W&W Wine Guide - Champagne

W&W Wine Guide - Champagne

There are plenty of pretenders to the throne when it comes to fizz, but none will ever usurp the majesty of Champagne. They say you can't bottle timeless quality and effortless elegance, but Champagne does exactly that. Here, we give you a quick synopsis of how it's done! The primary grapes used in the production of Champagne are black grapes, Pinot Meunier, and the white grape, Chardonnay. Champagne appellation law only allows grapes grown according to appellation rules in specifically designated plots within the appellation to be used in the production of Champagne. Champagne is a sparkling wine produced from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, following rules that demand secondary fermentation of the wine in the bottle to create carbonation. In the European Union (EU), the term "Champagne" can only be used for sparkling wines produced from grapes grown in the region of Champagne and made using the "Methode Traditionelle" method of secondary fermentation. Some countries outside of the EU use the term champagne as a generic term for sparkling wine, but the majority of countries reserve the term exclusively for sparkling wines that come from Champagne and are produced under the rules of the appellation.

"Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!" - Dom Perignon

History The Romans were the first to plant vineyards in this area of north-east France, with the region being cultivated by at least the 5th century. Later, churches owned vineyards and monks produced wine for use in the sacrament of Eucharist. French kings were traditionally anointed in Reims, and Champagne wine was served as part of coronation festivities. The Champenois people were envious of the reputation of the wines made by their Burgundian neighbours to the south and sought to produce wines of equal quality and acclaim. However, due to the northerly climate of the region, the Champenois faces a unique set of challenges in making red wine; the grapes would struggle to ripen fully in the colder climate and often would have bracing levels of acidity and low sugar levels. The wines would be lighter bodied and thinner than the Burgundy wines they were seeking to outshine.


Contrary to legend and popular belief, Dom Pérignon did not invent sparkling wine. The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, near Carcassonne in 1531. They achieved this by bottling the wine before the initial fermentation had ended. Over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented the addition of sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that the famed Benedictine monk invented Champagne. In 1692, Merret presented a paper at the Royal Society, in which he detailed what is referred to as "méthode champenoise". Merret's discoveries coincided with English glass-makers' technical developments that allowed bottles to be produced that could withstand the required internal pressures during secondary fermentation. French glass-makers at this time could not produce bottles of the required quality or strength. In France the first sparkling Champagne was created accidentally; the pressure in the bottle led it to be called "the devil's wine", as bottles exploded or corks popped. In 1844 Adolphe Jaquesson invented the muselet to prevent the corks from blowing out. Initial versions were difficult to apply and inconvenient to remove. Even when it was deliberately produced as a sparkling wine, Champagne was for a very long time made by the méthode rurale, where the wine was bottled before the only fermentation had finished. Champagne did not use the méthode champenoise until the 19th Century, about 200 years after Christopher Merret documented the process. In the 19th century Champagne was noticeably sweeter than the Champagnes of today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to London. The designation Brut Champagne was created for the British in 1876. Methode Traditionelle (Traditional Method) After primary fermentation and bottling, a second alcoholic fermentation occurs in the bottle. This second fermentation is induced by adding several grams of yeast and several grams of rock sugar. According to the appellation d'origine contrôlée a minimum of 1.5 years is required to completely develop all the flavour. For years where the harvest is exceptional, a "vintage" is declared and some Champagne will be made from and labelled as the products of a single vintage rather than a blend of multiple years' harvests. This means that the Champagne will be very good and has to mature for at least 3 years. During this time the Champagne bottle is sealed with a crown cap similar to that used on beer bottles. After aging, the bottle is manipulated, either manually or mechanically, in a process called remuage, or riddling, so that the lees settle in the neck of the bottle. After chilling the bottles, the neck is frozen, and the cap removed. The pressure in the bottle forces out the ice containing the lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbon dioxide in solution. Some syrup (liqueur de dosage) is added to maintain the level within the bottle and, importantly, adjust the sweetness of the finished wine. Dr. Graham Simpson Wine & Spirits Buyer, Whitmore & White