The Ultimate Visual Guide to Champagne and Sparkling Wine
Let’s take a look at the history – what is champagne and where did it come from? As many other prominent discoveries of the past, the discovery of champagne is largely a result of an accident. Champagne as we know it came from France, and as majority of other French wines, the name of the region where the wine is produced became the name of the wine. Champagne region is located in the northern part of France. One of the characteristics of that region is cool weather – the mean annual temperature is only slightly above 50°F, just a minimum necessary to allow grapes to ripen.
At the same time, the advantage of the cooler climate is that it allows grapes to ripen slowly, thus gaining more flavor and adding complexity. When grape juice is becoming a wine through the process called fermentation (by adding yeast to the grape juice), constant temperature is very important for the overall success. If the temperature drops too low, the fermentation would stop. Once the temperature rises, if there is any residual yeast left, fermentation will start again. If the wine is already bottled, this so called secondary fermentation will take place inside the bottle. Those wonderful refreshing bubbles, which we adore so much in our champagne, are nothing but carbon dioxide, which is a normal byproduct of fermentation process. When bubbles’ forming takes place during first fermentation, all carbon dioxide will go out in the air. At the same time, when secondary fermentation takes place in the closed bottle, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go, thus it stays in the bottle and becomes a wonderful fizz we all enjoy. Thus thanks to the Champagne’s weather helping to “spoil” bottled wine, and someone’s imagination, we received a gift of great taste called champagne. Who was that “someone”?
History often calls a French monk, Dom Perignon, an inventor of the champagne. In the late 17th century, Dom Perginon was a cellarer on the abbey of Hautvillers, near Epernay in Champagne. Dom Perginon also was a great winemaker, who mastered making practically a white wine form the black grape ( Pinot Noir). He also advanced the art of blending (mixing wines from different vineyards and/or vintages) to produce wine of consistent qualities. Blending is one of the cornerstone processes in making of the champagne. Interestingly enough, Dom Perignon worked hard to prevent the fizz in wine, which was at a time considered a sign of the poor winemaking. Nevertheless, the name Dom Perignon literally became a synonym of the great champagne. It is also suggested that there is a famous phrase which belongs to him – “Come quickly! I am tasting stars! – he said at the first sip of champagne.
Let’s talk about some of the characteristics of the champagne. First, there are 3 types of grapes used in the production of champagne – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Next, there are 2 main categories of champagne – non-vintage (usually the letters NV are added to the name) – blend of wines from the different vintages, and vintage, when only wine of single vintage is used. There are usually only few vintage years in a decade, so the majority of the champagne consumed is a non-vintage (NV) variety. One more classification is based on the types of grape used in the blend – most of the champagne are a blend of different grapes, but if only Chardonnay grapes had being used, the champagne will be called Blanc de Blancs, and if only Pinot Noire is used, the champagne is called Blanc de Noire. Lastly, there are different levels of sweetness found in champagne, which is also put on the label: if the label says “Brut”, it is very dry, Extra Dry – less dry, Sec – sweeter, Demi Sec – medium sweet, Doux – sweet. Interestingly enough, most of the champagne produced before 1850 was sweet. Majority of champagne produced today falls into brut or extra dry categories.
Similar to the other wines from France, there are thousands producers making champagne. At the same time there are currently 26 Champagne Houses, known as Grand Marques – they are making most of well known champagne in the world. Some of the most popular names from that group include Bollinger, Charles Heidsieck, Krug, Moet & Chandon, Mumm, Perrier-Jouet, Piper-Heidsieck, Salon, Tattinger and Veuve Clicqout. Is there champagne made outside of France? Of course, but it is not called champagne. In majority of the cases, only the wines produced in the Champagne region in France are called champagne. Sparkling wines, which are produced using the same winemaking techniques, are made in the different parts of the world – Cava in Spain, Sekt in Germany, Spumante and Prosecco in Italy, sparkling wines in California. Some of the well known sparkling wines producers in California include Korbel, Schramsberg, Iron Horse, Mumm Cuvee Napa, Chandon, J Cellars.
How champagne is served? It is served cold, best temperature being in the range of 43°F - 48°F. Most appropriate glasses for champagne are flute- or tulip-shaped. Do not serve champagne in the wide open glasses – this only leads to champagne going flat in no time, losing all of its refreshing fizz.
What champagne is served with? First, champagne makes great aperitif – great way to start an evening with friends. When it comes to food, similar rules apply as for matching any other wine and food. Champagne represents light and refreshing wine, thus it would be best paired with similar type of food, meaning being light. Shellfish, oysters, seafood, poached salmon all would do great. Also sushi is definitely not to be forgotten. And, yes, of course, the classic combination – Champagne and Caviar.
As John Maynard Keynes said, “my only regret in life is that I did not drink more Champagne" – let’s not make this mistake! Get the friends together, open the bottle of bubbly, and celebrate – New Year, new child, a new beginning! Happy New Year! Cheers!