Once the high-acid, low alcohol wines are blended, using not only wine from this harvest but from reserves from vintages past (unless for a vintage bottling), they are then bottled along with some liqueur d’éxpedition. This combination of yeast, sugar, and wine initiates a secondary fermentation in bottle, so that the resulting carbon dioxide is trapped and re-dissolves into the wine, producing the bubbles we know and love.
But that’s not all! In Champagne, not only must the wines undergo fermentation in bottle, non-vintage wines must then rest in bottle for at least 15 months, 9 of which must be with the yeast, resulting in classic notes of toast and brioche (vintage Champagne requires 3 years of aging). The bottles must then be riddled, a process of slowly tilting the bottle over the course of weeks or months so that the yeast collects in the cap to be removed (disgorging). The wine then undergoes dosage, an addition of a touch of sugar to balance the naturally high-acid base wine. Et voilà! Champagne!
Overall, this is a time consuming and deeply expensive process. The minimum cellar times rivals that of Barolo, Rioja, and other lauded wine regions, not to mention the difficult climate, the cost of thicker glass, corks, gyropallets... the list goes on. Ultimately, though, there is nothing so satisfying as the pop of a Champagne cork and the cheerful, elegant bubbles dancing in your class, and this region has proved itself over the course of centuries to be the epitome of luxury, elegance, and finesse. Vive le Champagne!
So prepare for the New Year the Friday, December 30th from 6-8 with two fine bottles as we blind taste the iconic Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label against the family-owned and operated Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve. It’s bound to be a fun and festive night!
Cheers and Happy New Year!