When considering what to feature for the Wednesday Wine post today, it didn’t take me long to decide – champagne is my drink of choice, especially for ringing in the new year. Quintessence wine expert, Terry Rogers of Horseneck Wines in Greenwich, was only too happy to accommodate! Here’s her incredibly informative and insightful Champagne 101 take on the history and making of our favorite festive drink!
What better way to enjoy the holidays than to get together to share a glass of the good bubbly with friends and family. As you may know, in order to be called Champagne the product must be produced within the boundaries of the Champagne Region in France. This Region was delineated many generations ago and must be adhered to with strict regulations. Therefore, when you look at the prices of Champagne and wonder why they are so high, you must realize all the many factors that go into the making of that final bottle. (from Q – At the end of the history and making of champagne, we have some choice suggestions for you).
Champagne was developed in France about 300 years ago from a process involving lots of chemistry and many tedious physical manipulations. The history of Champagne dates to about 1700 AD and a monk cellarmaster at the Abbey of Hautvillers near the city of Reims, the “capital” of the Champagne region. As the story goes, a monk named Dom Pérignon was making wine for his colleagues when, unbeknownst to him, he failed to complete the fermentation before bottling and corking the wine. During the cold winter months the fermentation remained dormant, but when spring arrived the contents of the sealed bottles began to warm and fermentation resumed producing carbon dioxide that was trapped in the bottle. Later that spring Dom noticed that bottles of wine in the cellar were exploding, so he opened one that was intact and drank, declaring “Come quickly! I’m drinking stars!” Thus, Champagne was born and named after the region where it was discovered.
The key reaction of winemaking is alcoholic fermentation, the conversion of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide by yeast. The key process in producing Champagne is a SECOND fermentation that occurs in a sealed bottle. The entire process is described below.
SELECTING THE CUVÉE (La Cuvée)
The cuvée is the base wine selected to make the Champagne. The most expensive Champagnes are made from cuvées from selected vineyards in the Champagne region. Cuvées can be from a pure grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, or can be a mixture of several grape varieties. Chardonnay is a white grape variety with white juice, Pinot Noir a red grape variety with WHITE juice. Pinot Meunier, a relative of Pinot Noir, also is used extensively. The slight rust color imparted to some Champagne results from using Pinot Noir cuvées that acquire some red color from contact with the skins. The longer the juice remains in contact with the skins, the darker red it becomes. If a Champagne is made exclusively from Chardonnay, it is called “blanc de blanc,” white wine from white grapes. Most Champagne is made from mixed cuvees.
After the cuvée is selected, sugar, yeast, and yeast nutrients are added and the entire concoction, called the tirage, is put in a thick walled glass bottle and sealed with a bottle cap. The tirage is placed in a cool cellar (55-60°F), and allowed to slowly ferment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Since the bottle is sealed, the carbon dioxide cannot escape, and,thereby producing the sparkle of Champagne.
AGING ON DEAD YEAST
As the fermentation proceeds, yeast cells die and after several months, the fermentation is complete. However, the Champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in a toasty, yeasty characteristic. During this aging period, the yeast cells split open and literally spill their guts into the solution imparting complex, yeasty flavors to the Champagne. The best and most expensive Champagne is aged for five or more years.
RIDDLING (Le Remuage)
After the aging process is complete, the dead yeast cells are removed through a process known as riddling. The Champagne bottle is placed upside down in a holder at a 75° angle. Each day the riddler comes through the cellar and turns the bottle 1/8th of a turn while keeping it upside down. This procedure forces the dead yeast cells into the neck of the bottle where they are subsequently removed. A riddler typically handles 20,000 to 30,000 bottles per day.
The Champagne bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath. This procedure results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. The bottle cap is then removed and the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out leaving behind clear Champagne. At this point the DOSAGE, a mixture of white wine, brandy, and sugar, is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle.The bottle is then corked and the cork wired down to secure the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide.The sweetness levels of Champagne range very dry (ultra brut) to very sweet (doux), with brut being the most common.
Many Champagne houses produce “luxury cuvées,” their best and most expensive wines. Dom Pérignon is the luxury cuvée of Möet & Chandon; Cristal is pride of Roederer. Bollinger produces R.D. or “recently disgorged” wines. For example, you can purchase a 1982 Bollinger R.D. that was disgorged in April 1991, nine years after being placed in the bottle. (from Q – this was the champagne we served at our wedding!!)
I travel to Champagne each fall to see the harvest and renew my spirit with the greatest beverage known to mankind . I personally love Rose Champagne since it is drier that most Brut Champagnes due to the percentage of Pinot Noir in the blend. Most Champagnes are blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
This year I was hosted by four of my favorite Champagne houses, Krug, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent Perrier and Salon.
Maggie Henriques, President of the Krug house has an extreme passion for Krug and has does extensive research going back six generations to the beginning of the Krug Champagne house. (here I am with her at Krug below). Their Krug Grand Cuvee is a blend of their various vintages and is a stellar Champagne at $185 per bottle. The Krug wines commonly display a subtle nuttiness. Krug uses complete barrel fermentation which is not so common in most of the champagne houses.
Antoine Billecart was as charming as could be. After showing us his new $20 million tank facility (the two of us there below – note from Q. – I wouldn’t have minded going on that tour for obvious reasons!) he escorted us into his Grandmother Elizabeth’s house, which is now their beautiful guest cottage on the property where we drank a bottle of the Billecart Salmon “Cuvee Elizabeth” Rose Champagne vintage 2002. Look for all the newest vintages to be arriving in Connecticut during 2011
Laurent Perrier hosted us at their Chateau de Louvois, which is the owner’s home in the town of Louvois. The home is a replica of Versailles only quite a bit smaller. We were treated to evening champagne, a spectacular formal dinner, again with my champagne of choice Laurent Perrier Rose $69 a bottle, an overnight stay and breakfast with homemade apple juice from their apple trees. The house was founded in 1812 and in 1939 was acquired by Bernard de Nonancourt. Bernard passed away two weeks after we were there and was loved by his employees; his daughters carry on at the helm.
Salon was founded by Eugène Aimé Salon in the early 20th century. Salon was convinced that the chardonnay grapes from the Le Mesnil-sur-Orger vineyards could produce wine with favorable levels of finesse and elegance without the need to add pinot noir or pinot meunier. Around the turn of the 20th century, Salon began producing a Chardonnay-only cuvée that he shared privately with friends. The first commercial vintage of Champagne Salon was in 1921 and by 2006, the house has released only 37 vintages under the Salon label.Following Eugène Aimé Salon’s death in 1943, his niece inherited the company which was eventually sold to Laurent-Perrier in 1989. Since then, Salon is effectively the prestige cuvée of the combined Salon-Delamotte house.
In addition to the bottles she mentioned above, Terry picked a selection of champagnes from these houses and others as suggestions for our Champagne 101 piece – for drinking at home or bringing as gifts for your upcoming celebration.
Laurent-Perrier Brut non vintage $36
Taittinger Brut non vintage $38 (from Q. – my personal favorite in this category)
Veuve Clicquote brut non vintage $40
Krug Rosé Brut NV $34
For the Tete de Cuvée category:
Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame Pucci bag 1996 $149
Veuve Clicquot La Grand Dame Champagne Riva (as in luxury yachts) box 1998 $149
Dom Perignon Andy Warhol 2002 label $150
Louis Roederer Cristal 2002 $189
Salon Blanc de Blanc Brut Les Mesnil 1996
So – plenty to choose from!! Cheers!