Champagne: Lessons behind the Bubbly

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”
Alleged quote by Dom Pérignon, instrumental wine maker of from Abbey St. Vanne, later found to be created by the ad industry

Did you even know Dom Pérignon was a 17th Century monk?   I sure didn’t know this before we visited the infamous wine region in France.  Below we have 12 other lessons learned on our tour:

Champagne Lesson #1 – Champagne can only come from Champagne, France.   All other must be called sparkling wine.   There are strict regulations around production and the wine cops come do checks to ensure the product is 100% Champagne AOC.    This, however, is not an indication of quality.

It wasn’t the grower, but the ‘Champagne police’ were the ones who put the wax on these bottles. It is part of their routine check ups to ensure the protection of the AOC.

Champagne Lesson #2 – The land in the Champagne region has a chalk base, much like England’s White Cliffs of Dover. The chalk not only retains heat but moisture.   We’ve seen similar theories of superior wine due to the unique ground:   Switzerland Lavaux has the terraced walls that use the sun off Lake Geneva to heat the soil, as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape claims its rocky basin of the former Rhône river.

The exposure white cliff beside the house gives an indication what the soil is like under the vines : pure chalk

Champagne Lesson # 3 – Champagne is just as confusing with designations as many other French wines are:  Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and village level.  Again, this isn’t a guarantee of quality, just the designation of the land is supposed to be higher in Grand Cru.

Enjoying a taste at a Grand Cru Champagne house. Oooo la la.

Champagne Lesson #4 – Champagne likes to get sideways. While the region itself is huge, AOC Champagne grapes only take up a portion of it because only the vines grown on hills are used for wine.  The flat lands are used for other crops.   In terms of wine producing hectacres, our guide explained it in terms of American-isms….the wine-producing hectares occupy the size of 34,000 football fields or 280,000 tennis courts.

The hilly landscape in Champagne

Champagne Lesson #5 – Champagne likes to get around. Unlike Bordeaux, there are no chateaus surrounded by all their vineyards….just champagne houses that blend from various grapes/plots collected from all over the region. So many big houses are actually located in the city center of Reims, with the grapes coming from the countryside.

These grapes will likely be blended with other grapes from non-adjacent plots. Burgundy would have a fit!

Champagne Lesson #6 – Champagne is a family business. 90% of the land is family owned. It takes 2.5 hectacres, or 15 tennis courts,  for an individual to make a living. However, land isn’t easy to get: 1 hectacre goes for 1.5 million euros.  It generally requires two generations to see a return.   Most families sell a portion of their yield to the big houses.

This plot is likely owned by a family. It’s much better to think of the purchase of each bottle of Champagne as putting food into someone’s mouth 🙂

Champagne Lesson #7 – Champagne can be made from both red and white grapes!  The reds just dont keep continual contact with the skins.  There are actually 3 types of grapes in the Champagne AOC: Chardonnay, Red Pinor Noir and Black Pinot Meunier.

The juice inside every grape is clear – it is just the juice is fermented – with our without skins that determines the color

Champagne Lesson #8 –  No &*^ in the Champagne Room.   It rains 200 days out of the year in Champagne.  The rainy temps leave the mildew and catepillars.  The wind has to help with the mildew, but to avoid the use of pesticides to ward against the creatures, growers use a technique called confusion sexual.  Pods are filled with female butterfly pheromones to distract and confuse the male caterpillars so they can’t find an egg to fertilize. Each dual-pod costs 1 euro and they are placed every 2-3 meters on the vines.

A cruel joke to the male caterpillar. But if it means more Champagne for the world, I’m game!

Champagne Lesson #9 –  Champagne is under a lot of pressure!    The air inside a bottle of Champagne has pressure 3x that of a tire.   One in 10,000 explodes due to the pressure.  They use horizontal stackers to help reduce the impact to an entire wall.

A Champagne bottle that wanted to join the party a little too early.

Horizontal panes help minimize damage if there is an explosion – at least they all don’t fall vertically downwards.

Champagne Lesson #10 – Champagne is strong!  Since the glass is designed strong to support the special liquid, Champagne bottles are hard to break.  Our guide taught us how to deal with the situation if the event occurs:  leave it, cover it with a blanket a few hours. If you put it down on a counter immediately after, the impact creates a 2nd shock which can cause explosions.   Alternatively, don’t sit it down, open it and drink it.
Champagne Lesson # 11 – The official term for the process is not known as “Champagne-ing”.   I ‘created’ this term after a few glasses while asking a question to our guide.  I never heard the end of it and I can hear him telling future groups, “You’d never believe what this American I had said….”.    Even still, I managed to learn a bit about how a still wine is turned into bubbly:
1 – Fermentation happens like a normal still wine
2 – Blending happens
2- More yeast & sugar is added, a cap affixed, and a second fermentation is done in the bottle
3- Every day, bottles are turned a fraction every so often.
4 -The extra sediment must be removed in a technique called remuage.  This is either done manually, or with today’s technology by freezing the sediment so it pops out easily
5 – The bottle goes to rehab to adjust from the stressful procedure of remuage
6 – The bottle is corked
The process takes several years in order to mature and perfect the contents!

Our guide demonstrating the old school method of turning on a traditional Champagne board

Another method of turning – these barrels are slightly rotated and turned throughout the maturation

Even more current machinery automates this process

A glimpse at the sediment that must be removed before corking

Champagne Lesson #12 – France allows for blending the rules of rosé.  Okay that was a play on words that might be a little cheesy.   Rosé champagne is the only of France’s wines that permits the blending of red juice with white, because of the second fermentation process.  For traditional rosés, this process is scoffed at as cheater.     Even still, many opt for the higher grade technique of satinée, or bleeding, for their rosé champagnes.

Rosé Champagne

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