As the holiday season is upon us I would like to dedicate a moment to Sparkling wine. For some this is a wine that is only enjoyed on a holiday or special occasion and for others it is the drink of choice on a more regular basis. There is one thing for sure; it is always a good choice. The term Champagne is loosely used for all sparkling wine when in reality Champagne is a wine growing region in France, and to use this term accurately, the wine must be produced from grapes there. Sparkling wines not from the Champagne Region are simply just considered Sparkling wine from whatever region they may be from. For example Cava is a term to describe a specific Sparkling wine from Spain; Italy has Prosecco and so on. There is a lot to know about Champagne and its production but there are a few basics that help to understand the complex world of fine Sparkling Wine.
History- The Romans planted grapes around the city of Reims during the 5th century. French kings were originally anointed there and the wine from Champagne became the ceremonial wine. In 1662 methode Champenoise was officially created although there are records of Monks producing sparkling wine up to 100 years prior to 1662. Champagne originally was a lot sweeter than it is today and it wasn’t until Perrier Jouet did not sweeten his 1846 vintage than the Modern Brut was born.
Grapes- In Champagne the traditional varietals used are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Other grapes are allowed but are rarely ever used and those are Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Prestige Cuvee- This is usually a proprietary blend and considered to be the top wine of the certain producer. For example, Moet Chandon makes Dom Perignon, or Roederer makes Cristal and so on. Best of the Best!
Blanc de Blancs- Translated to white of whites. This wine is comprised of 100% Chardonnay and very rarely a little Pinot Blanc.
Blanc de Noir- Translated to white of blacks. This is wine made exclusively from red grapes. Because all grape juice runs clear, with minimal skin contact this wine made from red grapes stays a yellowish silver color.
Rose- This is another style of Sparkling wine were the producer will let the red grape skins macerate for a small amount of time leaving a pinkish hue on the wine.
Sweetness- So within each style the final wine also falls into a sweetness category. The ripeness level and the amount of sugar added in the dosage during secondary fermentation will affect the sweetness level.
The levels of sweetness, Dry to sweet are as follows (grams of residual sugar per liter):
Brut Zero- Less than 3 grams
Extra Brut- Less than 6 grams
Brut- (most common) Less than 12 grams
Extra Dry- between 12 and 17 grams
Sec- between 17 and 32 grams
Demi Sec- between 32 and 50 grams
Doux- 50 and above
Methods of Production-
Methode Champenoise- This is the traditional method in which Champagne is produced. Although there are many other methods of producing Champagne, this is the classic and most respected route. The wine undergoes a primary fermentation and before it is fully finished the wine is bottled. Secondary fermentation is then induced by adding a dosage of yeast and rock sugar. The Appellation dOrigine Controlee of Champagne then requires a minimum of 1 ½ years of bottle aging. The bottle then goes through a remuage process where the lees (wine byproduct essentially) settle in the bottle of the neck. The bottles are adjusted slightly over a period of time to accumulate all the lees in the neck. When ready the bottle is then chilled so the lees in the neck freeze. After that, they pop out the frozen lees and a final amount of sugar depending on the desired sweetness level and then corked to finish.
Vintage vs. Non Vintage- Usually Champagne produces will use just from multiple years to create consistency amongst the flavor profile, but on really good growing years Produces will create a Millesime and the wine will be produced exclusively from a particular vintage.
Producers- Although there are many different producers in Champagne, I will just focus on two different groups of Producers.
Negociant Manipulant- These are the big companies that we all are familier with; (Moet Chandon, Louis Roederer, Clicquot and so on) they buy grapes through contracts with growers and produce and market the wine.
Recoltant Maninpulant- Also known as grower Champagne, this is a growing market and really unique Champagnes. These producers essentially grow their own grapes for their production although they are allowed to purchase up to 5% of their product. This increases your chances for more site specific wines creating more individuality in the wines.
Now that we are all experts on Champagne, we need to try a couple. Here are a few Champagnes and a Premium California Sparkling Wine available;
Veuve Clicquot N.V. Brut (59.99)- One of the most iconic Sparkling wines from Champagne. These grapes are pulled from over 50 growing areas throughout Champagne. The wine is generally comprised of 50% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier although this blend can change slightly. This is just a classic N.V. Brut style champagne that has a toasty, citrus touch of vanilla flavor profile. A classic.
Pierre Peters Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs (59.99)- This is an example of a Grower Champagne. This wine is a blend of over 15 years of harvest all from Grand Cru villages in Cote des Blancs. Made from 100% Chardonnay, this Brut (6-7grams per liter) is a steal at $59.99. It has a pale color with a faint greenness which is common in Sparkling comprised entirely of Chardonnay. The flavor has a really bright citrus component complimented by fresh bread and finishing with a strong sense of mineral. A really complete wine that shows what Blanc de Blancs should be.
Schramsberg 2010 Blance de Blancs (39.99)- This is the first wine that Schramsberg produced in 1965. Small lots of Malolactic and barrel produced wines are blended in to enhance complexity. The wine is aged on its lees for about 2 years before disgorgement. This is a very vibrant; more fruit forward blanc de blancs yet maintains a high level of crispness and acidity. This is a real treat and definitely a great domestic option if Champagne maybe a little out of reach.