Note from the author: A few weeks ago, I traveled to France with a group of writers, hosted by Wines of France and Sopexa. Here are a few photographs and takeaways from my trip.
Ever wonder what makes those little bubbles in your glass of Champagne? Do you know how long it took to make that bottle you're popping this Thanksgiving? I recently traveled to France to check out this winegrowing region and learn what I could about the history of the area and how your bubbly gets made.
A Little History
Champagne is one of the northernmost wine growing regions in the world, hovering around the 50th parallel. The region is so cold that, historically, it was difficult to make good still wine. So, the story goes, the good monk Dom Pérignon began to blend different wines from different plots in order to improve the flavor of the final wine. He was also the first to make white wine from red grapes (or so the story goes), which is important since two of the three grapes commonly used in Champagne are red.
The monk and his colleagues did not set out to make a sparkling wine. Instead, the region dictated what the wine became: grapes would be harvested, pressed, and made into still wine, but halfway through the winter, the cold climate would halt the fermentation process. Once it warmed up, fermentation started again in the bottle, resulting in the fizzy, frothy forebear of today's Champagne.
Get to Know the Grapes and Regions
During my stay, I got a taste of how cool and chilly it can be, with rain coming down just days after the harvest and a heavy fog hanging over the chalky vineyards. Each of Champagne's three primary growing areas is known for producing particular varieties: Montagne de Reims for pinot noir; Côte des Blancs for chardonnay; and Vallée de la Marne for pinot meunier (although that area is also known for extraordinary pinot noir in some corners of the region).
Pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay: you'll usually only see these three grapes in Champagne blends. Each grape gives something different to the wine. Chardonnay is used for finesse, elegance, and aging potential; pinot noir for aroma and structure; meunier for fruitiness, a hint of earth, and body. Winemakers make their decisions about what grapes go into their wines based on the style they want to make: many high-end cuvée Champagnes will tend to use only chardonnay and pinot noir; blanc de blancs use only chardonnay grapes; and nonvintage Champagnes will often use a combination of all three. There are some ancient grape varieties still permitted by AOC law: pinot gris, pinot blanc, petit meslier, and arbanne, and some growers are experimenting with these.
Visiting several houses, I got to see the three key features of Champagnes at work: blending, secondary fermentation, and bottle aging. First, let's talk about blending. Unlike most wine, which is made each year from the grapes grown that season, many Champagnes are not year or vineyard specific. Nonvintage Champagne, which makes up most of the production coming out of the major brands, can include wines from as many as 60 vineyards across ten years of harvests! At Louis Roederer, for example, huge wooden barrels are stored underground, holding the house's reserve wine. The winemakers have the option to use these wines that have been aging in their cellars to add depth and richness, helping to produce consistent Champagnes with the same style each year.
Grapes from various plots are pressed and fermented separately after the harvest. These wines are nothing like you would expect from a regular, "finished" wine—they are tight and acidic. To make a blend, the winemaker must keep in mind how these wines will evolve over time, once age and secondary fermentation have affected the flavors. Before bottling, a small amount of yeast along with a mixture of sugar and wine is added to the final blend and a bottlecap is secured on the top. The yeasts begin to eat the sugar and to throw off carbon dioxide. Because the wine is capped, the gas is trapped inside and must dissolve in the wine. It is this méthode champenoise that creates those perfect little bubbles in each bottle.
But the wine's not finished yet. Once secondary fermentation ends, the bottles are kept on their sides to age on the spent yeast (or 'sur lie')—this adds depth of flavor to the final Champagne. How long do they rest? Depends on what the winemaker is aiming for—Louis Roederer, for example, prefers a fruity style, so the winemakers will age their nonvintage for three years, and their top wine, Cristal, for six, whereas Taittinger prefers to let its cuvée Comtes de Champagne age sur lie for up to ten years, with over 90,000 bottles stacked up in some areas of their subterranean caves.
Once time is up, the bottle is riddled, the neck is frozen, and the wine is disgorged to get rid of the yeast, before being corked and sent to market. Want to see it all happen? Check out my snapshots in the slideshow above »
Houses and Growers
It's easy to forget that Champagne is diverse; the regional name often overshadows the variety of flavors and types of wines that are made here, even when you just consider the big brands. For example, Bollinger makes fuller-bodied Champagnes using a larger percentage of pinot noir grapes, while Perrier-Jouët makes a lighter style that is more dependent on chardonnay. What's more, over 15,000 growers tend vines across the region (only 12% of vineyards are actually owned by the houses), and many of those growers like Larmandier-Bernier and Pehu Simonet make their own wines that are heavily driven by terroir and vintage, adding to the diversity of flavors available. There's a lot to explore.