The name Champagne is legally protected and used for sparkling wines that are created following the rules of the méthode Champenoise. The most straight-forward of those rules: It must be made in the eponymous region in France. The most special one: The wine must undergo a second fermentation in the bottle.
- Base: Most commonly, the grapes pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay are used. The process of taking care of the vines, the manner of harvesting the grapes as well as the fashion of pressing are all exactly prescribed.
- The first fermentation is pretty straight forward. Yeast is added to the must and left to ferment for 3 weeks. After that it is removed, leaving the still wine
- Assemblage: Up to 30 different wines are married to form a cuvée in order to ensure consistent taste and quality. Usually the wine from red grapes makes up the majority of the blend.
- Currently, some young winemakers use wood barrels for fermentation and ageing after blending, giving their Champagnes a distinct taste. (Examples: Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis Brut, Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru or Nicholas Feuilatte Cuvée 225 Brut Millésime 2004)
- Second fermentation or prise de mousse: A mixture of yeast and sugar dissolved in wine is added to the cuvée. The wine is then filled into bottles, sealed and left to rest for at least 15 months. During this time, the carbon dioxide formed by the yeast is bound in the wine (because it cannot escape).
- During the reuage (riddling), which lasts about six weeks, the bottles are given a slight turn on a daily basis. Also, during that time, the angle in which the bottles rest is changed from horizontally to vertically (with the cap facing downwards) gradually. This all serves to gather all the lees and sediments in the neck of the bottle. Madame Cliquot is credited with having invented this process; however, these days, the process is executed mechanically.
- dégorgement: The bottles are placed headfirst in a freezing brine in order to freeze the lees to the cap. The cap is then removed together with the lees without loosing a lot of the Champagne. This process also has been invented by Madame Cliquot.
- A liqueur d”expédition, a mixture of wine, older Champagne, sometimes Cognac and sugar is added. Every brand has their own secret recipe, and it is essential in ensuring consistent taste over the years. The bottle is then corked and left to rest for another six weeks. The amount of sugar added in this stage determines the sweetness of the final product
Depending of the amount of residual sugar, Champagne is classified as follows:
- brut zéro: no residual sugar
- brut nature: up to 3 grams per litre
- brut: up to 12 grams per litre
- extra sec: up to 17 grams per litre
- sec: up to 32 grams per litre
- demi-sec: up to 50 grams per litre
- doux: over 50 grams per litre
About 85% of all exported Champagnes in 2011 were brut, about 2.6% were sweeter than that, and less than 1% were drier. I know the numbers don”t add up to 100.
Furthermore, if a Champagne uses only white grapes (usually only Chardonnay), it may be called blanc de blancs, and reversely, if only red grapes are used, blanc de noirs.
Serving Champagne in a Coupette glass is a relic of the 20s, and should not be used. Reason for this is that the larger surface area causes the carbonisation to disappear rather quickly. Also the traditional Champagne flûte is not optimal because the dissipation of aromas. Ideally, Champagne is served in a narrow white wine glass.
It is advisable to polish the glasses first. Not only because it looks prettier, but because it will leave some tiny fibres in the glass which the carbonisation needs to manifest into bubbles.
Given that opening a bottle of Champagne is pretty much always a festive occasion, I recommend you learn how to saber a bottle. It is extremely easy and it is extremely dramatic.
In a blind tasting in 2012, manager magazin determined a ranking of specialty Champagnes in different categories, which I shamelessly reproduce here.
- Blanc de blancs: Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuvée Gastronome Blanc de blancs Millésime 2008 (28€), Nicholas Feuilatte Blanc de blancs Brut Chardonnay Grand Cru Millésime 2004, Saint Gall Cuvée Orpale Grand Cru Brut Blanc de Blancs, Millésime 1998
- Blanc de noirs: André Clouet Grande Reserve Bouzy Grand Cru (28€), André Clouet Champagne 1911 Grand Cru (60€), Vouette & Sorbée Extra brut (40€)
- zéro brut: Pol Roger Pure Extra brut (43€), André Clouet Silver Brut nature Grand Cru (30€), Charles Dufour Blanc de blancs brut nature (60€)
- Barrel: Alfred Gratien Cuvée Paradis brut (80€), Egly-Ouriet Brut Tradition Grand Cru (52€), Nicholas Feuilatte Cuvée 225 Brut Millésime 2004 (72€).
- Size of bottle changes the flavour (in German)’