Earlier we talked about sparkling wine in general but today is all about Champagne. Admittedly the king of sparkling wine, while all sparkling wine has bubbles Champagne is far and away different from the rest. It is a traditional method from a region that by all rights shouldn’t be able to produce any wine at all and yet is producing some of the most expensive and sought after wines in the world.
A sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it is produced in the region of Champagne, France. That being said the technique of making Champagne, methodé champenoise, is used around the world and is more or less agreed upon as the best method for premium sparkling wine production. So lets just jump right in to how Champagne is made, this method involves four basic steps: primary fermentation, secondary fermentation, riddling and disgorgement. The first step, the primary fermentation, is the same across all methods of sparkling wine production: a still base wine must be created. Most often this wine is a blend of varietals and many different lots and vineyards, though it can occasionally be a single varietal, like in the case of blanc de blanc. In the region of Champagne this base wine can only be made from three different grapes: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. And the winemaker is not just making one base wine that is a blend of these grapes, they are making as many as sixty separate still wines, all of which will eventually be blended but all of which start out and are fermented as wines in their own right. The Champagne maker’s goal is not to make a blend of wines that tastes good as it is but to see how these wines will taste after they have gone through the rest of the process. Which is a good thing, if not an incredibly complicated one, because these wines, grown in the cold climate of Champagne are insanely high in acidity, low in alcohol and at this point not all that impressive.
After these still base wines have been produced and blended together the secondary fermentation needs to take place in order to create the bubbles. In the methodé champenoise this secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle. The final blend of the base wine is poured into the bottles and about a ¼ inch of space is left at the top. This space is filled with the liqeur de tirage, an equal mixture of sugar and yeast, and then the bottle is capped with a crown (just like what you would find on a beer bottle). The sugar from this mixture is converted to alcohol by the yeast and as a by-product of this fermentation carbon dioxide is produced. During a normal fermentation for a still wine (a process you can read about here) the carbon dioxide just escapes into the air. But for a fermentation that is taking place in a sealed bottle the carbon dioxide has nowhere else to go and is eventually dissolved into the wine itself, thus creating the bubbles. Once this process has been completed and the yeast has consumed all the sugar the spent yeast cells will sink to the bottom of the bottle, forming sediment known as lees. Many winemakers allow their champagne to age in contact with the lees for a time in order to produce a creamy mouthfeel and rich yeasty flavors in the wine. And in fact this step, the wine’s contact with the lees in the bottle, is one of the main differences between wines produced in the champagne method and wines made using other methods.
At this point in the process you more or less have your champagne but now it’s in a bottle with a bunch of sediment at the bottom, which isn’t the most appealing way to present it to consumers. The next step in the process focuses on removing this sediment without losing any of the carbonation that you just worked so hard to create. The first thing to do is to consolidate the lees into one spot in the bottle, preferably at the top instead of at the bottom since you are eventually trying to remove them without removing the wine. Seems simple enough right? But the lees have a tendency to stick to the inside of the bottle so it is not exactly as easy as turning the bottle upside down. Instead winemakers use a riddling rack (or a riddling machine known as a gyropallet) to slowly rotate the bottles overtime. This is fairly long process as the bottles are turned about a quarter turn each day and over time the angle of the bottle is increased so that it is almost completely upside down. Slowly but surely the yeast plug is formed in the neck of the bottle.
But now that the sediment has been consolidated in the top of the bottle it still needs to be removed without losing any of the bubbles or any of the wine. To do that the neck of the bottle is dipped into freezing liquid, causing the wine around the yeast plug to freeze and thus preventing the yeast from falling back into the wine. Then the bottles are turned upright and the crown is removed, the pressure in the bottle forces against the frozen yeast plug, which, quite dramatically and violently, flies out of the bottle. Immediately after this the empty space left in the bottles is “dosed” with the liqueur d’expedition, a mixture made up of still wine that is often blended with cane sugar. The sweetness level of this mixture is termed as follows on the champagne bottles:
- Extra Brut: very, very dry (0-0.06% sugar)
- Brut: Very dry (less than 1.5% sugar)
- Extra Dry: Off-dry (1.2 to 2% sugar)
- Sec: lightly sweet (1.7-3.5% sugar)
- Demi-Sec: sweet (3.3 to 5% sugar)
- Doux: quite sweet (more than 5% sugar)
Following the dosage the wine is corked using a much larger cork than normal wine bottles and a cage the wraps around the cork and the neck of the bottle to insure that the pressure in the wine doesn’t pop the cork off the bottle.
Within this process and within the different sweetness levels of the wine there are a few different types of Champagne that can be produced. One, which was touched on slightly, is blanc de blanc or white from white, this is champagne made entirely from the chardonnay grape. It’s opposite is blanc de noir, or white from red, made using only the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier grapes and which can have a very slight pinkish tinge to it. And finally there is Rosé Champagne, which is the cream of the crop, or the crème de la crème if you will. Rosé Champagne is considerably more rare than its golden counterpart and typically more expensive. There are two different methods to produce this wine. The first method is the historical method and it involves letting the base wine sit in contact with the grape skins long enough to tint the color pink. The second method, and the one that is practiced more commonly today, involves adding a little bit of fully colored Pinot Noir wine into the bottle before the second fermentation takes place. This method is now preferred because it not only allows more control of the color of the final wine but also because the finished wine tends to be able to age longer under this method.
So now that you know how its made and the different styles of wine that are produced, onto the more important conversation of what you are going to pair it with. Traditionally Champagne has been partnered up with oysters and caviar and while it does go well with those salty and briny foods there is no reason it should be limited to them. And no reason that it should be limited to just a wine for toasts. Champagne deserves a spot on the table because it is actually incredibly versatile when it comes to pairing with food. The bubbles can provide a really nice match for foods with excellent texture such as anything fried or anything wrapped in puff pastry or phyllo dough. Because of its creaminess and yeastiness, thanks to the time it spends in close contact with the sediment, it is also a wonderful compliment to anything that is heavy in butter or cream and of course cheese (so all the best things really). It’s natural sweetness is the perfect counterbalance to spicier foods, making it one of my personal favorite wines to pair with Chinese food. It can also be a really great pairing with sushi, in particular an extra dry champagne, with its faint touch of sweetness, is the perfect compliment to the ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Plus it still has a sharp acidity that cuts through richer foods, so again with the butter and cream and cheese. Champagne can also be a great wine to pair that foods that are notoriously difficult to pair with, like egg dishes and soups. Basically, it pairs really well with many different dishes so if you are still only using Champagne to toast special occasions and nothing else you are truly missing out.