- It’s only champagne if it’s made in the Champagne region in France…
- Champagne is East of Paris in Northern France and enjoys (!!!) a climate similar to the UK.
- It takes about three hours to drive from the north of Champagne to the south.
- The chalk that the champagne vines sit on begins in the south of England can be seen at the white cliffs of Dover.
Only 3 grape varieties can be used to make champagne:
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier.
Any combination can be used, but quite often a champagne might comprise only one or two of the varieties. For example a Blanc de Noir is 100% Pinot Noir while a Blanc de Blancs is made solely from Chardonnay.
Only 3 grape varieties can be used to make champagne
Chardonnay, Pinot Noir & Pinot Meunier. (The Pinots are black-skinned)
- Chardonnay grapes are for finesse and freshness. With age Chardonnay grapes add creaminess and nuttiness.
- Pinot Noir grapes give strawberry, raspberry and cherry flavours, which become richer with age even currant-like.
- Pinot Meunier adds spice to the equation and fruitiness and is the fullest bodied of the 3 grapes.
Pick the grapes carefully by hand – removing any with mildew or that are over-ripe.
Pressing is done immediately but gently; the grapes are crushed with their stems intact as these provide a series of natural conduits for the grape juice to run along rapidly thus preventing the juice being discoloured by the skins.
After pressing the grape juice is transferred to large stainless steel vats or occasionally oak barrels for the first fermentation to take place. Sugar and yeast are added to the juice to make still wine.There is no law on how long the first fermentation must be, this is down to individual house preferences.
In Spring (following the harvest the autumn before) the wines from different tanks are tasted and a blend is made that the wines maker hopes will develop into a great champagne. (In non vintage champagnes – reserve wines from previous harvests are also used in the blend).
The second fermentation – ‘prise de mousse’ or capturing the sparkle!
This is the part of the process where the bubbles develop. Once the blend is decided, the still wine is bottled and a ‘liqueur de tirage’ (basically 18g sugar and 0.3g yeast) is added to each bottle to ensure the champagne reaches the correct pressure and alcohol level. A temporary plastic cork is applied with a metal beer cap on top and the bottles are stored horizontally in the cellar for at least 15 months – this is called “being on the lees”.
Once the champagne has fermented and aged for the required time the yeast sediment has to be removed. This process is known as ‘remuage’. During remuage the bottles are transferred into either gyro palettes (below left) or pupitres (below right). Gyropalettes turn the bottles completely neck down in eight days compared to the eight weeks it takes with a pupitre.
Disgorgement and Liqueur d’expedition or dosage
The sediment, now in the neck of the bottle, has to be removed. While the bottle is still upside down, the neck is frozen, an ice cube forms, the bottle is turned back upright, the metal bottle cap is mechanically removed and the pressure inside the bottle ejects the ice cube, containing the sediment. The liquid lost in the ice cube is replaced by the ‘dosage’ or ‘liqueur d’expedition’ a mixture of sugar and wine. The bottles are then corked, a metal cap is placed on top of the cork and then the cork is secured to the bottle with a wire. The ‘collar’ and labels are then added. Then it is sent all round the world to spread happiness and joy!
Types of champagne
The style of the champagne depends on how much ‘dosage’ or ‘liqueur d’expedition’ is added in the final stages of production.
There are 6 styles of champagne, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra sec, Sec, Demi Sec and Douz.
Brut is by far the most common, and ranges from very dry to dry. A wine maker is allowed to add between 0 and 15 grams of sugar per litre to a Brut champagne. Brut zero champagnes contain no added sugar and are topped up with reserve wine. Doux champagnes contain at least 50 grams of sugar per litre, so they’re very sweet!
Types of champagne
The most common type of champagne is non vintage which means it contains wines from several harvest years.
Vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from one particular, stated year only, when the quality of the harvest was sufficient to declare a “Vintage”.
There are two different ways to produce Rosé Champagne. The first is using the maceration process, whereby the skins and juice of the grapes are macerated to extract the pigment to give the champagne the pink shade. The other process simply involves adding a small proportion of red wine from the Champagne region to give the wine a rose tint. The wine used most often is Bouzy Rouge from the village of Bouzy! There is a great deal of discussion and also snobbery about which method produces the best Rose but apparently when blind tasting it is notoriously difficult to distinguish which method has actually been used.
Cava is made in the same way as champagne ie the second fermentation is in the bottle.
There are some differences though…
Grapes – Spanish cava producers have started to use chardonnay and pinot noir in cava, however, the 3 indigenous Spanish cava grapes are Macabeo, Xarel.lo and Parellada. All green skinned.
Ageing – the minimum time for ageing a cava is 9 months.
Climate – The climate is warmer and gentler than Northern France. The cava area is
All the above mean that cava is fruitier and lighter than champagne….an excellent everyday alternative.
Prosecco must be made with the Glera grape and it must be produced in a designated area in the North East of Italy near Venice.
Prosecco is fermented for a second time in a stainless steel tank, rather than a bottle and for a very short time 3-4 weeks. This means it’s much fruitier and lighter in style than champagne and cava.