Champagne is the world’s most famous sparkling wine and also, the most prestigious. It is the codifier for what is known as the traditional method, and it’s seen by many as the benchmark by which noteworthy fizz throughout the world is measured against.
Champagne is made in the namesake region in northeast France, just above Burgundy. Almost the entirety of its wines come from three grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, however there are seven allowed varieties (Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Arbane being the other four).
HOW IS CHAMPAGNE MADE?
The traditional method is regarded as the one capable of producing the finest sparkling wines, including but not exclusively Champagne. It is the most labour-intensive and time-consuming method to produce sparkling wines, hence it is generally reserved for premium products.
Harvest and first fermentation – In Champagne, grapes are handpicked and the accepted bunches are pressed. The liquid coming from this step is fermented in either stainless steel tanks, oak barrels or a combination of both. Depending on the desired style, malolactic fermentation might or might not be encouraged.
Blending – After this first or primary fermentation occurs, it’s time for assemblage, a.k.a. blending. The majority of Champagne houses strive to achieve a consistent style year on year so it is common for winemakers to combine wines from different years to keep a uniform product (Vintage Champagne is an exception).
Ageing – While the length of the time a sparkling wine must age varies in different regions, Champagne’s laws stipulate a minimum of 15 months for Non-Vintage Champagne and 36 for Vintage, from which at least 12 months the wine must be on its lees.
Second fermentation – It is during this step that Champagne earns its bubbles. This fermentation takes place in the bottle, and as carbon dioxide forms but can’t get out, it dissolves in the wine creating the fizz. Also during this time, the wine’s lees (yeast sediment) releases flavours in a process called autolysis.
Disgorge and dosage – Once the wine is ready, the lees are removed and the bottle is topped with a liquid called dosage, which can be wine alone or a mixture of wine and sugar depending on the level of desired sweetness of the end product.
GROWERS AND HOUSES
When talking about Champagne, it is worth differentiating two types of producers: Growers and Houses.
- Grower Champagne – Is made by producers who own their own vineyards, often smaller and with a more artisanal approach. Their Champagnes can be sold as ‘Champagnes de Vignerons’, an umbrella brand developed in 2001 to promote the products from the Syndicat Général des Vignerons.
- Some growers also choose to team up under cooperatives, and they can choose to label their wine under an umbrella co-op name. The most famous of these is Nicolas Feuillatte.
- Champagne Houses – These producers are brands, including the bigger names but also a variety of smaller houses. They buy grapes from selected vineyards and aim to produce a distinctive, timeless style.
According to the level of sugar in the dosage – While traditionally, drier Champagne has been regarded as more refined, it comes to one’s palate and preference to choose the level of sweetness (or lack of it) that we wish. In order from the less to the most sweet, these are the different types of Champagne:
- Brut Nature (a.k.a. Brut Zero) – No sugar added.
- Extra Brut – 0 to 6 grams of sugar per litre.
- Brut – Less than 12 grams per litre (this is the most popular style).
- Extra Dry – 12 to 17 grams of sugar per litre.
- Sec – 17 to 32 grams of sugar per litre.
- Demi-sec – 32 to 50 grams of sugar per litre.
- Doux – More than 50 grams of sugar per litre (nowadays is uncommon).
Drappier Pinot Noir Brut Nature – €59.95, available at The Corkscrew.
Moët & Chandon Brut Impérial NV – €54, available at Tesco, SuperValu, O’Briens Wine (widely available at retailers nationwide). Veuve Clicquot Demi-Sec – €57.00, available at Jus de Vine, Martin’s Off-Licence.
According to multi or single-year blending
- Non-Vintage (NV) Champagne – As year on year consistency is so important for Champagne producers, most Champagne will be made with a blend of wines from different years.
- Vintage Champagne – In exceptional years, a producer might work with wines from that year only, crafting a Vintage Champagne. In this case, the year will be indicated.
Piper-Heidsieck Cuvée Brut NV – €54.95, available at O’Briens Wines.
Lanson Le Rosé Label NV – €52.95, available at O’Briens Wine.
Blanc de Blancs – These are made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes. The name translates as ‘white of whites’ and it’s a reference to the fact that Chardo is the only white wine variety in the main three.
Blanc de Noirs – These are made from red wine varieties (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and the name means ‘white of blacks’.
Rosé – Pink Champagne made by blending still red and white wines before the second fermentation.
Prestige cuvée – A term generally used to describe the best wine in a producer’s range.
Ayala Le Blanc de Blancs – €75, available at Deveney’s of Dundrum.
Jean Pernet Cuvee Blanc de Noirs Champagne – €45, available at wineoneline.ie.
While Champagne is often associated with toasts and celebrations, and sipped alongside hor d’oeuvres, it is a wonderfully versatile gastronomic wine and as such, it goes well with various types of foods.
- For a classic match: Oysters and Champagne are an iconic duo for a reason, although various seafood benefit from Champagne’s vibrancy and acidity including rich yet delicate meats such as crab or scallops. Other tried and loved matches include eggs Benedict or eggs Florentine, as well as earthy and buttery cheeses.
- For an unexpected friendship – Sushi is infamously tricky when it comes to wine pairings, but a rosé Champagne can offer a fun balance to the mix of intense and delicate flavours of this Japanese staple.
- For a rebellious yet delicious pairing: Pairing something as traditionally luxurious as Champagne with something as mundane as a hot dog feels a little bit cheeky but it works. In fact, a humble, melty toastie can be elevated with a glass of fine sparkling, and a simple fish and chips (or even just chips) matches it like a charm. If you’re willing to put champers off its pedestal, have some fun with these pairings!
- For total indulgence: The debate is still ongoing on whether caviar’s best pairing is vodka or Champagne. Our vote is on a very dry Champagne with little or no residual sugar. (like a Brut Nature or an Extra Brut). For another fabulous and decadent pairing and a slightly sweeter fizz, serve Brut Champagne with lobster.