Wine Culture and Information - Volume 12
Home Page About Us:Write Us:Distribution:Back Issues:Advertising:Index 
Events Polls Serving Wine EnoForum EnoGames Wine Places Aquavitae Wine Guide


 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 22, September 2004   
ChampagneChampagne  Contents 
Issue 21, Summer 2004 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 23, October 2004

Champagne

Not only a charming wine which enchants since centuries the lovers of the nice drinking and of well living with its joyous chains of bubbles, but above all a great wine which owes its quality to the area from which it is from: Champagne

 Whoever is into the wine world or is totally uninterested in the beverage of Bacchus - with no distinctions - has already heard talking about Champagne for at least one time, of the magic the uncorking of a bottle of this wine can make, of its fame and of its elegance. Since centuries it is identified as the indisputable emblem of special occasions and of “fashionable living and luxury”, Champagne practically belongs since ever to the narrow class of wine élite. Whether Champagne is a great wine is certainly undeniable, whether every Champagne is of high quality is disputable instead, whether Champagne owes its elegance and its great class to the area in which it is produced - the Champagne - is absolutely true. In almost every wine country of the world are being produced sparkling wines with the method of refermentation in bottle and with the very same grapes used in Champagne, however the class and elegance of these best wines is in most cases incomparable to the best Champagnes. Could it be that Champagne is therefore the best sparkling wine in the world? This is cannot be said - as already mentioned not all Champagnes are of good quality - even because other classic method sparkling wine producers are capable of making products of very high quality, however it is undeniable the great condition offered by the environmental and climate factors of Champagne play a determinant role of primary importance.

 Just like any other wine, even for Champagne it is necessary to make a selective evaluation based on the reliability and seriousness of producers: not all Champagnes are of high quality - and we remind this once again - quality is always and however a concept which is realized thanks to the principles and to the seriousness of a producers. The production area of Champagne is located 150 kilometers north-east from Paris (about 95 miles) and it is among the most northern quality wine areas of the world. In Champagne there are currently about 15,000 viticulturists who provide their grapes to about 110 maison which they use to make the famous and celebrated wine renowned all over the world. Wine history of Champagne does not begin - as it can be suggested by the famous legend of abbot Dom Pierre Pérignon to whom is recognized the invention of Champagne - indeed it was earlier, exactly during the times of the Roman Empire, when they were introduced the first techniques of wine making. Some archaeological evidences suggest the vine was already present in Champagne during the tertiary era - a species called vitis sezannensis and now extinct - of which - of course - it is not known whether it survived in later eras and the local people used this vine to make wine with its grape. The history of the enology in Champagne begins with the arrival of Romans and with the introduction of Christian culture and religion to the Gauls people.


The Champagne area
The Champagne area

 The production of wine in Champagne therefore begins during the age of Roman Empire, however it will be necessary to wait until the seventeenth century in order to have that frothy wine rich in bubbles which we identify today with Champagne. Legend has it that it was Dom Pierre Pérignon to “invent” Champagne, however today we know the merit of this “discovery” is not recognizable to this important figure only. What it is certain is that Dom Pérignon has played a very important role in the development and the improvement of this great wine. Champagne probably is the result of a series of circumstances which took place thanks to the particular environmental and climate conditions of the area and that were used - and controlled - by the many producers until the half of 1800's when it was produced for the first time what we call today “Champagne”. Concerning the particular production method - of which the legend recognizes the paternity of this invention to Dom Pérignon - it should be remembered the Italian Francesco Scacchi - a doctor from Fabriano (Italy) who lived in the seventeenth century and now almost forgotten - who wrote in his work De salubri potu dissertatio (on the healthy beverages) some considerations about the production of sparkling wines and slightly sparkling wines.

 First of all it is necessary to remember the Champagne area - besides taking advantage of the exceptional environmental conditions for the production of bubbly wines - it is located to a latitude with a pretty cold climate and this greatly influences the production of wine. In fact the low temperatures in autumn and wintertime of Champagne cause the interruption of alcoholic fermentation as the cold has the effect of inhibiting the action of yeast. The interruption of alcoholic fermentation because of cold temperatures - besides blocking the activity of yeast - also keeps a high quantity of sugar in the wine, and sugar - as it is commonly known - is the precious element yeast transforms into alcohol and thanks to it they can stay alive therefore ensuring their biological functions. With the arrive of springtime - and hence with the increasing of temperature - yeast wake up from its “lethargy” and having some sugar available it resumes its job, in other words, the alcoholic fermentation restarts. This process - as it is known - produces a carbon dioxide as a byproduct which, being trapped in the bottle, gets solubilized to the wine, the internal pressure raises and this frequently causes the explosion of the bottle. In the beginning this was a serious problem for Champagne producers and they certainly were not happy of the fact their wines were “frothy”, so different and strange from the ones produced in the neighboring enological “rival”: Bourgogne.

 So, what was the role played by Dom Pierre Pérignon in Champagne? Dom Pérignon (1638-1715) was a Benedictine monk who not only played a fundamental role for the improvement of Champagne wines, he can also be considered the father of high quality enology whose teachings are still in use today, not only in the Champagne area. When he was 29 years old, Dom Pierre Pérignon was sent to the famous abbey of Hautvillers and in 1668 he was named procurator, that is administrator of the goods of the abbey, including wine. It seems Dom Pierre Pérignon did not drink wine, however he was a talented wine maker and merchant. To Dom Pérignon - and to the monks who worked with him - is to be recognized the improvement of white vinification of red grapes, considered today a fundamental practice for the production of Champagne. It is said Dom Pérignon was very exacting and strict about the cultivation of vines and the wine making procedures: he was aware of the fact the improvement of the wines of Champagne required very strict rules. He set strict rules about the cultivation of vines in order to aim to a drastic decrease of yields while increasing the concentration in wines and demanded grapes were to be pressed soon after harvesting, to be strictly done before ten o'clock in the morning. These concepts are still today associated to quality wine making.

 Dom Pérignon was the first one to vinify and keep separated the grapes from specific vineyards, he believed any single vineyard was capable of giving its unique and specific qualities: in other words he was the first one to apply the concept of cru. He was also the first one to support the idea it was better to bottle the wine soon after it was ready instead of leaving it in casks. These all are concepts and principles still in use today for high quality wine making. The result of all this “strictness” was a dramatic and huge improvement of Champagne wines, so high that they even rivaled with the neighboring Bourgogne. However it should be remembered Dom Pérignon did not want his wines to become sparkling, indeed he tried as hard as he could - without succeeding in this - in order to avoid this “deprecable” inconvenient: just like every other wine maker of that time, he knew that in case a wine became sparkling, something wrong surely happened during production. Whether it is true Dom Pérignon did not invent Champagne the way we know it today, he however has the merit of having greatly improved the development of enology as well as setting the basis for what is now considered modern enology. It certainly is a remarkable thing.

 The legend also has it was Dom Pierre Pérignon to invent the assembling of wines - it is absolutely proved this was a very common practice before he was named procurator of Hautvillers - however, thanks to the conviction of vinifying separately the grapes from different vineyards, the assembling of wine was improved as well as more consistent and reliable. Concerning sparkling wines - or at least slightly sparkling wines - there are historical evidences which confirm they existed before Dom Pérignon and that “slightly sparkling wines” from Champagne were already known - and very appreciated - to the court of Stuarts in 1660 and it seems they were introduced in England in the beginning of 1600's. By considering the success of these “wines with bubbles”, as well as considering the impossibility of avoiding the restart of fermentation, producers of Champagne - including Dom Pérignon and Dom Ruinart, another famous name of Champagne - worked in order to take advantage of effervescence therefore producing a wine that was different from any other else and that was already successful. From a side effect it could be obtained a conspicuous commercial advantage. However the long way that will lead to the Champagne as we know it today is still long and rich in intuitions and experiences: it is more likely the Champagne produced at Dom Pérignon's times was unrecognizable from the one that we would usually expect today.

 One of the problems that seemed to have a difficult solution was the turbidity of wine because of the refermentation in bottle. In other words the Champagne at those times was turbid and certainly not brilliant like we are used to see it today. Until the beginning of the 1800's the most common practice was to decant Champagne from one bottle to another until sediments were eliminated. This method had however the disadvantage of dissolving effervescence, therefore the wine became flat and with no bubbles. We need to wait 1818 when an employee of the famous Clicquot widow (veuve Clicquot) developed a system still known today with the name of rémuage, that is the system of rotating and shaking bottles in order to have the sediments to slip towards the neck so it can be easily eliminated. Moreover, the first Champagnes were sweeter than the ones known today. The adding of the dosage practically was a need in order to mask the strong acidity and harshness of wine. As the production techniques improved, likewise the quality of Champagne improved as well and the sweetness progressively diminished until having the so called brut, a goal that could be reached only around the half of 1800's. In the beginning brut Champagnes were not accepted - it probably was too early to introduce such a drastic change in taste from sweet to off-dry and brut - however this is the reference style of Champagne today and few producers now make demi-sec or sweet styles.

 

The Classification of Champagne

 The current region of Champagne - the one in which is legally allowed the production of Champagne - was defined and delimited in 1927 by INAO (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine, National Institute for Appellations of Origin). There are currently about 15,000 viticulturists in the Champagne area who sell their grapes to 110 Maison de Champagne which they use for the production of the renowned wines with bubbles. Some viticulturists - about 5,000 - besides selling their grapes to the maison, keep part of the grapes in order to make their own Champagnes and the result of these small producers can be frequently considered extraordinary. Champagne is classified according a system - called Echelle des Crus (scale of cru) - and known as vineyard classification. This classification was defined in 1911 according to the quality of every single cru as well as by its distance from the commercial heart of Champagne, Reims and Epernay. The system basically classifies the many communes of Champagne according to the commercial value of the grapes cultivated in its area which is expressed with a percentage value.


 

 Communes are classified in three categories: Grand Cru (100%), Premier Cru (90-99%) and Cru (80-89%). The percentage value defines the commercial value of grapes - and therefore their quality - based on the price set for Champagne grapes. This means that grapes coming from a Grand Cru commune - whose classification if 100% - will be exactly paid to the full price. Grapes coming from a commune that, for example, is classified as 85%, will be paid 85% of the reference price. In practical terms in case the reference price is set, for example, to € 10, grapes coming from a Grand Cru commune will be paid € 10, whereas the ones coming from 85% communes will be paid € 8,50. There are currently only 17 communes classified as Grand Cru, 41 as Premier Cru and the remaining 255 as Cru. The 17 Grand Cru of Champagne are: Louvois, Bouzy, Ambonnay, Verzy, Verzenay, Mailly-Champagne, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Sillery and Puisieulx (Montagne de Reims); Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne (Vallée de la Marne); Oiry, Chouilly, Cramant, Avize, Oger and Mesnil-sur-Oger (Côte des Blancs).

 Champagne is produced in many styles and each one of them is created with a base wine - called cuvée - made of different wines from different vintages, in case of the so called Sans Année or Non Vintage, or from many wines belonging to the same vintage for the so called Millésime or Vintage. The cuvée is generally made of a variable number of wines ranging from 30 to 60, or even more. Champagnes made from a single type of wine represent - as a matter of fact - an exception. According to the grapes and the technique used for the production, Champagnes can belong to different categories. The majority of them belong to the “generic” category of Champagne and are usually produced with all the three grapes allowed by the disciplinary: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagnes exclusively produced with Chardonnay are defined as Blanc de Blancs (White from Whites); the ones exclusively produced with red berried grapes, that is Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, alone or together, are defined as Blanc de Noirs (White from Blacks). A special mention goes to Champagne Rosé, considered by connoisseurs as the most refined and elegant one. These Champagnes - usually more expensive - have their pink color because of the presence of a small quantity of red wine - and this is the most common and modern practice - or because of the traditional production technique called saignée (bleeding) which is used today only by very few Maison de Champagne.

 The process and the phases for the production of Champagne are not covered in this report. We however suggest readers to read other reports published in DiWineTaste about the production of sparkling wines. In every Champagne label is found a code which deserves proper attention in order to be understood. This code is usually found in the bottom of the label and it is made of two letters followed by a number. The meaning of the first part can be interpreted as follows:

 

  • NM (Négociant-Manipulant) - it is a maison which buys grapes from other producers and sells the Champagne with its own branding. These maison can also have their own vineyards
  • RM (Récoltant-Manipulant) - it is a producer which owns vineyards and with its own harvest produce Champagne. By law, it can buy a maximum of 5% of grapes from other producers
  • RC (Récoltant-Coopérateur) - it is a producer which produces and sells its Champagne with the help and the support of cooperatives
  • CM (Coopérative de Manipulation) - it is a cooperative of producers which use their own harvests - or a part of them - for the production and commercialization of their Champagnes
  • MA (Marque Auxiliaire or Marque d'Acheteur) - it is a brand whose property belongs to third parties and not to the actual producer of the Champagne

 

Production Areas

 Champagne owes its fame and its quality mainly to the favorable climate and environmental conditions. The Champagne climate is often critical for the ripeness of grapes - rain, humidity, winter frosts and mold are frequent risks in this area - and for this reason vines are trained low in order to benefit from the heat reflected by the soil. The soil of Champagne is made of sediments of chalk and this forces the vine to dig very deep in the ground in order to search for water. Chalk is also very porous and therefore it is capable of keeping water therefore ensuring the vine a good condition for survival, however it does not offer the best fertile and vegetative conditions. As it is known, the vine is capable of giving the best results in difficult conditions. Grapes cultivated in Champagne and from which can be produced the renowned wine are Chardonnay - responsible for finesse and elegance - Pinot Noir - responsible for structure and aromas - and Pinot Meunier, to which is recognized the merit of increasing the aromatic complexity and richness of fruits as well as structure. Champagne is divided into five production areas: Montagne de Reims (Mountain of Reims), Côte des Blancs (Hillside of Whites), Vallée de la Marne (Valley of Marne), Côte de Sézanne (Hillside of Sézanne) and Aube (or Côte des Bar).

 Of these five areas the most important ones are those neighboring Reims and, as a matter of fact, represent the heart of Champagne: Montagne de Reims, Côte des Blancs and Vallée de la Marne, in which are found all the 17 Grand Cru (100%) communes. In the Montagne de Reims is mainly cultivated Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as well as a small part of Chardonnay; in the Côte des Blancs - as the name suggests - is almost exclusively cultivated Chardonnay, the only white berried grape; in the Vallée de la Marne it is Pinot Meunier to be the dominant grape; in the Côte de Sézanne - south from the main area - is mainly cultivated Chardonnay; in the Aube (or Côte des Bar) - the most southern area of Champagne - is almost exclusively cultivated Pinot Noir. Grapes used for the production of Champagne come from one or more of these areas, and base wines suited for the production with the Méthode Champenoise usually have not truly inviting organoleptic qualities - saved the aromas - in case are tasted before the beginning of the refermentation in bottle. In fact wines used for the cuvée generally are pretty acid with few alcohol: it will be the talent and experience of the persons who will choose them to imagine their elegant transformation that will enrich them with complex aromas and charming elegance - last but not the least - with enchanting bubbles.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 22, September 2004   
ChampagneChampagne  Contents 
DiWineTaste Polls
Do you like the use of synthetic corks in wine?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 
When you are about to choose a wine, at the restaurant or a shop, do you usually have a clear idea?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 
What kind of wine do you like having in September?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 


Events Polls Serving Wine EnoForum EnoGames Wine Places Aquavitae Wine Guide
Home Page About Us:Write Us:Distribution:Back Issues:Advertising:Index 

Download your free DiWineTaste Card  :  Test your Blood Alcohol Content  :  Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on Twitter

Download DiWineTaste
Copyright © 2002-2014 Antonello Biancalana, DiWineTaste - All rights reserved
All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. No part of this publication and of this WEB site may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from DiWineTaste.