What is Champagne and how is it made?
15th October 2009
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I drink Champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad," said Madame Bollinger, one of the grandes dames of Champagne. "Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

Champagne is a toast to optimism, an attempt to bolster defiance, or a companion for consolation. According to Napoleon, "In victory you deserve it, in defeat you need it." 

Whether you are celebrating victory or defeat or just the passing of another day, for a wine to be called Champagne, it must come from that particular region of France that is located 90 miles east of Paris in the rolling hills near the towns of Epernay, Reims, and Sézanne. Anyone in the world can make a sparkling wine in the méthode champenoise, but only the Champenoise can make Champagne.

When opening a bottle of Champagne, the sheer pressure inside the bottle can cause the cork to become a projectile. Don’t take the wire cage off of the cork. Hold the cage and cork tightly as you slowly turn the bottle with your other hand. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle while you slowly let the cork out of the bottle and release the pressure with a small hiss. The 45-degree angle allows the gas to escape without any liquid cascading out. Sometimes the pressure is great enough that you will get it bubbling out of the top of the bottle; have a glass handy just in case.


Dégorgement is the process to expel the spent yeast cells from the bottle. The bottle neck is frozen in a brine solution, the crown cap is removed and the plug of sediment is expelled due to the pressure in the bottle. At this point the addition of the liqueur d’expédition goes into the bottle which creates the finished wine’s level of sweetness (Brut, Extra Dry, etc). The cork is inserted in the bottle and a wire muzzle is used to hold the cork in place. It is now ready for drinking, but the best producers let them set for a few months to allow the wine and liqueur to marry.


 It Takes a Village

The French are famous for categorizing their vineyards. The Champenoise are slightly different in that they don’t grade a vineyard, but give a quality level to an entire village. There are 17 villages that have been awarded the title of Grand Cru, while 40 villages share the title of Premier Cru. You can find both of these designations on a label and it really is a good barometer of the quality inside the bottle.

You will notice an increase in price with a bottle from a Premier Cru or Grand Cru village since there is a direct correlation to the cost of the grapes. The governing body sets the price growers will receive for their grapes. A Grand Cru village will receive 100% of the set price, while a Premier Cru village will receive 90-99% depending upon their rating. The remaining villages are ranked down to 80%.

It Takes a grape.

What makes Champagne so unique and how is it made? The first difference is that the grapes are picked with a higher amount of natural acidity. These grapes are pressed and made into still wine, which is then assembled into the house style from all the available lots. If it is non-vintage then this assemblage may include up to 10 different vintages. If it is destined to be a vintage Champagne, then only the lots from that vintage are blended.

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