What is champagne? And what’s all the fuss about?

what is champagne

If there’s one thing the French do well, it’s protecting their cultural heritage. It explains the many laws that protect French cinema, French music and the French language. When I studied in Rennes, I made the mistake of buying tickets for the French version of Tarantino’s Django Unchained. To this day, I can’t think of Leonardo DiCaprio without hearing his dubbing artist in my head: “Aaaah bonjour les amiiiis!”. But even though French protectiveness ruined Leonardo for me, the French are well within their rights when it comes to protecting their champagne. But what exactly is champagne? How is it produced and why do people value it above Prosecco and Cava? Does it always have to be white and sparkly? And is it only expensive because of marketing? Let’s replace the many questions with some answers.

Our region, our beverage, so back off

We all know champagne is the name of both a French region (written with a capital “C”) and a French type of sparkling wine (written with a lowercase “c”). Therefore, topography is an important factor when talking about the famous beverage. The Institut national de l’origine et de la qualité dictates that champagne can only be called as such when it’s both produced and bottled in the Champagne region. Already in 1891, the French sparkling white wine became legally protected by the Madrid System so that producers were armed against copycats from other regions and even other countries (I’m looking at you SPAIN). And ever since 1942, the CIVC (or Comité Champagne) is in charge of the protection and promotion of champagne, both in France and abroad.

So, if you’d describe champagne as a type of wine from the Champagne region, you wouldn’t be wrong.

But as you might have guessed, that’s not the whole story. The production process of the drink of the Gods is a delicate art, and must comply with rules issued by -again- the CIVC. These rules revolve around grape variety, pruning, bottling and even the number of fermentation months. And yes, it has to be sparkly! Below, I’ll shine some light on the matter by talking you through the most important rules.

What is champagne made of? Grape varieties

Champagne is made from seven grape varieties, although Pinot Noire, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier are the ones most widely used. I suggest you memorise them all, though, if only to brag at birthday parties:

  1. Pinot Noir

  2. Pinor Meunier

  3. Chardonnay

  4. Pinot Blanc

  5. Pinot Gris

  6. Petit Meslier

  7. Arbane

There’s champagne made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier or Chardonnay exclusively, but combinations are more common. These combinations aren’t inferior compared to champagnes made from one variety. However, there are wine producers that believe that champagnes should be made from one grape variety from one particular field, as it makes you taste the characteristics of the vineyard’s soil (so-called terroir). When you combine grapes from several fields, the influence of the soil gets cancelled out and other factors get highlighted. There’s no right or wrong here, it’s a matter of philosophy and, of course, taste!

Oh, and to answer an important question: there are rosé champagnes, which are simply created by adding red wine to the tank. Producers of regular rosé wine aren’t allowed to do this, and have to use the skin of the grapes to get the pinky colour. Red champagne doesn’t exist- but you never know what the future holds.

The bubble mystery

To explain the bubbles, we have to understand the champagne production process (méthode champenoise in French), which is explained in many articles, including this one. As opposed to regular wine makers, champagne producers use a two-step fermentation method. This means that the wine is fermented twice instead of once. The first fermentation step turns the grape juice into alcohol, creating still wine. To make champagne, producers bottle the still wine, after which they add a mixture of yeasts, yeast nutrients and sugar. This so-called liqueur de tirage produces CO2 that has nowhere to go, and therefore turns into the famous bubbles.

What about brut, sec and doux?

At the end of the production process, champagne producers take out the liqueur de tirage and replace it with a mixture of wine and sugar, called dosage. This recipe differs per house, which explains the differences in sweetness and the many (many) names we have to describe them. Some producers choose to add a lot, whereas others leave out the sugar altogether, creating a type of champagne that we call brut nature (described as zéro dosage on the bottle). In general, champagne with added sugar has a sweeter taste, but as there are more variables that influence sweetness, this is not always the case. However, as a rule of thumb, this is the order of sweetness:

  • Brut nature (no sugar added)

  • Extra brut

  • Brut

  • Extra sec

  • Sec

  • Demi-sec

  • Doux (more than 50 grams of sugar per litre)

Does harvest year matter?

Yes, but not in the way it matters to regular wine. In most cases, the harvested grapes are blended with réserve wines from other harvest years, which cancels out inconsistencies and therefore creates a consistent flavour that’s typical for a certain house. Hence, champagne is rarely made from grapes that were harvested in the same year. If they are, they’re called millésimes*. Again, millésimes are not better per se, but they are special, as they’re made from grapes coming from one single, outstanding harvest year. In this context, “outstanding” doesn’t equal good. For example, 1996 was an excellent year due to a heavy spring frost, causing a large portion of the fruit to go to waste so that the remaining fruits got all the nutrients.

*Millésimes are also known as Vintage Champagnes. Champagne made from several harvest years is called Non Vintage Champagne (N.V)

Is Prosecco Italian champagne? And is Cava Spanish champagne?

Nooooooo! Champagne can only come from the Champagne region and is made from different grape varieties than both Prosecco and Cava. Second, champagne must undergo an in-bottle fermentation process in order to be called champagne, whereas Prosecco is bottled under pressure in the tank, creating a different kind of bubbles. Cava is also produced using in-bottle fermentation, however this beverage knows a shorter ageing time than champagne. Prosecco also has a shorter shelf-life and therefore it must be drunk young, making it less expensive than the more labour-intensive and long-lasting champagne. All three differ in flavour and in price, champagne being the most expensive kind (and obviously the most divine).

What makes a great champagne? “Well, cela dépend des circonstances”

What makes champagne “good”?

To quote Guillaume Selosse: “Cela dépend des circonstances!” Or in English: the circumstances determine what makes a great champagne. And oh are there many circumstances! Let’s name 10, just to give you an idea:

  1. Grape variety

  2. Harvest years

  3. Soil

  4. Millésime yes or no

  5. Combination of vineyards yes or no

  6. Weather (sunlight, rain, wind, frost, hail)

  7. Harvest time

  8. Stirring method during fermentation

  9. Years kept in bottle

  10. Dosage

I hope I shined some light on the champagne matter. Of course, this is only half the story, and I’ll definitely write some more in-depth articles explaining the details of the production and qualification process. I hoped you liked my little presentation! I’m off to book a new trip to France.

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