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Champagne!

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(Post by Nanci Hemminger) Awhile ago I lead the Enology Club from Northrup through a tasting of several Champagnes and other sparkling wines. In preparation I researched the wines I would be pouring and also delved into the fascinating history of Champagne. This is what I learned…

What we now sip as our celebratory beverage of choice developed over time through a fascinating journey in northern France, 90 miles north of Paris in the city of Reims – known for it’s famous cathedral – in the region called Champagne, from the Roman word campagna remensis –  simply translated as “the countryside around Reims”.

In the middle ages, the monks and wealthy landowners made wine from their vineyards for personal use and for trade – most commonly with the British. The grapes would be pressed and fermented in the usual ways, but the cold northerly climate would freeze the batch before the fermentation was complete. The barrels were stored in cold cellars or shipped out on boats to their destination and when Springtime came and the weather warmed, the wine would start bubbling – the fermentation naturally restarted causing an unwanted fizz in the wine.

In the 17th century, Dom Pérignon, a famous player in the story of Champagne, was the monk in charge of the cellar. An intellect and a bit of a chemist, he discovered why this fizz was happening and tried to prevent it from ruining the wine.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the barrels were unloaded from the ships and the wine was put into bottles for sale. Many of these bottles would break under the pressure of this sudden second fermentation, and those that didn’t made a serious POP when opened in the pubs. This popping sound became a cause for cheer and celebration, and the British began to create bottles that were thicker with a fixture for the top to prevent breakage.

The French merchants and monks, realizing that this unwanted fizz was becoming trendy, quickly learned to imitate the process and the bottling techniques and began making this new style of wine on purpose – and Champagne was born – but not as clear as we see it today. You see, it’s the yeast, a living organism, that eats the grape sugar and converts the sugar into alcohol. When the sugar is all gone, the yeast cells die and fall to the bottom of the bottle. These dead yeast cells are called lees in winemaking terms. In still wines, they are strained out. In Champagne, they remained in the bottle, because straining them out would also eliminate the now coveted bubbles. So, up until the early 1800s, a bottle of Champagne was cloudy with sediment.

In 1816, the Chef du Cave Antoine de Müller of House Cliquot worked closely with the recently widowed Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot and they came up with the solution that is used to this day. By keeping the bottles suspended at a 45 degree angle, and turning each bottle slightly, several times a day – a process called Réumage or Riddling – it pushes the lees to form a clump in the neck of the bottle. When aging is finished and the time comes to prepare the bottles for sale, the neck is submerged in ice until the unwanted clump is frozen. Then the temporary cap is then removed and the sediment shoots out of the bottle, leaving a very clear wine with a stream of visible bubbles. A little more wine gets added with a dosage of sugar to set the sweetness level of the finished wine. Veuve Cliquot sold her crystal clear sparkling wine to the Russian royal court, and Champagne as we know it became the wine of kings, royalty, and very special occasions.

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A few more historical facts – the Russians preferred their Champagne on the sweet side – Sec or Demi Sec – and served it with dessert. The British preferred the dry style we now call Brut and enjoyed it before dinner as an aperitif. Today, statistics show that the current trend is moving toward an even drier style – the bone dry, Brut Nature style. To achieve these styles, after the sediment is disgorged, a Liquor de Expedition is added to fill up the empty space in the bottle, still wine with with a dosage of a sugar. The dosage amount determines the style.

Styles of Champagne from Driest to Sweetest
Brut Nature: Bone dry, less than 3g of sugar added
Extra Brut: less than 6g sugar added
Brut: less than 12 g sugar added
Extra Dry: 12-17g added
Sec: 17-32g added
Demi Sec: 32-50g added
Sweet: more than 50g added

True Champagne is made from a blend of two or three varietals of still wines. They are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Every year, the still wines are made in batches from different vineyards and grapes and are kept separately. The Chef du Cave is a magician, as master, a mad scientist who will sample each of these still wines and come up the blend, sometimes all from one vintage, but most times from several. It is said that at Moët, there are over 800 barrels of still wine from which the Chef can choose for his blend, successfully attempting, year after year, to create the house style that the buyers of Moët have come to expect. One of the many reasons for the high price of Champagne is the amount of working the aging time in the cellar to produce each bottle.

Styles of Champagne by Grape Varietal
Blanc de Blanc: White from White is made from only Chardonnay. Light and dry.
Blanc de Noirs: White from Black only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Full bodied and deeper yellow-gold in color.
Rosé: Made from either adding a bit of Pinot Noir to the blend before second fermentation, or by using a still Pinot Noir that has had some skin contact. Pretty in pink, with a richer, fuller flavor. These styles are more difficult to make.

Champagne House Styles
Non Vintage: The most common. The blend is from good vineyards over several years harvest, aged a minimum of 15 months on the lees in the bottle.
Vintage: The blend is from dozens of still wines all harvested from good to great vineyards in the same year. Ages minimum 3 years on the lees in the bottle.
Prestige Cuvee: A blend of the best wines from Grand Cru vineyards, aged 4-10 years in the bottle on the lees. The first house to make a Prestige Cuvee was Roederer. The wine he made for Czar Alexander II was called, and still is called Cristal.

Champagne Houses and their Prestige Cuvees:
Roederer: Cristal
Bollinger: La Grande Anneé
Perrier-Jouet: Belle Epoque Fleur de Champagne
Pol Roger: Winston Churchill
Veuve Cliquet: Le Grande Dame
Tattinger: Comte de Champagnes
Moët: Dom Pérignon

Food pairings for Champagne
Champagne is usually sipped sans food, but it actually makes a spectacular pairing with many dishes. The cliché Champagne and Caviar is not just a haughty literary reference. The saltiness and oily texture of caviar creates a wonderful mouthfeel. Champagne excels when counterbalancing salt – try it with popcorn sometime for fun – and with rich, creamy foods, like pastries with lots of butter and crunch. Deep fried foods make an excellent partner, think fried chicken or fish. Also raw fish like sushi, sashimi, ceviche and another classic pairing – raw oysters. You can match it with tart foods and sauces of citrus, vinegars, capers and tomatoes. Cheese pairings range from hard Parmesan type cheeses to soft triple-cream styles and salty cheeses like Feta. Actually, it’s easier to list the things that won’t pair well with Champagne. Avoid extremes, dishes that are too sweet, strong tasting fishes, bitter vegetables and rich red meats. My favorite Champagne paring is simply with a glass. Are you thirsty yet?