From time to time, a review of basic champagne is a good idea.
Information is always a good thing:
The Champagne Method
Also known as the “Traditional Method,” the “Champagne Method” of sparkling wine production requires the wine to undergo two fermentations, wherein sugar is converted into alcohol.
Primary Fermentation – After harvest, the grapes are carefully pressed, and the juice goes through an initial alcoholic fermentation – usually in stainless steel tanks. The result is known as the “base wine.”
Blending – Next, base wines are blended together. Some of the base wines are saved for later use, and a large selection of base wines ensures that a Champagne producer will have a consistent “House Style” from year to year.
Secondary Fermentation – Now the blended wine is moved into a clean vessel where a mixture of wine, sugar, and yeast is added. The wine is then bottled, and a second fermentation occurs inside the bottle. Bottles are then capped and placed on their sides. This process encourages the formation of carbon dioxide bubbles.
Yeast Autolysis – After fermentation is complete, leftover sediment and lees (dead yeast cells) dissolve into the wine, usually for four to five years. This imparts the bread, biscuit, or pastry aromas and flavors we often associate with sparkling wines from Champagne.
Riddling – Once yeast autolysis is complete, all sediment and lees must be removed from the bottles. Traditionally, this was manually accomplished by delicately turning the bottles a few degrees each day over two months until the yeast sediment collected in the necks of the upturned bottles. Today, most producers use a mechanical device, known as a gyropalette, to achieve this step in a much shorter period of time.
Disgorgement – The wine within the necks is then frozen and the bottles are turned upright. The caps of the bottles are removed, and the carbon dioxide inside forces the yeast sediment out. Finally, the dosage, a mixture of wine and cane sugar, is added to the wine before it is sealed by a cork and wire cage. This will determine the level of sweetness in the finished Champagne.
Vintage or Non-Vintage?
Wines from Champagne can come from a single harvest or from a blend of multiple harvests. Vintage Champagne is only made from the harvest of an excellent year and generally commands higher prices than Non-Vintage (NV). Non-Vintage Champagne is always blended from several years to maintain consistency.
Learning about Champagne is important, but nothing can replace the experience of drinking it. There’s never a wrong time to crack open a bottle of bubbly, pour a glass (or two), and toast to life. Cheers!
Styles of Champagne
Since the wines of Champagne may be produced from one type of grape or more, there are a range of styles from which to choose. Here are some common examples:
Non-Vintage (House Blend) – entry-level bottling produced from a combination of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier
Vintage (Luxury Blend) – produced from a single harvest, and only in the best years from Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier
Blanc de Blancs – “white of whites,” produced from 100% Chardonnay
Blanc de Noirs – “white of blacks,” white wine produced from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier
Rosé – often a blend of white and red wine, though it can also be made solely from black grapes
Levels of Sweetness
Although Champagne was originally a sweet wine, today the dry styles are more fashionable to drink. The amount of sugar added during disgorgement determines how sweet a Champagne will taste. The labels of Champagne bottles will always indicate a sweetness level, which can be found bellow, along with their explanation:
Brut Nature – bone dry
Extra Brut – dry
Brut – dry to off-dry
Extra Sec – off-dry to medium-dry
Sec – medium-dry
Demi-sec – medium sweet
Doux – lusciously sweet
The mid range on the above chart is where I currently stand. I would say brut, and brut rose’ are my favorites right now, although I will drink all except the doux (lusciously sweet). I still try to live by my own rule of thumb on price point, with $10 a bottle for every day drinking, and under $50 for parties and special occasions. Let me know if you have some personal favorites that I can try. Whichever you choose, just enjoy!!