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Wine regions in Champagne 3 growing regions
Description to Champagne
Sparkling wine from France is probably the most famous alcoholic drink and an epitome of joie de vivre and luxury. As early as 1531, a sparkling wine was documented in south-western France, namely the Blanquette de Limoux from the village of Limoux. But in Champagne, as late as the first half of the 17th century, champagne was by no means synonymous with this type of wine. A common phenomenon in this region was that, due to the cool weather, fermentation was interrupted in autumn and the wines were nevertheless already bottled. In warmer weather in spring, the residual sugar triggered an unplanned or undesired second fermentation in the bottle. So in the beginning there was no intention behind it, it just happened by chance.
The "invention" of champagne
The deliberate production of champagne, i.e. the "invention" of the sparkling drink, is often wrongly attributed to the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715). A statuette of him stands in the parent house of the largest champagne house Moët et Chandon in Épernay, which also produces a brand named after him. One indisputable fact, however, is that he brought the artful assemblage of vintages, grape varieties and sites to the highest perfection. But not only did he not strive for a second fermentation in the bottle, he tried to prevent the undesirable process by various measures. One of these was to use rather red wine grapes.
An important contribution to its popularity was made by the satirist Marquis de Saint-Evremond (1610-1703), who went into exile in London due to disputes with the prime minister of Louis XIV (1638-1715). From 1661, he introduced white wines from the Champagne region in barrels. Due to the warm spring weather, a second fermentation was often already initiated in the barrel. The lively, foaming wines were bottled on arrival and quickly became a popular drink, mainly in aristocratic circles. These were primitive precursors of champagne, already twenty years before Dom Pierre Pérignon got involved with it. In 1663, a "sparkling champagne" was first mentioned in writing in London. So the first aficionados were the English, only afterwards did it also become fashionable in France, especially in Paris.
In the last third of the 17th century, it became common practice in Champagne on a larger scale to add sugar and molasses to the wine during bottling, thus obtaining sparkling and foaming wines. The foaming product was then deliberately produced in larger quantities towards the end of this century. But even thick-walled bottles very often could not withstand the great carbon dioxide pressure created by the lavish addition of sugar and violent fermentation. Around 80% of all bottles broke at that time. That is why only a few thousand bottles were produced annually in the entire 18th century. And these were extremely expensive. For this reason, champagne initially developed exclusively as a fashionable drink in aristocratic circles or among the wealthy.
Large-scale production of champagne only began in the first third of the 19th century, when the problem of the correct sugar dosage was solved. The chemist Jean-Antoine Claude Chaptal (1756-1832) helped to clarify the problem. He recognised that the cause of foaming in the bottle was fermentation that had not yet finished. However, the apothecary Jean-Baptiste François (1792-1838) earned the greatest merit by discovering the secret of the correct amount of sugar. Other milestones were the improvement of corks, the development of a corking machine and, in the Champagne house Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, the invention of the shaking desk during remuage by the legendary cellar master Anton Müller.
Region of origin
Champagne and the Champagne produced here enjoys the status of an Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP), even if this is not usually indicated on the label. It is mainly produced white and in smaller quantities also as rosé, but there is no red as in sparkling wine. According to the strict conditions of the CIVC, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it fulfils precisely regulated requirements regarding its origin. The grapes must be grown in the "Région délimitée de la Champagne viticole", pressed and fermented in double fermentation according to the Méthode champenoise established in 1935. This was established by an EU regulation in 1994 after endless legal disputes. Outside Champagne (and also in other countries) a quality sparkling wine is called crémant and in German-speaking countries Sekt. The country-specific designations are:
The designation Champagne is not only protected as an origin within the European Union, but in a total of 120 countries worldwide. In Russia, on the other hand, a law was passed in 2021 that the designation "Champagne" may only be used here for Russian sparkling wines. According to the new law, French champagnes must be named with the addition "sparkling wine". The word "Champagne" may now only appear on the label in Latin and not in Cyrillic script. On the back labels, "Champagne" is now written in small letters.
Seven varieties are permitted, but only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay play a role. The four varieties Arbane, Petit Meslier, Fromenteau (Pinot Gris ) and Pinot Blanc are permitted for historical reasons, but only occupy 90 hectares. Authorised vines are Chablis, Cordon de Royat, Guyot and Vallée de la Marne. These are short prunings that ensure moderate production. The maximum yield is set annually by the CIVC and depends on the weather and also the economic situation. If there is an oversupply of champagne, it is throttled back. In 2019, this was 10,200 kg/ha of grapes (in 2018 it was 10,800 kg/ha).
Producing champagne is an immensely laborious and complicated process. The chronicler Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894) described this in his book "A History of Champagne", published in 1882: 'Good champagne does not fall from the sky or leap out of the rock; rather, it is the result of untiring work, prudent expertise, the most exacting care and the most careful observation'. The special thing about champagne is that its production only begins where the preparation of other wines usually ends. There are countless legends and anecdotes surrounding champagne. Madame Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress of King Louis XV (1710-1774), said: Champagne is the only drink that makes women more beautiful the more they drink of it. Incidentally, her favourite brand came from the house of Moët et Chandon. The most beautiful anecdote, however, is undoubtedly that of the legendary Madame Lily Bollinger (1899-1977).
The individual steps listed below are essentially the same as for the production of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine (quality sparkling wine) or sparkling wine.
As a rule, the grapes are harvested early. This means that they have not yet reached full ripeness and have a lower must weight. A low yield does not play a major role either. The essential criterion for the optimal condition of the grapes is not a high sugar content, but the ability to produce basic wines with high acidity. Furthermore, astringent phenols (tannins) are undesirable. The grapes are harvested by hand, all unripe and rotten grapes are sorted out. The minimum potential alcohol content in the must is set annually (around 9% vol). The grape prices are determined annually according to market-specific criteria, whereby the Échelle des crus system with its classification into Grand Cru, Premiere Cru and other communes serves as a guide.
The maximum yield is limited to 102 litres of must (yielding 100 litres of wine) from 160 kg of grapes. Only gentle whole bunch pressing is allowed. The traditional presses hold 4,000 kg (1 Marc) of grapes, from which 2,550 l of must may be obtained. The quantities result from the pièce champenoise barrel type of 205 l used here. The 2,050 l (10 Pièces) resulting from the first pressing is called Tête de cuvée, which is the best quality. This is followed by a "waisting" (turning over) of the mash and another pressing. These remaining 500 l are called Taille (until 1990 there were two Pièces Premiere Taille with 410 l and one Pièce Deuxième Taille with 205 l). Only these musts may be used for champagne. The must from other pressing operations is called "Rebéche" and is only permitted for distillation.
Fermentation of the base wine
Many Champagne houses use only the best must (tête de cuvée) for the production of the base wines. The must is clarified at low temperature for 12 to 48 hours by settling before fermentation (débourbage). It is then transferred to the fermentation tanks, with most companies using steel tanks of 50 to 1,200 hectolitres in volume, and a few still using traditional oak barrels. Yeasts recommended by the CIVC are often used. The fermentation temperature is between 12 and 25 °Celsius. At around 22 °Celsius, alcoholic fermentation lasts about three weeks. Most wines then undergo malolactic fermentation. Finally, another clarification follows, and the final product is called "vin clair". The base wines usually have an unobtrusive, acidic taste compared to still wines.
This process determines the distinctiveness and quality of the product. The selection or blending of wines and vintages requires experience, sensory skills, imagination and care. It is a closely guarded secret of the champagne houses. At this point, it is decided whether the wine quality is sufficient to create a Millésime (vintage champagne), which only happens in particularly good years (free decision of the houses). According to EU regulations, such a champagne must contain at least 85% of the specified vintage, but the CIVC has tightened this up to 100%. In the case of vintageless champagnes, the assemblage is made from different vintages or wines. At Moët et Chandon, a cuvée of up to 30 batches is composed from the huge reservoir of 300 basic wines. This can also include the reserve wine. The "Grande Cuvée" of the champagne house Krug even consists of up to 60 different wines. The drawing off of the wine into bottles for the following bottle fermentation may not be carried out before 1 January of the year following the grape harvest.
Liqueur de tirage and bottle fer mentation
One of the basic rules is that after alcoholic fermentation, Champagne must undergo a second fermentation in a bottle (i.e. never in a tank or barrel). Until 2001, the fact that champagne must have been fermented in the bottle in which it is marketed was restricted to the normal bottle (0.75 l) and magnum (1.5 l) formats. All small and the remaining large formats could be filled from normal bottles. Since the beginning of 2002, half bottles (0.375 l) and jeroboams (3 l) must now also be original-bottle fermented. Some producers like Krug or Pommery have always treated all their formats this way.
To trigger bottle fermentation, the so-called liqueur de tirage (filling dosage) is added to the base wine. Depending on the residual sugar present, this is a small amount of a mixture of cane sugar dissolved in wine and special yeasts, of about 25 g/l. Many producers add riddling aids such as bentonite to facilitate the subsequent disgorgement (removal of the yeast sediment). The wine is then bottled and sealed with a crown cork. Some producers have a small, thimble-sized plastic cup (bidule) on the inside of the crown cork to hold the yeast sediment.
Bottle fermentation takes about ten days to three months at relatively low temperatures between 9 and 12 °Celsius. During this process, the alcohol content increases by about 1.2% to 1.3% by volume. Under high pressure of at least 3.5 to 6 bar, the typical, very fine bubbly foam (French: "prise de mousse") is created in the form of carbon dioxide. High bubbliness of the champagne (sparkling wine) with tiny bubbles is a decisive quality criterion.
Sur lie (yeast sedimentation)
Bottle fermentation creates a sediment of dead yeast cells (lie) and other turbid substances that play an important role in the ageing process. The bottles must now be stored for at least 15 months (of which at least 12 months on the lees), or three years in the case of vintage Champagne. But there are also champagnes with 10, 20 and rarely even up to 50 years of storage. The longer the wine is stored on the lees, the shorter the drinking time when opened. On average, however, the storage time for non-vintage products is 2.5 to 5 years. During this time, substances are absorbed from the dead yeast residue and the finely sparkling, typical taste is developed.
The bottles are placed with the neck downwards in the slanted and initially very steeply positioned pupitres (riddling desks). Every day for up to three months, they are manually shaken by the remueur (riddler), turned around an eighth of a circle and the desk is flattened a little until the bottles are upside down and the sediment sits in the neck of the bottle behind the cork. This is usually done 24 to 32 times. As a positioning aid for the remueur, many houses attach a cellar point (marque) to the bottom of the bottle. Experienced remueurs can handle 30,000 to 50,000 bottles of champagne per day. The time-consuming and labour-intensive manual remuage is now taken over by gyropalettes (computer-controlled metal boxes) at large companies, reducing the process to one week. The latest processes are intended to make both the remuage and the gyropalettes superfluous. Adsorptive alginates are used for this purpose.
disgorgement (Remove yeast sediment)
After the remuage, certain houses delay the removal of the sediment as long as possible in order to increase the fullness of flavour by storing the wine on the yeast for a long time. A trademark of the Champagne house Bollinger in this respect is Récemment dégorgé (RD). Warm disgorging (disgorgement à la volée) requires great skill to avoid excessive losses. Today, cold disgorging (disgorgement à la glace) is mainly used. The bottles are put with the neck into an ice-cold salt solution and then opened (degorging hook). The almost frozen lump of yeast shoots out; the champagne splashed in the process is refilled if necessary. The video (click to view) shows the manual process at the Philipponnat Champagne House; the yeast sediment can be seen in the neck of the bottle:
Liqueur d'expédition, corking and poignettage.
Alternatively, the so-called liqueur d'expédition (shipping dosage) is now added to the bottles. This is a mixture of wine and cane sugar or, for some producers, brandy. This replaces the amount missing in the bottle due to the removal of the yeast and gives the champagne the desired degree of sweetness (sugar content). In the case of high-quality vintage champagne or very long yeast storage, some producers do without this dosage. In this case, pas dosé, dosage zéro or brut nature (meaning "without dosage") appears on the label. After the cork has been driven into the neck of the bottle by means of compression, it is covered with a metal cap (capsule), which in turn is fixed by a wire basket known as an agraffe (muselet). In order to optimally combine the dosage with the wine, the bottles are shaken manually or mechanically, if necessary, in a process known as poignettage (also piquetage). In the video clip (click to view) you can see the mechanical addition of the shipping dosage and the corking at the Billiot company.
Champagne is one of the most strictly controlled products in the world. A total of five institutions check the specifications and quality. These are the Ministry of Agriculture, the State Wine Control and Trade Inspectorate, the INAO, the Customs and Tax Administration and the Champagne Association CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne). The name "Champagne" and, in the case of vintage Champagne, the year must appear on the label. Both must also be branded into the cork. Each Champagne label bears a six- to seven-digit control number assigned by the CIVC. The first one or two digits provide information about the type of producer or bottler:
- CM = Coopérative de Manipulation (mark of a cooperative).
- MA = Marque d'Acheteur (special brand - produced for supermarket, restaurant)
- ND = Négociant Distributeur (buys champagne, labels and distributes)
- NM = Négociant Manipulant (buys grapes, must, base wine - processes, distributes)
- R = Récoltant (independent winegrower, has champagne produced on a contract basis)
- RC = Récoltant Coopérateur (G-member, delivers grapes and receives champagne)
- RM = Récoltant Manipulant (produces champagne from own grapes)
- SR = Société de Récoltants (related producer association)
For Champagne (sparkling wines), special oversized bottles are often used, which are often named after famous biblical figures. As the production is very cost-intensive and complex, this is not done by all Champagne houses and only in smaller quantities (see Bottles).
There are around 15,000 Champagne winegrowers, many of them small, grape-only producers with only a few hectares of vines. But about 5,000 of them, as well as 60 cooperatives and 360 trading houses, produce Champagne. These produce at least one, some even hundreds of brands (in this case mainly MA's). The small producers, often with only a few thousand bottles, very often produce amazing qualities because, unlike the big houses, they can use all the grapes from grand cru plots. A total of 11,000 champagne brands are registered with the CIVC. A total of around 300 million bottles are marketed annually. This means that on average ten bottles are opened every second worldwide. Around 40% of the total volume is exported. The main customers are Great Britain, the USA and Germany. The programme of large companies includes a standard vintageless quality, a vintage champagne, a blanc de blancs (Chardonnay), a rosé and, as the top product of the house, a cuvée de prestige. Some companies also produce non-sparkling red, rosé and white wines under the AOC Coteaux Champenois.
Well-known champagne producers or Champagne brands include Ayala, Besserat de Bellefon, Billecart-Salmon, Billiot, Binet, Bollinger, Canard-Duchêne, Charles Heidsieck, Delamotte, Deutz, Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Fleury Père et Fils, Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Heidsieck Monopole, Henriot, Krug, Jacquart, Jacquesson, Joseph Perrier, Laherte Frères, Lanson, Larmandier-Bernier, Laurent-Perrier, Mercier, Moët et Chandon, Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte (Palmes d'Or), Perrier-Jouët, Philipponnat, Piollot, Piper Heidsieck, Paillard, Pol Roger, Pommery, Roederer, Ruinart, Salon, Taittinger, Tarlant, Thiénot, Union Champagne, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin and Vranken.
An often asked question is whether champagne is suitable for long storage and develops in the same way as a high-quality still wine. As a rule, it has already reached its peak from the time of marketing (see under sparkling wine). Several finds of bottles in shipwrecks have shown that due to the "ideal storage conditions" (dark, cool, high pressure, quiet storage) even very old champagnes can still be enjoyable. The record is held by a Veuve-Clicquot of the 1839 vintage found in a wreck in 2010, which was not only enjoyable after more than 170 years, but even tasted excellent. A diverse culture has developed around the enjoyment of champagne (sparkling wine). For example, it is tradition and international standard to use champagne for ship christenings.
On the subject of enjoyment, see also Champagne cocktail, Champagne bottle, Champagne glass, Champagne bucket, Champagne tower, Champagne stopper, Champagne tongs, Placomusophilia and Sabrieren (Champagne heads).
Complete lists of the numerous vinification measures or cellar techniques, as well as the various types of wine, sparkling wine and distillate regulated by wine law, can be found under the keyword winemaking. Comprehensive information on wine law can be found under the heading Wine Law.
A remarkably informative website about champagne is www.champagne.com. Courtesy of the author John McCabe, this excellent work has been used as a source for operational descriptions of many of the Champagne Houses listed above.
Dom Perignon: By Victor Grigas - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Rüttelpult: By Manikom - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Remuage: Champagne house Schlumberger
disgorgement: Champagne House Philipponnat
Bottle sizes: © Norbert F. J. Tischelmayer
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