Tuesday, February 17, 2015



One of my favorite children's books is a called A Beautiful Oops.  It is a book we read often to my two boys when they make a mistake that they see to be the end of the world.  Their mistakes can cause temper tantrums, disagreeable behavior, quitting, or just the inability to concentrate on the task at hand.  They will say something like, "EPIC FAIL" with attitude, and run away...  In the book,, author Jamie Lee Curtis, yep same one, says that we should think of a mistake, as an opportunity to make something beautiful.  She and her illustrator show countless examples of ripped pages, spills, ink stains, and they use the shape to make animals, words, and other inspiring creations.

Why start this article about Champagne with a story about a kids book?  Great question!  Champagne is perhaps the most beautiful oops ever in the wine world.  It is proof, that a mistake should be looked at as an opportunity to make something beautiful.  The originators of this magical elixir took the book to heart.  Yeah, I know, the book wasn't around back then, but the message most certainly was.  What comes out of the story is the drink people turn to for celebration.  Perhaps, what they are celebrating is not only a wedding, or a birth of a child, or winning the world series, but also the celebration of the triumph of the originators of the first modern Champagne as a modern triumph over an almost certain "EPIC FAIL".  They just don't know it...YET.

250M bubbles per bottle of Champagne
Our fairytale begins in Champagne France c. 1550s when sparkling wine was made accidentally.  It gets very cold in the region, and sometimes people would bottle wines before the fermentation was fully complete.  When the spring came, the bottles would warm, and the fermentation would begin again.  When yeast ferments, it changes sugar into alcohol and CO2, and thus bubbles.  OOPS, We have champagne... Well sort of.  In reality you have sparkling wine, but, due to the sparkle, you also had exploding bottles, and popping corks, and you would also have fine lees (Sediment produced by dying yeast falling to the bottom of the barrel).  That beautiful clear bubbly that we are all used to was certainly not what was being produced in the 1500s.  Fast forward to the 1660s when the ENGLISH, not the French, were able to make glass that would withstand the pressure from the fermentation, and in the 1800 when the Muselet (muzzle) was developed to keep the cork in the bottle where it belongs.  Additionally, they were able to figure out how to make the lees come to the top of the bottle and remove it after secondary fermentation was complete to give us the clear liquid Champagne that we currently know and love.  

Why did the original makers decide to go all-in on bubbles.  Their wines were not at all good.  Compared to the wines that their neighbors were making, they were thin and acidic largely due to the fact that they did not get enough sunny days to mature the grapes like their neighbors did in Bordeaux or in Burgundy.  As a result, they tried something different.  Something that would pay off in spades.

All Champagne is made from a combination of 3 grapes.  Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which are both red grapes, and Chardonnay (White).  Why is it white if it is made from red grapes?  First, not all Champagne is white.  And not all Champagne is made using red grapes.  When it is white,  they take the red grapes and press them in a certain fashion to remove the juice from the skins quickly.  Since the pigment in red wine come from contact with the skins, if the juice never touches the skin, all grapes produce "white wine".  Rose Champagne allows the red grapes to touch the skin for a little while, and Blanc de Blancs is made only from Chardonnay.

King Dom Perignon
Which leads us nicely to the story of Mr. Dom Perignon himself.  Yes it is a great example of Champagne, yes it is correctable and expensive, yes it is yummy, but did you know He was an actual person.  A monk in fact, and he was in charge of the wines at the Abbey d' Hautvilliers.  Dom, and I can call him that because we are on a first name basis, was the first person to realize that the spring fermentation was a blessing, and one that the region could take advantage of, and not the curse that many thought it was.  Mr. P did a few things for the region.  First, he was the first to blend wines from different vineyards (Assemblage) to increase the flavor.  Second, he realized that if one presses rapidly, the wines would remain white.  So Mr. P is like the king of our fairytale.  Long live king Dom.  Foreva!

There are 9 styles of Champagne that you should know about.  Non-Vintage (NV) is generally in a Brut style.  It makes up three quarters of total production.  The house blends wine from multiple years to achieve consistency across years.  the second is Vintage.  100% of the blend must come from the year stated on the bottle.  In any one year however, the house is only permitted to use 80% of the wine it produces.  The rest must be held for blending in other years.  Most houses only release a vintage during fantastic years.  The vintage champagnes are also usually brut in style and can be aged for a decade or more.  Blanc de Blancs is always 100 percent Chardonay.  They can be both vintage and non vintage.  these beautiful bottles can be aged for decades, and take years to develop past their rough beginnings.  The fourth type is Blanc de Noirs.  These are white Champagnes produced only from red grapes.  These are more weighty and masculine wines that lack the finesse and elegance of Blanc de Blancs.

The finest and most prestigious of the offerings is the prestige Cuvee (Tete de Cuve.These are usually vintage labeled, but not always.  They are also frequently aged for years prior to their release.Not all houses produce a prestige offering, and even those that do, often only produce in a fantastic year.  These wines can be Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noir, or rose.

Single vineyard champagne are produced both by large houses and smaller growers.Clos de Goisses is perhaps the benchmark for these types of wines.  Single vineyard Champagnes stand in stark contrast to the philosophy of blending that is prevalent in the region.

The seventh style of Champagne is Special Club Prestige Cuvee which originated in  1971.  This is a community of producers that promote their prestige cuvees with identical packaging, so that they can share in the cost of production and promotion.

The last two include Rose Champagne.  these can come in vintage, NV, and Prestige cuvees.  The rose is almost always achieved by blending white wine with red wine.  Champagne is the only region in France that allows the blending of reds with whites.  Rose wines are the most expensive of all Champagnes.  Finally Cremant de Champagne is a half sparkling wine.  A spritzer if you will.  You will hear them referred to as creaming as opposed to sparkling.

Champagne can also come with different levels of sweetness, these include in ascending order of sweetness:
1.  Brut Nature (less than 3g/l
2.  Extra Brut  (0 to 6g/l of sugar)
3.  Brut (6-12g/l)
4.  Extra Dry (12-17g/l )
5.  Dry/SEC (17 to 32g/l)
6.  Demi-Sec/Half dry (32 to 50g/l)
7  Doux/Sweet (50+)

Houses are aloud to be +/- 3g per liter variance on what is listed on the label.

You can still find still bottles from the region as well.  Coteaux Champenois are still red and white wines, while Rose des Riceys are still rose wines coming from the community of Riceys.

Due to the weather Acid levels can remain quite high.  Anyone who has tasted Champagne can attest to that.  This is why Champagne pairs so well with so many different foods.  Winters can be cold, and the average temperature hovers around 52 degrees F.Soils are Belemnite (Fossilized sea creatures).  These soils reach very deep in many parts of the AOP.  This allows for a lot of water to reach the vines, storage and reflection of heat, and it allows for caves to be dug to store the bottles that remain at a constant temperature of 52 degrees.

There are 17 Grand Cru villages in Champagne.  This includeAmbonnay, Avize, Ay, Beaumont-sur-Vesle, Bouzy, Chouilly, Cramant, Louvois, Mailly-Champagne, Le Mensnil-sur-Oger, Oger, Oiry, Puisieulx, Sillery, Tours-Sur-Marne, Verzenay, Verzy.  There are 44 Premir Crus, and the rest of the AOPs are unclasified.

Prices of Champagne grapes are fixed.  Every year the price and yield are determined by the Civic and the INAO.  The Champagne Houses (Wineries that make Champagne) will pay a persentage of the set price based on where the grapes come from.  Grand Crus are priced at 100% of the set price, Premirs are 90-99% and Not classified at 80-89%.  Champagne houses negociate at the time of pressing for the price of the grapes.

After the harvest and the primary fermentation, the wine is bottled after adding sugar, yeast and nutrients, which ensures the secondary fermentation (Prise de Mousse)  The additions are called the "Liqueur de Triage).  After secondary fermentation is complete the maker allows the Lees to sit in the bottle for a mandatory 15 month period of time.  This helps flavors to develop and allows the Champagne to mature.  For vintage Champagne the time on lees must be at least 3 years, but many spend even more time than that.

At this point one needs to remove the lees from the bottles.  this is done through a process called Remuage or Riddling.  The Remuer (Person who does the Remuage) turns the bottles methodically to dislodge the dead yeast cells at the bottom of the rack.  Slowly through turning, the bottle will eventually be upside down (Sur Pointe).  When this happens, the yeast can be removed (Disgorged).  To do this, the Champagne house freezes the neck of the bottle to take out the yeast plug.

We are almost done.  At this point, a small amount of sugar may be added with some wine called the Liqueur de dosage, or the Liquer d' expedition.  Depending on the amount of this liquid added, will determine the sweetness of the wine (Brut, sec, etc.)

When this is done, the wine is corked and fitted with a muzzle (The wire thinga-ma-bob).  Afterwards, the bottle is shaken to ensure the Liqueur d' expedition is mixed, and to ensure that all of the lees have been removed.  After that, the label is put on the bottle and the foil is applied to the cork and muzzle.

As luck would have it there are also different types of Champagne producers.  I think they do this so that I will have more to memorize about a wine that I am not so crazy about in the first place.  I usually am the person at a wedding that will say cheers and clink glasses with some Cabernet while everyone else has Champagne.

The producers can be NM (Negociant Manipulant) who buys grapes from growers.  Some own a portion of their own grapes, and some not at all.  Many of these are big corporations with multiple labels housed under them.  RM (Recoltant Manipulant) is a grower who makes Champagne from estate grown fruit.  They must have 95% of the grapes coming from their own vineyards.  CM (Cooperative Manipulant) that represents a bunch of growers producing under one brand.RC (Recoltant Cooperateur)  These are a group of growers that vinify together but they label under their own house.  SR (Societe de Recoltants) see above but instead of a coop, it is a corporation set up by a union that causes the collective.  ND (Negociant Distributeur) these are middlemen and they distribute wine that they did not make.MA (Marque d Acheteur);  House brand, think generics in a grocery store.

I hope you enjoyed my story of the beautiful oops that is Champagne, and that you live happily ever after.  THE END!

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