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Wine

CHAMPAGNE
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by inducing the secondary fermentation of wine. It is named after the Champagne region of France. While the term "champagne" is often used by makers of sparkling wine in other parts of the world, such as California and Canada, it should properly be used to refer only to the wines made in the region of Champagne, France. The community, under the auspices of the Comité Interprofessionel du Vin de Champagne has developed a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for all wine that comes from the region. These rules are designed to ensure that the highest quality product is produced and include a codification of the most suitable places for grapes to grow, the most suitable types of grapes – all Champagne is produced from one or a blend of up to three varieties of grapes: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier – and has identified a lengthy set of requirements that specify most aspects of viticulture. This includes vine pruning, the yield of the vineyard, the degree of pressing applied to the grapes, and the time that bottles must remain on the lees. Only if a wine meets all these requirements may the name Champagne be placed on the bottle. The rules that have been agreed upon by the CIVC are then presented to the INAO for final approval.

In Europe and most other countries, the name "champagne" is legally protected as part of the Treaty of Madrid (1891) to mean only sparkling wine produced in its namesake region and adhering to the standards defined for that name as an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. This right was reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Even the term méthode champenoise, or champagne method is, as of 2005, forbidden in favour of méthode traditionelle. There are sparkling wines made all over the world, and many use special terms to define their own sparkling wines: Spain uses Cava, Italy calls it spumante, and South Africa uses Cap Classique. A sparkling wine made from Muscat grapes in Italy uses the DOCG Asti. In Germany, Sekt is a common sparkling wine. Even other regions of France are forbidden to use the name Champagne; for example, wine-makers in Burgundy and Alsace produce Crémant.


Other sparkling wines not from Champagne sometimes use the term "sparkling wine" prominently on their label. While most countries have labeling laws that protect wine producing locations such as Champagne, some – including the United States – continue to allow U.S. wine producers to utilize the name “Champagne” on the label of products that do not come from Champagne. To allow this practice, the U.S. Congress passed a law claiming that the term "champagne" is semi-generic. This often leads to consumer confusion about genuine Champagne and is seen as deceptive by some consumers and wine experts. While some U.S. companies ironically claim that their long usage of the term prevents them from dropping the word champagne on the bottle, many quality U.S. sparkling winemakers have ceased use of the term, instead favoring "sparkling wine" as their identifier.

Champagne's sugar content varies. The sweetest level is doux (meaning sweet), proceeding in order of increasing dryness to demi-sec (half-dry), sec (dry), extra sec (extra dry), brut (almost completely dry), and extra brut / brut nature / brut zero (no additional sugar, sometimes ferociously dry.).

The Champagne wine-growing region
The plots of land in each wine-growing commune are meticulously classified into numerous parcels. The vineyard as a whole does not form a single block but is divided into several zones of equal importance.

The area of wine production is strictly defined in accordance with the law of 22 July 1927 and accounts for approximately three per cent of the total area under vine in France.

The Montagne de Reims is a large, fairly flat plateau, thickly carpeted with vineyards that slope gently towards the valleys of the Vesle and the Ardre to the north and the Marne to the south.
The Marne Valley extends 100kms, from Saâcy-sur-Marne in the département of Seine-et-Marne to Tours-sur-Marne beyond Epernay. The vineyards line the flanks of the valley that slope more or less gently towards the banks of the river and nestle into smaller valleys on either side.
The Côte des Blancs, so-called because it is almost exclusively devoted to white grapes, is a cliff at right angles with the Montagne de Reims south of Epernay.

South of the département of the Marne, you can catch glimpses of vineyards to the north and south of Sézanne.

The area under vine in the region of Vitry-le-François, remains confined to a few communes only.
The Côte des Bar extend the wine-growing area to the south. Those around Villenauxe-la-Grande are in effect the continuation of the southern section of the Marne vineyard, but Montgueux in the immediate vicinity of Troyes also cultivates a few dozen hectares of vines. Mainly, however, they lie clustered around Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube plus a few dozen hectares of plantings to the east in the département of the Haute-Marne.

Champagne Regions
This isn't vital information, unless you are a true Champagne expert, so I'll deal with it quickly. There are just five main regions within Champagne where the grapes are grown, and where the houses source their grapes will influence the quality and style of the final product. It's not really of much use to the general consumer, however, as you won't find these names on the label.
Firstly, the Montagne de Reims is the most northerly area, and is planted mainly with Pinot Noir, mainly on north facing slopes. Wines produced here are firm and austere. The Côte des Blancs is a mostly east-facing region south of Epernay. It is almost entirely planted with Chardonnay, and produces a wine much less hard than the Montagne de Reims. There is a little Pinot Noir planted in the very south of this region. The Vallée de la Marne runs west-east, and is planted with all three grape varieties, although the Pinot Meunier dominates. Furher south is the Côte des Sézanne, primarily Chardonnay country, and finally the Aube, the southernmost of all five regions, is planted mainly with Pinot Noir. This latter region is quite a distance further south than the other four, and is thus warmer, so it is planted with mainly Pinot Noir.

The Wines
What determines how much you pay for a bottle is the style of wine inside it. A non-vintage (often abbreviated to NV) wine is a blend of wine from several different years. They are blended so as to maintain a house style, and this is the entry level for Champagne. Vintage wines are produced from a single year, and most houses will only release a vintage wine if they deem that the grapes harvested that year are of sufficient quality. Accordingly, they are more expensive than the NV wines. They are identifiable simply by the presence of a vintage year on the label. Prestige cuvées are released by some of the top houses, and here quality can be excellent. Some examples include Dom Pérignon (Moët et Chandon), Comtes de Champagne (Taittinger), Belle Epoque (Perrier-Jouët), Dom Ruinart (Ruinart), Bollinger RD and Grande Année (Bollinger), Cristal (Roederer), La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot), Cuvée Winston Churchill (Pol Roger - named after the Prime Minister, who had a penchant for Pol Roger as well as cigars), among others. I taste many of these wines in this Prestige Cuvée Champagne tasting.

To be really helpful, acknowledging the fact that NV wines do taste different from year to year, regardless of how well the house style is maintained, the now sadly deceased Daniel Thibault introduced cellaring dates to the NV wines at Charles Heidsieck, and I wouldn't be surprised if more houses follow suit. The wine in the bottle is still a blend of wines from several years, the year on the label indicating only the year which the finished, blended wine was laid down in Heidsieck's cellars to mature. But the date allows us to differentiate between bottles containing different blends, and with different amounts of bottle age. I once popped in to one wine merchant and found the 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 on the shelves. Without the cellaring dates these would have looked like five bottles of identical NV wine, which in truth they most certainly were not.


Other points of interest include the rosé Champagnes, which may be made by either allowing the wine to stay in contact with the red grape skins for a while (the saignée method), or by adding in a little red wine to colour the product. The terms Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs indicate wines made solely from white grapes (Chardonnay) and black grapes (Pinot Noir and Meunier) respectively.

As an aside, you may notice as you are inspecting the label, the letters NM (most commonly) followed by a number. There are four levels of producer in Champagne, and in all cases the level of producer is indicated on the bottle by the letters NM, RM, CM or MA, followed by a unique number. The most important producers are the négociant-manipulants, these being large companies which buy in, blend and produce very large quantities of wine. The other three levels are récoltant-manipulants (growers who make and sell their own wine), co-opératives-manipulants (the co-ops) and marque-auxiliaire (used for own label Champagne).

Vintages

The most recent truly great Champagne vintages were 1996, 1990 and 1985. Other good vintages include 1995, 1989, 1988, 1983, 1982 and 1979.

How is Champagne made?
Grapes used for Champagne are generally picked earlier, when sugar levels are lower and acid levels higher. Except for pink or rosé Champagnes, the juice of harvested grapes is pressed off quickly, to keep the wine white. The traditional method of making Champagne is known as the Méthode Champenoise.

The first fermentation begins in the same way as any wine, converting the natural sugar in the grapes into alcohol while the resultant carbon dioxide is allowed to escape. This produces the "base wine". This wine is not very pleasurable by itself, being too acidic. At this point the blend is assembled, using wines from various vineyards, and, in the case of non-vintage Champagne, various years.

The blended wine is put in bottles along with yeast and a small amount of sugar, called the liqueur de tirage, and stored in a wine cellar horizontally, for a second fermentation. During the secondary fermentation the carbon dioxide is trapped in the bottle, keeping it dissolved in the wine. The amount of added sugar will determine the pressure of the bottle. To reach the standard value of 6 bars inside the bottle is necessary to have 18 grams of sugar, and the amount of yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is regulated by the European Commission (Regulation 1622/2000, 24 July 2000) to be 0.3 grams per bottle. The "liqueur de tirage" is then a mixture of sugar, yeast and still champagne wine.


Champagne Capsules
After ageing (a mimimum from one and a half to three years), they undergo a process known as riddling (remuage in French), in which they are rotated a small amount each day and gradually moved to a neck-down orientation, so that the sediment ('lees') collects in their necks and can be removed. The removal process is called "disgorging" (dégorgement in French), and was a skilled manual process, where the cork and the lees were removed without losing large quantities of the liquid, and a dosage (a varying amount of additional sugar) is added. Until this process was invented (reputedly by Madame Clicquot in 1800) Champagne was cloudy, a style still seen occasionally today under the label méthode ancestrale. Modern disgorgement is automated by freezing a small amount of the liquid in the neck and removing this plug of ice containing the lees. A cork is then inserted with a capsule and wire cage securing it in place.

Wines from Champagne cannot legally be sold until it has aged on the lees in the bottle for at least 18 months. Champagne's AOC regulations require that vintage Champagnes are aged in cellars for three years or more before disgorgement, but most top producers exceed this minimum requirement, holding bottles on the lees for 6 to 8 years before disgorgement.

Even experts disagree about the effects of aging on Champagne after disgorgement. Some prefer the freshness and vitality of young, recently disgorged Champagne, and others prefer the baked apple and caramel flavors that develop from a year or more of aging.

The majority of the Champagne produced is non-vintage (also known as mixed vintage), a blend of wines from several years. Typically the majority of the wine is from the current year but a percentage is made of "reserve wine" from previous years. This serves to smooth out some of the vintage variations caused by the marginal growing climate in Champagne. Most Champagne houses strive for a consistent "house style" from year to year, and this is the hardest task of the winemaker.

The grapes to produce vintage Champagne must be 100% from the year indicated (other sparkling wines in the EU need only be 85% to be called vintage). To maintain the quality of non-vintage champagne a maximum of half the grapes harvested in one year can be used in the production of vintage Champagne ensuring at least 50%, though usually more, is reserved for non-vintage wines. Vintage Champagnes are the product of a single high-quality year, and bottles from prestigious makers can be rare and expensive.
Champagne Varieties

Champagne is a single Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée. Grapes must be the white Chardonnay, or the red Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (a few very rare other grapes that were historically important are allowed, but very unusual). Champagnes made exclusively from Chardonnay are known as blanc de blancs, and those exclusively from the red grapes as blanc de noirs. Champagne is typically a white wine even if it is produced with red grapes, because the juice is extracted from the grapes using a gentle process that minimizes the amount of time the juice spends in contact with the skins, which is what makes red wine red. Rosé wines are also produced, either by permitting the juice to spend more time with the skins to impart a pink color to the wine, or by adding a small amount of red wine during blending. The amount of sugar (dosage) added after the second fermentation and ageing also varies, from brut zéro or brut natural, where none is added, through brut, extra-dry, sec, demi-sec and doux. The most common is brut, although in the early 20th century Champagne was generally much sweeter.
Most Champagne is non-vintage, produced from a blend of years (the exact blend is only mentioned on the label by a few growers), while that produced from a single vintage is labelled with the year and Millésimé.

Many Champagnes are produced from bought-in grapes by well known brands such as Veuve Clicquot or Mumm.

Origins
Wines from the Champagne region were already known before medieval times. Churches owned vineyards, and monks produced wine for use in the sacrament of Eucharist. French kings were traditionally anointed in Reims. Champagne wine flowed as part of coronation festivities.
Kings appreciated the still, light, and crisp wine, and offered it as an homage to other monarchs in Europe. In the 17th century, still wines of Champagne were the chosen wines for celebration in European countries. English people were the biggest consumers of Champagne wines, and drank a lot of sparkling wines.

The first commercial sparkling wine was produced in the Limoux area of Languedoc about 1535. They did not invent it; nobody knows who first made it, although the British make a reasonably good claim. Contrary to legend and popular belief, the French monk Dom Perignon did not invent champagne, although it is almost certainly true that he developed many advances in the production of this beverage.

Somewhere in the end of the 17th century, the sparkling method was imported in the Champagne region, associated with specific procedures for production (smooth pressing, dosage...), and stronger bottles (invented in England) that could hold the added pressure. Around 1700, sparkling Champagne was born.

English people loved the new sparkling wine, and spread it all over the world. Brut Champagne, the modern Champagne, was created for the British in 1876. The Russian royalty also consumed huge quantities, preferring the sweeter styles.

The Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne

All of the over 15,000 growers, cooperatives and over 300 houses that are central to producing Champagne are members of the Comité Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC). This organization has a system where both the houses and the growers are represented at all levels. This includes a co-presidency where a grower representative and a representative of the houses share the running of the organization. This system is designed to ensure that the CIVC's primary mission -- to promote and protect Champagne -- is done in a manner that represents the consensus of the community. This power structure has played an important role in the success of Champagne worldwide and the integrity of the appellation itself.

Champagne producers
The type of champagne producer can be identified from the abbreviations followed by the official number on the bottle:
• NM: Négociant manipulant. These companies (including the majority of the larger brands) buy grapes and make the wine
• CM: Coopérative de manipulation. Co-operatives that make wines from the growers who are members, with all the grapes pooled together
• RM: Récoltant manipulant. A grower that also makes wine from their own grapes
• SR: Société de récoltants. An association of growers making a shared Champagne but who are not a co-operative
• RC: Récoltant coopérateur. A co-operative member selling Champagne produced by the co-operative under its own name
• MA: Marque auxiliaire or Marque d'acheteur. A brand name unrelated to the producer or grower; the name is owned by someone else, for example a supermarket
• ND: Négociant distributeur. A wine merchant selling under his own name
Bubbles
An initial burst of effervescence occurs when the champagne contacts the dry glass on pouring. These bubbles may form on imperfections in the glass that facilitate nucleation. However, after the initial rush, these naturally occurring imperfections are typically too small to consistently act as nucleation points as the surface tension of the liquid smooths out these minute irregularities.
The nucleation sites that act as a source for the ongoing effervescence are not the natural imperfections in the glass, but actually occur either:
• where the glass has been etched by the manufacturer or the customer This etching is typically done with acid, a laser, or a glass etching tool from a craft shop to provide nucleation sites large enough for continuous bubble formation (note that not all glasses are etched in this way); or
It is interesting to note that Dom Perignon was originally charged by his wine-making Abbey of Hautvillers to get rid of the bubbles since the pressure in the bottles caused many of them to explode in the cellar and was thought to be the work of the devil.

Champagne bottles

Side-by-side comparison of champagne bottles. (L to R) On ladder: magnum, full, half, quarter. On floor: Balthazar, Salmanazar, Methuselah, Jeroboam
Champagne is mostly fermented in two sizes bottles, standard bottle (750 mL), and Magnum (1.5 L). In general, magnums are thought to be higher quality, as there is less oxygen in the bottle, and the volume to surface area favors the creation of appropriately-sized bubbles. However, there is no hard evidence for this view. Other bottle sizes, named for Biblical figures, are generally filled with Champagne that has been fermented in standard bottles or magnums.
List of bottle sizes:
• quarter bottle (aka. split or piccolo bottle) (187.5 or 200 ml)
o mainly used by airlines, hotel mini-bars and nightclubs.
• half-bottle (aka. Demi) (375 ml)
o used in restaurants
• bottle (aka. Imperial) (750 ml)
• Magnum (1.5 L) (equivalent to 2 bottles)
• Jeroboam (3 L) (4 bottles)
• Rehoboam (4.5 L) (6 bottles)
• Methuselah (6 L) (8 bottles)
• Salmanazar (9 L) (12 bottles)
• Balthazar (12 L) (16 bottles)
• Nebuchadnezzar (15 L) (20 bottles)
• Melchior (18 L) (24 bottles)
• Solomon (25 L)
• Primat (27 L) (36 bottles)
• Melchizedek (30 L) (40 bottles)
Sizes larger than Jeroboam are rare. Primat sized bottles - and as of 2002 Melchizedek sized bottles - are exclusively offered by the House Drappier. The same names are used for bottles containing wine and port; however Jeroboam, Rehoboam and Methuselah refer to different bottle volumes. On occasion unique sizes have been made for special occasions and people. The most notable example perhaps being the 20 fluid ounce/ 60cl. bottle (Imperial pint) made specially for Sir Winston Churchill by Pol Roger. This was served to Mr Churchill by his butler at 11am as he was getting up.

Opening Champagne bottles
The deliberate spraying of Champagne has become an integral part of sports trophy presentations and locker room celebrations, though Champagne enthusiasts sometimes cringe at the waste. To reduce the risk of spilling Champagne and/or turning the cork into a projectile, open a Champagne bottle as follows:
• Remove the foil and pull down the wire loop;
• Drape a towel over the bottle:
• Place your hand over the cork;
• Loosen but don't remove the wire cage;
• Grasp the cork and the cage firmly with your hand, then rotate the bottle (rather than the cork) by holding it at the base; this should allow the cork to come out on its own accord.
The desired effect is to ease the cork out with a sigh or a whisper rather than a pop or to shoot the cork across the room or produce a fountain of foamy wine. Most wine connoisseurs insist that the ideal way to open a bottle of Champagne is to do it so carefully and gently that very little sound is emitted at all.
Serving Champagne
Champagne is usually served in a champagne flute, whose characteristics include a long stem with a tall, narrow bowl and opening. The wider flat glass (cup) commonly associated with Champagne is no longer preferred by connoisseurs because it does not preserve the bubbles and aroma of the wine as well.
But Champagne is better for tasting with a big red wine glass (i.e. a glass for bordeaux), as the aroma spreads better in the large area of the glass, but contrary to the cup, the aroma stays in the glass.
Don't try to fill the glass: flutes shall be filled only 2/3 of the glass, and big red wine glasses not more than 1/3 of the glass.
Champagne is always served cold, and is best at the temperature 7C° (43 to 48°F). Often the bottle is chilled in a bucket of ice and water before and after opening. Champagne buckets are made specifically for this purpose.

Champagne Types
Non Vintage (N.V.)
Blended from wines of several years to achieve a constant "style de maison" House style. This blend will depend on the art and history behind the house and its Chef du Caves. Many NV Champagnes are a blend of thirty or forty different wines.
A non-vintage Champagne cannot be sold until it is 15 months old, although most reputable houses will age the wine in their cellars for longer periods. An NV wine will often improve in the bottle after purchase, if it is kept in the right conditions, ideally a cellar, but failing that, in a cool dark place. As the bottle ages the Champagne will become softer on the palate, richer in taste. However, it is not recommended to keep Champagne longer than it was originally cellared by the maker.
Vintage
Vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from a particular year, when the quality of the harvest was sufficient to declare a "Vintage". Obviously, not every year is a vintage year, but the vintage is left to the individual houses themselves to declare. Therefore, some houses declare a vintage Champagne in a year where others did not feel the quality justified it.
Vintage Champagne must be 39 months old before it is sold, i.e. 3 years after the 1st January following the harvest around September. Again, many Marques will age their wines for longer than this legal minimum.
Rosé
Rosé Champagne can be made in one of two ways: First by maceration of black grapes during pressing, so that the colour leeches out from the skins (the juice from black grapes is white) or by adding a small proportion of the red wine form the Champagne region (often Bouzy Rouge) to give the wine a rose tint. The former method (de saignée) is more expensive and difficult to control, but many would say produces the better Champagne. An excellent Rosé is Laurent-Perrier, produced de saignée.
Prestige Cuvées
Most Champagne houses produce a special bottle in a vintage year and these are normally deemed to be "Prestige or Deluxe cuvées". Probably the most famous of these is Moët's Cuvée Dom Pérignon. In fact Moët invented the Cuvée Prestige with D.P. in 1921.
Prestige cuvées represent the pinnacle of a house's achievement and can be a vintage or occasionally a blend of vintages. They cost around three times more than a Non-Vintage, and around double the price of a Vintage.
BRAND NAMES
ABELE

AYALA

KRUG

BESSERAT de BELLEFON

BILLECART-SALMON

BOLLINGER

LANSON

LAURENT-PERRIER

MERCIER

CHARLES HEIDSIECK

MERCIER

MOËT & CHANDON

G.H. MUMM & Cie

PERRIER JOUET

PIPER-HEIDSIECK

Louis ROEDERER

 

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