Champagne and the label
Champagne, with it’s shimmering bubbles and its fresh fruity taste, is the most famous wine in the world. It is a wine of celebration, elegance and dreams. Champagne as it commonly referred to is also known as Bubblies or Sparkling Wines in America and Sekt in Germany. It is important to remember, however, that all Champagnes are sparkling wines, but sparkling wines are never Champagne unless they are produced in the french region of Champagne. For our purpose we will call it Champagne throughout here. Sounds much better anyway, doesn’t it?
Born in the most northern appellation in France, the region of Champagne makes wines that are the product of a chalky soil and an austere climate The vines was known in the region before the Romans arrived and they continued to cultivate it.
While Champagne’s early wines occasionally developed a momentary bubble, they were essentially still wines until the 17th century when the cork was introduced, a contribution usually credited to a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon. Only then was it possible to keep the magical bubble in the bottle.
The grapes that make this glorious wine are the white Chardonnay and two black grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, with the later used primarily in France. Some Champagne is made from white grapes only and is known as Blanc de Blanks (white wine of white grapes). A small amount of Champagne is made as rose. Most Champagne, however, is a blend of the white juice of both black and white grapes. The juice of the black grapes is separated from the dark skins quickly to prevent their adding color to it.
The vendange, or grape harvest is a painstakingly careful process in which each bunch of grapes is examined and the ones that are imperfect are discarded. Those that pass inspection are immediately brought to the press house where grapes from different vineyards are pressed separately.
The fresh juice is then delivered to the cellars of the Champagne producers where it undergoes its first fermentation. At the end of that time the young wine, without the bubbles that will later distinguish it, is still kept in separate batches according to its vineyard origin. It is now ready for one of the major steps in the Champagne-making process – blending.
All Champagne is blended wine, and all great Champagne is the result of the blender’s art. Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from several years. Vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from one superior year, and not every year is a vintage year. For both vintage and non-vintage Champagne, the blender uses his skills to combine the best characteristics of the various vineyards’ wines, balancing qualities, mixing, tasting, considering each nuance until he finds the combination of body, bouquet and flavor that best matches his standards and styles. He has created the cuvée, or Champagne blend why which the firm is known and on which it stakes its reputation.
After the new cuvée is completed, it is bottled with a very small amount of sugar and yeast dissolved in wine and called the liqueur de tirage. This solution is responsible for starting the next major step in Champagne making – the second (secondary) fermentation. This time, the fermentation will happen in the corked bottle where there will be no way for the resulting carbon dioxide to escape. Instead, it will become that most remarkable part of Champagne, its magnificent bubbles.
Still a wine, the bottles are stored in the cellars for at least one year and often longer. At the end of that time, the wine has undergone its secondary fermentation. The bubbles are in the bottles, but so is the sediment, which the fermentation has deposited. To remove the French have developed a slick way to remove it. The bottles are placed in a pupitre, or also known as riddling rack, with their necks slightly downward. Each day skilled workmen twist the bottles and tilt it farther down to force the sediment into the neck next to the cork. This process is called the remuage. When all the sediment has been worked into the neck, the wine is ready for its dégorgement. In modern facilities this delicate operation is made with robots. (riddling machines), computer-controlled, reproduce the meticulous work of the riddler.
In this process, the neck of the bottle is quickly frozen so that the sediment is sealed in a plug of ice. When the cork is removed, the gas inside pushes out this plug. A slight dose of cane sugar usually dissolved in wine and known as liqueur d’expédition is added to give the wine its required degree of sweetness. The bottle then receives its final mushroom-shaped cork and it is wired. A true Champagne cork must have imprinted, by French law, “Champagne”.
And so, about three years after its grapes were picked, the wine, which is now Champagne, is ready to drink.
Sweetness of Champagne
The amount of sugar to be added to each type of Champagne is determined by the individual Champagne maker. Generally, however, the standards are not so very different and the designation on Champagne’s label will help you to know how sweet or dry it is.
1. Brut is usually the best choice for an apéritif; it contains almost no sugar.
2. Extra Sec or Extra Dry, despite the name, is very slightly sweet.
3. Sec, which means dry in French, actually refers to a fairly sweet wine in Champagne terminology.
4. Demi-sec and Doux are both very sweet and excellent choices for a dessert wine. They are rarely shipped to North America.
Not only does Champagne come in varying degrees of dryness and sweetness; it also comes in a wide selection of sizes:
1. Split – 187m
2. Half bottle – 375ml
3. Bottle – 750ml
4. Magnum – 1.5 liters
5. Jeroboam – 3 litres
Bottles larger than Jeroboams are curiosities. Because of their size, Champagne is not made in them, and so they are filled from a number of smaller bottles.
1. Rehoboam – 4.5 liters
2. Methuselah – 6 liters
3. Salmanaza – 9 liters
4. Balthaza – 12 liters
5. Nebuchadnezzar = 15 liters
But if these five are rarely found and even more rarely needed, the first five sizes adapt to every purpose. The split, half bottle and full bottles are perfect gifts, apéritif and dinner companions. The magnum and jeroboam add drama to a party or wedding. And all Champagne sets a festive mood, be it at a formal dinner, informal supper, brunch, picnic or wedding, or breakfast in bed.
Champagne can never be inexpensive, and for good reason. By the time a bottle leaves the cellar, it has been handled at least 150 times over a period of from three to five, six sometimes even seven years. As a result, Champagne nearly always costs more than non-sparkling wine. Brut Champagne generally cost more than demi-sec or doux. Vintage Champagne, which is made from the grapes of a single year and only when that year has been particularly outstanding, is more expensive than non-vintage Champagne, which is made from the grapes of several years and thus less restrictive in availability and quantity. Most Champagne
houses also make special cuvées offered in special bottles, bearing prestigious names.
All Champagne should be served chilled in a tulip-shaped or all-purpose glass rather than a wide, shallow saucer-shaped one, which dissipates the bubbles to quickly. To open, wrap a towel or napkin around the bottle to keep the cork from flying out and causing injury. Hold the bottle at a 45-degree angle, remove the
wire, grasp the cork firmly and turn the bottle working the cork out slowly, with a whisper, not a bang. You lose fewer bubbles that way. And bubbles, after all, is what Champagne is all about. Once the cork is removed, take off the towel. No wine or Champagne should be served wrapped in a towel.
The following information must be present on all labels:
Champagne is stored for drinking just like any other wine - at around 55F, in a dark, damp location, stored on its side to keep the cork from drying out. Champagne should be served at about 45 degrees.
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