Champagne is a lovely drink and there are so many occasions on which to enjoy it and so many ways to drink it! I am sure that most readers of this blog would have had a glass or two over the Festive Season. The best way to drink it may be to share a bottle with one’s partner on a special occasion, but champagne is also drunk in numerous cocktails and mixed drinks. I enjoyed it one Winter’s day for New Year’s brunch in Amsterdam with some friends in a concoction known as ‘Kir Royale’. A little Crème de Cassis liqueur in a chilled champagne flute and then topped up with ice-cold bubbly - very nice!
The name “champagne” is used very specifically and describes the classic sparkling wine named for the site of its origin and exclusive production, the traditional region of Champagne in northeastern France. The term champagne is also applied generically, with restrictions, outside France, to many white or rosé wines that are characterised by effervescence – France has become extremely indignant with the indiscriminate use of this term and the preferred appellation outside France is now “sparkling wine” or wine made by the “méthode champenoise”.
In Australia we produce excellent sparkling wines, some up there on par with the best champagnes France is producing. Moët et Chandon have recognised the potential of some countries in the world as excellent wine producers of sparkling wines and have invested heavily in these. About 55 km away from central Melbourne is the beautiful Yarra Valley, a prime wine-producing area. Domain Chandon (owned and run by Moët et Chandon) produces some excellent sparkling wines.
The region that produces the authentic French champagne includes certain parishes in the départements of Marne, Aisne, Seine-et-Marne, Aube, and Haute-Marne. The best champagne comes from vineyards along the Marne River from Château-Thierry eastward to Épernay and on the plain from Épernay stretching north to Reims, which is dominated by a hill called the Montagne de Reims. Champagne is made from only three grape varieties: Pinot and meunier, both black, and chardonnay, white. Characteristic of champagne is a crisp, flinty taste, sometimes ascribed to the chalky soil in which the vines are grown. A small amount made from green grapes only is called blanc des blancs. Pink champagne is made by adding a little red wine, or by leaving the crushed grapes in contact with their skins for a time.
Champagne is initially fermented in stainless steel vats, after which the wine is blended. If the year has been excellent, only wines of that year are used and the product is vintage champagne; if not, a blend with wines of different years will be made, improving and strengthening the wine and producing a non-vintage champagne. After blending, a mixture of wine, sugar, and yeast is added to the wine before it is transferred to pressure tanks or to strong, dark bottles for a second fermentation that yields carbon dioxide and effervescence. This second fermentation is completed after a few weeks or months.
Wine thus fermented in tanks is then transferred to another tank, where it is chilled, sweetened, and bottled. Wine in bottles is left to mature; during this period the bottles are shaken daily and gradually turned and tipped until they are upside down and the impurities (sediment) have settled onto the bottom of the cork. This procedure, called riddling (remuage), has been largely mechanised since the 1970s. When the wine is mature and ready for the market, the deposits are removed in a process called dégorgement. In this process, the cork is carefully pried off, allowing the internal pressure in the bottle to shoot the sediment out; this is sometimes done after the neck of the bottle and the deposits have been frozen. After dégorgement, a small amount of syrup melted in old champagne is added to the bottle and the wine is recorked.
Champagne to which little or none of this sugar is added is labelled ‘brut’ (extra dry); somewhat sweeter is ‘sec’, and wine with larger quantities of sugar is ‘demi-sec’. All of these are sweeter than the words indicate.
And as I started with a biblical quotation extolling the virtues of good drink, let me end with another one. The proviso of course is to always drink responsibly! “And behold joy and gladness, slaying oxen, and killing sheep, eating flesh, and drinking wine: let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” Isaiah 22:13