Sommelier’s Guide to Champagne

Posted by Keith Wallace

Champagne!

Every person in every corner of the world knows about Champagne. But did you know they didn’t invent sparkling wine? That was the British. They didn’t even make the first bubbles in France. That was in the Languedoc. But they are the most famous, and rightly so. Here is why.

A Brief History of Champagne Styles

Before the Bubbles

The Romans initially planted the first vines of Champagne in 57BC. For a long time, wines from the region were seen as lesser quality than France’s. The quality, however, got progressively better over the following century as Champagne was constantly trying to upstage Burgundy and surpass their quality. This rivalry between the regions intensified until civil war seemed inevitable.

Accidental Bubbles

However, the great feud finally came to an end with the discovery of sparkling wine and the region’s dedication to producing this new, innovative style of wine.

Popular to contrary belief, the discovery of sparkling wines was not intentional. Instead, sparkling wine was created after a shipment of wine from Champagne reached England, and it had refermented inside the barrel. Since the Carbon Dioxide had nowhere to go, it was trapped inside, and thus, sparkling wine was born.

Soaring Popularity

Although there were very mixed feelings about this sparkling wine, the consumers who enjoyed the bubbles bought copious amounts of the wine, thus pushing Champagne into producing more of this style. With time and refinement over the years, wine producers could better quality wine and packaging solutions for these complex wines.

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Not All Bubbles are Champagne

The Wine Region of Champagne

The first thing to note about authentic Champagne wine is that it has to come from the region of Champagne in France. The rules regarding the production of Champagne are stringent and specific – but it’s what you expect from one of the world’s most prestigious wine producers.

Many places globally, and even regions in France, create sparkling wines exactly. But, unfortunately, those wines can’t be called Champagne.

Champagne Grapes

Most people (including many sommeliers)  think Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier are the only grapes. That is incorrect. The obscure varietals Arbane and Petit Meslier are allowed, as are Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.

The Traditional Method AKA Champagne Method

During production, only the traditional sparkling method is allowed to be used. This method is considered the best method for high-quality sparkling wines. A secondary fermentation wine occurs inside the bottle, trapping carbon dioxide within the wine. When the wine is opened, that dissolved gas rushes out, creating bubbles.

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Riddling

This production method is also highly labor-intensive. First, each bottle has to go through riddling, disgorgement, and topping up. These processes include turning each bottle upside down over days or weeks to allow the dead yeast cells to settle in the bottle’s neck. After that, the bottle-neck is frozen, these yeast cells are shot out, and the wine is topped up with more wine and a bit of sugar.

Champagne Styles

Champagne comes in a few different styles that allow some diversity. Here are the top three.

Blanc de Blanc

Blanc de Blanc (white from white) refers to white grapes used for this white wine. In this case, it can only be Chardonnay.

Blanc de Noir

Blanc de Noir (black from white) means that they have used red grapes to produce these whites. In Champagne, this can be either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier but is often a blend of the two. It’s important to note that only the skin of a grape is red – so white wines can be produced just by preventing the juice from coming into contact with the skins.

Rosés

Rosés are the product of blending these whites and reds before the wine is bottled. In France, only Champagne producers can make Rosés in this fashion.

The accidental production of Champagne was probably one of the most extraordinary things to happen to the world’s wine industry. As a result, champagne will forever be the icon of celebration and joy.

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