Champangner

The unique territory

120 km to the east of Paris, the champagne vineyards cover 35 000 hectares. There are four main growing areas in the Champagne region: The Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and Aube.

France Champagne

Since 1927 These four winegrowing areas have been divided into 321 crus. The crus are classified according to a percentage system known as the “échelle des crus” (scale of crus) which ranges from 80% to 100% according to the soil, microclimate and exposure to the sun, factors that determine the quality of the wine.

The Champagne region lies on a chalky subsoil which is 300 metres thick. Deposited by the sea 95 million years ago, this porous subsoil represents a unique stroke of luck for champagne. Acting as a heat regulator, it also captures moisture, then releases it when the grapes need it most. This unique substance can absorb up to half its weight in water. (300 litres of water per m3 of chalk.) Vines are only planted on slopes where the chalk is close to the surface and exposure to the sun at its optimum. The chalky subsoil gives champagne wines all their finesse and lightness.

The vine possesses an extraordinary ability to adapt to its environment. In Champagne, it benefits from a combination of temperate and continental climates. Winters are harsh and the vegetation cycle starts late while spring frosts are common and sunshine levels relatively low (1,734 hrs/year). Rainfall is spread evenly over the year (670 mm per year).

Paradoxically, these difficult weather conditions produce grapes of quality and wines of great finesse.

The Grapes

The champagne vineyards are comprised of three grape-varieties:

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

Chardonnay, a noble variety of white grape, provides finesse, elegance and lightness. This variety is also used for the great white Burgundies. A champagne that uses only Chardonnay is called a “Blanc de Blancs”. The Chardonnay is strongly represented in the Côte de Blancs area, and accounts for 27% of the vines in all Champagne and 49% of those grown in the Grands Crus areas.

Pinot Noir, a black grape variety, gives the wine body, power and good ageing potential.

It is used for the great red wines of Burgundy. In Champagne, it is found principally on the Montagne de Reims in the Grands Crus areas, and accounts for 37% of the vines in the Champagne region and 51% of the vines in the Grands Crus areas. It is easily recognised by its brilliant green, slightly toothed leaves, and its triangular bunches of grapes. But Pinot Noir is sensitive to frosts and rot. It prefers dry, light soil

Finally, there is the Pinot Meunier, a black grape variety with white juice, which provides freshness and fruitiness and also contributes to the balance of the wine.

In contrast to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties, the Pinot Meunier is regarded as a less “noble” vine, and it is forbidden to plant it in Grands Crus areas. However, it accounts for 36% of the vines in the Champagne region, and is found mainly in the Vallée de la Marne and in the Aube. Because its buds emerge later in the year, it has better frost resistance than the Pïnot Noir. The bunches are compact and the leaves are slightly downy.

Pruning

Grapes require permanent care and attention, and each season brings its own specific tasks. Pruning takes place in winter through to the end of March. The purpose of pruning is to ensure better ripeness of the grapes and to improve the quality of the wine. Then, between 15 March and 1st May, the vine shoots are trained along rows of wire.

Bud Burst

In Champagne the buds open in mid-April. The young shoots must face spring frosts that in some years cause serious damage. Bud Removal: In May and June, after a long period of patient observation the most promising buds are selected while the surplus buds are removed. The selected buds will become more vigorous.

Flowering

The flowering period is capricious and demanding, and generally lasts for around ten days in June. Winegrowers observe this extremely fragile stage very closely: cool, damp weather can compromise the harvest and cause major losses in volume. This is called “coulure” or “millerandage”. Growth of the vine is controlled to ensure optimum exposure to the sun. Topping, trimming and vine-training are all performed with the same objective: to let the sun reach the heart of the vineyard in order to ensure good growth and to obtain the best possible quality.

Protection and the Environment.

To obtain grapes of the highest quality the vines must be protected against different ailments. These include mildew, oïdium, grape rot and attacks by insects.

The Harvest

At the end of September, approximately 100 days after the flowering of the vines, the grapes are ready for picking. So as to ensure perfect protection of the grapes, harvesting machines are not authorised in Champagne. The grapes are picked exclusively by hand, parcel-by-parcel. The yield is determined by the C.I.V.C.: for the year 2001, it was set at 11,000 kg per hectare.

The Pressing

The grapes are pressed right after the harvest, in traditional wooden presses. The pressure level is low, in order to extract the maximum amount of white juice from the black grapes, without removing the colour from the skins. 4 000 kg of grapes give 2,550 litres of juice. One vine plant makes an average of one bottle of champagne. For 16 to 18 hours, the grape juice, known as the must, is left in vats at a temperature of 10 to 15°C. The remains of the skins, pips and earth naturally sink to the bottom of the vats. The clear juice obtained is then placed in the fermenting vats.

Alcoholic Fermentation

For 2 weeks, at a temperature between 18° and 20°C, natural yeast transforms the sugars contained in the grape juice into alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this stage, any sharp variations in temperature would cause fermentation to stop and would alter the flavours of the wine. This is why all the vat-houses are temperature-controlled.

Malolactic Fermentation.

Malolactic fermentation is a further natural microbiological refining process, which reduces the acidity of the wine and guarantees its long-term biological stability. More scientifically speaking, bacteria transform the malic acid into lactic acid and gas. Malolactic fermentation gives the wine greater suppleness.

Clear Wines

The wines are transferred into other vats by racking, and finally are rid of the last remains of yeast and solid particles, which could alter their taste. These clear wines are now ready to be blended.

Blending

While the terroir determines the quality of the wine, the process of blending the different crus decides the personality of each champagne house’s production. In January the cellar-master creates the blend using a selection of over 100 different crus: this rich, complex blend gives the champagne its intensity and character.

With genuine artistry, he subtly allows various nuances to work together. Grape-variety by grape-variety, cru by cru, the clear wines are examined, tasted, marked, memorised and appreciated before being selected for the cuvée. Reserve wines also enter into the composition of non-vintage blends. If the year has been exceptionally good, the decision is taken to create a vintage champagne, using only the wines from that particular year.

Exposure to a temperature of -4°C for 8 to 10 days allows the wines to preserve their distinctive characteristics when chilled, and guarantees their stability against tartaric deposits.

The Flavours of a Terroir.

The still wines are racked and bottled. At the moment of bottling, a ‘liqueur de tirage,’ is added to the cuvée. This mixture of sugar and yeast will ensure that in-bottle fermentation takes place. Racking starts in February and ends in July. Once the bottles have been filled, they are closed with a ”bidule”: The “bidule” is a plastic lid held down by a crown cap.

In-bottle Fermentation

In the depths of the cellars, which maintain a constant temperature of 11°C, the yeast introduced into the bottles convert the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide and form the deposit. This second fermentation process lasts a month. The alcohol content of the wine goes up from 11 to 12 degrees.

This is the moment, known as the “prise de mousse”, when the bubbles form.

The delicacy of the bubbles and the quality of champagne stem directly from this second fermentation in the bottle.

The Ageing

Over a long period of several months, the wines acquire their richness and aromatic complexity. During this period the wines from a deposit. This consists of old yeast cells, contact with which enriches the wines and gives them personality. This is called the autolysis of the yeasts.

Non-vintage wines age for two to three years, while vintage champagnes normally age at least for 5, two years more than the legal minimum, to bring the wine to its peak of maturity, illustrating the perfection of champagnes.

The Riddling

Once the wine has reached its peak after its years in the cellar, it needs to be clarified and its deposit removed. For a period of 6 to 8 weeks, the riddler carefully turns each bottle from left to right with a sharp movement. The bottles, lying head down in the racks, are gradually brought to a vertical position. The deposit slides down to the neck of the bottle and sits against the lid. This deposit, mainly made up of dead yeast, has played its part in developing aromas. A riddler can turn up to 38,000 bottles per day.

Automatic Riddling

The most sophisticated technology is now used for the riddling process. Fixed onto a pivoting stand controlled by computer, rotating pallets can riddle 504 bottles at regular intervals, faithfully reproducing the movement performed by hand.

The Disgorging “à la volée”

Disgorging evacuates the deposit that has formed in the neck of the bottle. In the past this was done by hand, but today a few producers for the largest bottle sizes only use manual disgorging. The bottle is brought slowly into a vertical position so as not to disturb the deposit. When the “bidule” is released, the high pressure inside forces the cork and deposit out.

Frozen Disgorging

Nowadays, the bottleneck is plunged into a liquid at a temperature of -25°C, causing the deposit to freeze. The cork and deposit are then evacuated more cleanly and with less wastage, and the bottles can be opened automatically. This process enables the disgorging of 7,500 bottles per hour, and the resulting champagne is perfectly clear.

The Dosage

A ‘dosage’ liqueur replaces the liquid lost in the disgorging process, which is a mixture of cane sugar and old champagne wine. This tops the bottles back up to their former level. This operation also determines the type of champagne – brut, extra-dry, or demi-sec.

  • Extra brut: 0 to 6 g per litre
  • Brut: 5 to 15 g per litre
  • Extra Dry: 12 to 20 g per litre
  • Sec: 17 to 35 g per litre
  • Demi-sec: 33 to 50 g per litre

The Cork

Corks of high-quality offering the best possible protection of the aromas and flavours that takes so long to create. The shape of the cork enables you to determine the age of the cuvée after disgorging: a flared cork indicates recent disgorging. When it is cylindrical and can easily be withdrawn, the disgorging date is older. The corks are automatically covered with a capsule and held in place by a wire cage. The capsule normally bears the emblem of the producer, a symbol of tradition and quality.

A Charming Presentation

A perfect marriage of the wine and the dosage liqueur after disgorging, the bottles are stored a further three months before their “habillage”. This consists of the label, the neck and flange. Each of them carries the name of the producer for instant recognition of the brand and its authenticity. Sophisticated technologies allow a company to label and foil 7 500 bottles an hour.

The Label

The label on a bottle of champagne is more than just a signature.

It includes 8 obligatory indications:

  • the word CHAMPAGNE, in capital letters,
  • the name of the producer or his identification in full,
  • the trade name or the name of the cuvée,
  • the place where the champagne was made
  • the contents of the bottle
  • the Champagne quality as a function of its dosage: Brut, Sec, Demi-sec etc,
  • the degree of alcohol
  • the vintage year when the wine is the product of an exceptional year

Bottle Sizes

Champagne bottles still bear the names given to them by the champagne houses at the beginning of the century:

  • the quarter bottle (18.5 or 20 cl depending on the country)
  • the half bottle (37.5cl)
  • the standard 75cl bottle
  • the Magnum (1.5l)
  • the Jeroboam (3l, named after the founder and first King of Israel)
  • the Mathusalem (6l, named after Noah’s grandfather, who lived for 969 years)
  • the Salmanazar, (9l, named after the King of Assyria)
  • the Balthazar, (12l, named after the Regent of Babylon)
  • the Nebuchanezar (15l, after the King of Babylon)

Serve a bottle of Champagne

Champagnes should be served chilled but not iced. This will reduce the pressure in the bottle, avoiding spillage and the possibility of accidents. Tulip glasses or goblets are correct – coupes tend to flatten the Champagne – set the glasses on the table.

Put the bottle of Champagne in an ice bucket, fill it up with ice cubes, add some cold water and hang over it a service cloth. Prepare a saucer with a napkin for the ice bucket, otherwise the tablecloth becomes moist, because of the condense water, or use an ice bucket stand.

Present the bottle to the customer who ordered it, using the wine cloth underneath the bottle and show the label. After it is shown put the bottle back in the ice bucket. Remove the metal top, than the muzzle of wire and hold the cork with one hand. With the other hand take the wine cloth and put it over the cork. To open, slowly rotate the bottle keeping a firm grip on the cork, gently easing it out.

Great care should be taken when opening, as the force behind the cork is great. Never point a bottle at anyone and never let go of the cork once the muzzle of wire is removed! When the cork comes out there must be no noise and no plop. To open a bottle of Champagne has to be entirely quiet!

Place the bottle on your palm, stick the thumb in the hole of the bottom from the bottle and balance it with your fingers. Offer the host a taste. After he agreed pour the Champagne very slowly, starting with the ladies on the table following by the gentleman and the host is the last one. Do not fill up the glass completely. Two thirds of a glass is appropriate. Replace the bottle in the ice bucket and cover it with the cloth. Once the half of the amount has been drunk, refill the glass up to a half. If the bottle is empty offer another one.

Champangner
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