Champagne is the yardstick by which all other sparkling wines are measured. What makes Champagne so special? Three things, really.
- Champagne can only be produced in a defined region in northeast France that has a unique terroir that produces wines unlike anywhere else.
- It is made primarily (99 percent) from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (four other grapes are authorized).
- The way it's made -- the "Méthod Champenoise" (known outside of Champagne as the "Méthod traditionnelle") -- shapes its identity. Simplistically, it is the product of two separate alcoholic fermentations, the first in a vat when grapes are fermented into a base wine, and the second in the same bottle that is ultimately sold to the consumer. The wine is then aged in bottle, producing a wine with vibrant acidity and aromas of freshly baked bread or nuts.
Some terms to know:
- Non Vintage ("NV"). Unlike most wines, you won't find a vintage year on most champagne bottles. That's because it is usually made from a blend of different grapes and vintages to produce a consistent "house style." In contrast, "Vintage" champagne is produced in exceptional years and shows the characteristics of that year.
- Grower champagne ("farmer fizz"). You'll see the term "RM" (Récoltant-Manipulant) on a producer's code on the label. It means that the producer uses only grapes that are grown and processed on its property. Some other codes:
- NM (Négociant manipulant). Most of the major Champagne houses fall into the category. It means that the producer buys grapes, or wine, from others to make Champagne on its own premises and market it under it's own label.
- RC (Récoltant-coopérateur. This is a cooperative who markets coop produced Champagne under its own name.
- CM (Coopérative de manipulation). A wine cooperative that markets Champagne made by the coop on its own premises from member's grapes.
- Prestige Cuvée. Each champagne house produces a top-of-the-line "prestige cuvée." For example, Veuve Cliquot produces *La Grande Dame."
- Blanc de Blancs. A Champagne that is made from only white grapes (predominantly Chardonnay.)
- Blanc de Noirs is white champagne made from red grapes, and it tends to be more fruity and powerful.
Sweetness levels. Champagne comes in different levels of sweetness, although most American consumers prefer Brut. (More than 90 percent of Champagne production is Brut.) From least to most sweet (the parenthetical numbers indicate the amount of residual sugar in the wine), the levels are:
- Dry: Brut Nature (0-0.3%); Extra Brut (0-0.6%); Brut (0-1.2%); Extra-Sec (1.2 - 1.7%)
- Off Dry or Medium Sweet: Sec (1.7-3.2%); Demi-Sec (3.2-5%)
- Sweet: Doux (>5%).
- The ideal serving temperature is 47 - 50 degrees F. Below that temperature the aromas are difficult to detect, and above 50 degrees the wine appears heavier and less bright. Putting the bottle in an ice bucket for about a half-hour, or in the warmest part of the refrigerator for four hours, will get you in the ballpark.
- Opening Champagne. Tilt the bottle at a 45 degree angle, pointing away from people (the cork can travel up to 60 miles an hour and cause serious injury). With your hand on the cork, remove the foil wrapping an wire cage. Hold the cork firmly with one hand while rotating the bottle until the cork slides out.
Grand Crus and Such.
- There are roughly 300 villages authorized to produce Champagne. Of those, 17 are rated "Grand Cru." Unlike regions that rate specific vineyards, entire villages are rated, even the quality may vary within the village. There are also 42 villages rated "Premier Cru."
- The system under which the villages are ranked is called the Echelle des Crus. The best villages receive a 100 percent rating; the Premier Cru villages are those rated between 90 - 99 percent; and villages must have at least an 80% rating to be authorized to produce Champagne. It was once used to set the price that grape growers received (e.g., Grand Cru villages received 100 percent of the reference price), but prices are now set set in the open market.
Some interesting books on Champagne. The two books below are both entertaining and informative.
- The Widow Cliquot: The Study of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It, Tilar Mazzeo (2008). The NY Times bestselling story of Barbe-Nicole Cliquot Ponsardin. This is an entertaining and informative story of a woman widowed before 30, with no business or wine training, who built one of the great champagne houses. Barbe-Nicole took control of the family business in 1805 - a time when women simply didn't do that sort of thing. By the age of 40 , she was one of wealthiest entrepreneurs in Europe and one of first women to lead an international company. In Champagne, she was known as "La Grande Dame."
- Champagne Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink, Alan Tardi (2016). The author was granted inside access to the making of the 2013 Krug Grand Cuvée. The book recounts the events of that harvest, interspersed with a history of champagne and and a description of its terroir.