Champagne has long been reserved for special occasions — the celebratory toast, the christening of a ship. It’s considered a luxury, with intoxicating hues ranging from gold to salmon and full, bold flavors that tempt your taste buds. Champagne’s exclusive production adds to its distinct appeal. So distinct, in fact, that on July 5, 2015, the World Heritage Committee added the Vineyards, Houses and Cellars of the Champagne region as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
But before imbibing in a little bubbly, let’s have a brief history lesson. In the late 1600s, Dom Pierre Perignon was a Benedictine monk and wine maker and spent considerable time trying to prevent bubbles in his wine — a result of Champagne’s cold climate and short growing season. Yeast on grape skins convert the pressed juice to alcohol, but colder temperatures stop this fermentation process. Once the weather warmed in spring, the fermentation began again in bottles, creating trapped carbon dioxide which in turn creates bubbles (Fun Fact: there are approximately 49 million bubbles per standard-sized bottle today). This resulted in an unstable product as the bubbles were causing bottles to explode. Perignon prevented these explosions by way of British ingenuity who developed thicker glass as well as cork seals. He was also the first noted wine maker to blend different grape varieties and grapes from different vineyards (assemblage), and develop a pressing method to extract white juice from black grapes. While Perignon never intended to create Champagne, his research laid the groundwork for Champagne production today.
So what sets Champagne apart from other sparkling wines? Reserved only for wines produced in the Champagne region of France, the regulations and standards for producing Champagne are the most stringent of any wine producing in the world. This is referred to as the “Champagne Method” (Méthode Champenoise). This same method, when followed outside the Champagne region, is referred to as the Traditional Method. Three components contribute to the distinctiveness of Champagne. The aforementioned climatic conditions are one. The climate and landscape (terrior), consisting of chalky soils resulting from billions of years of crushed seashells, gives it minerality and an acidic nature. And finally, traditional Champagne employs one or a combination of three grape varieties: Chardonnay (freshness), provides acidity, brightness and a creamy mouth feel; Pinot Meunier (fruitiness), which contributes the fleshy aspects of stone fruit; and Pinot Nior (structure), the most finicky and boldest of the three grapes brings the most tannins.
To simplify Champagne production, the primary fermentation is like most other wines: naturally occurring yeasts are sometimes aided by cultured yeasts and act as the catalyst that converts sugar to alcohol (fervere). Once the yeast’s life cycle is exhausted and the alcohol content has reached 15 percent per unit volume, it falls to the bottom of the fermentation tank as sediment (lees). This base wine (cuvée) is then bottled and goes through a second fermentation (tirage) where sugar and more yeast is added — creating bubbles from the trapped carbon dioxide — and it is required by law to age a minimum of one-and-a-half years to fully develop; however, the best Champagnes are aged an additional five to six years. After aging, spent yeast cells are removed through riddling (le remuage) where bottles are inverted at a 75 degree angle and turned daily. While at this angle, the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath which freezes the wine containing the spent yeast cells, the cap is removed, forcing out the plug of frozen wine and leaving behind clear Champagne. At this point, base wine and sugar are added (dosage) before finally being corked and wired.
Many other regions of the world produce sparkling wines to the exact Traditional Method. In California, Moët and Chandon was the first to produce Traditional Method sparkling wines with great success due to the cool climate of the Carneros region of Napa, making it most suitable for growing these noble grapes. Adding other growing and production regions was simply out of necessity as the Champagne region is fully developed.
Back to a little history. The Clicquot House was founded in 1772 by Philippe Clicquot and later run by his son François. Upon his sudden and early death in 1805, Madame Clicquot took over the company. By 1816, she had invented the first riddling table and process to remove settled yeast, and in 1818, she created the first true “Rosé d’assemblage” by adding Pinot Noir grown in the Bouzy village of Champagne to the cuvée. It wasn’t until 2004 that Veuve Clicquot Rosé was launched, and another two years before supply matched demand. Veuve Clicquot is often called “The Red Wine Drinker’s Champagne” because of its higher percentage of Pinot Noir, making it bolder and richer in style.
Now when you toast to a special occasion, consider the appealing versatility of Champagne and how it’s a lovely pairing to so many cuisines. What better indulgence from aperitif to digestif?
In celebration of Mother’s Day, enjoy your favorite bottle of Rosé or Champagne at a special Mom’s price.
Special thanks to Gina Livingston, Moët Hennessy Portfolio Manager for Southern Glazer’s Distributors.