Champagne

The French term Champagne may refer to three different concepts: a wine region in France, divided into four departments with a 320km north-south distance and 150km east-west; the Champagne Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée which certifies the origin of wines produced in Champagne department; and Champagne as a sparkling wine different from Cava, Crémant, Sekt and Proseco among others.

But, how should Champagne be produced to be able to bear such a name? The well-known méthode champenoise or traditional method has to be followed to obtain Champagne wine. After the alcoholic fermentation in stainless steel vats or wood barrels, rules demand a secondary fermentation in the bottle, so wine obtains certain aromatic advantages. Let's see the whole process with a little more detail.   

Champagne harvest: It is the C.I.V.C. (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne) who indicates the start of harvest time, establishing two different dates, one for Pinot varieties and another one for Chardonnay. Usually it takes 100 days after the end of flowering period for harvest to start, so they take place usually by mid-September. Champagne is the only region in all France where mechanical harvests are forbidden, so harvest is carried out manually. Grapes pick-up is also avoided during very sunny or rainy days. Each maison will decide the best harvest moment according to the sugar content and acidity, keeping in mind that grapes should have sugar enough to produce 10 to 11 alcohol degrees and acidity enough to furnish a balanced sparkling wine.

Pressing in Champagne: it is crucial that grapes are undamaged and in perfect conditions when they reach the press. During the pressing cycle, C.I.V.C. requires a maximum performance of 2.550 litres for each 4.000 kilos of grape and three pressing cycles. The first one, named la Cuvée, is where the purest, the most delicate and high quality must is obtained. Here a maximum of 2.050 litres are produced. In the next pressing (première taille) 500 litres of acid and harsh must are procured. Finally there is the third pressing (deuxième taille) which must is of very low quality and will normally be used for “supermarket” Champagne wines.

Champagne oxidation and débourbage: During wine making it is crucial to avoid any oxidation. Oxidation is a process where enzymes attack wine or must phenols, developing brown-tawny colour and sour taste, similar to Jerez wines. To prevent it, sulphur dioxide is added to must, removing also any undesirable yeast that would produce uncontrolled fermentations. All thru this stage, must is cooled so any solid matter can be accumulated at the bottom of the deposit. Later on, with the débourbage, these sediment are removed. 

Champagne alcoholic fermentation: Once all solid matter have been eliminated, must is racked into a new deposit, for alcoholic fermentation. It can take place by addition of selected saccharomyces ellipsoideus yeasts, resistant to bottle's low temperature and high pressure, or by the natural action of indigenous yeasts present in the grape' skin, though this is strongly discouraged unless it is a special Cuvée from a selected plot, whose natural yeasts behaviour is well known. In the first fermentation, yeasts adapt themselves to a must rich in protein, vitamin and minerals and slowly turn must into wine, releasing carbon dioxide. Fermentation temperature ranges from 18 to 20ºC and it can take from two weeks to two months. The slower the fermentation is the higher quality and more fruit will the final wine have. At this moment, when the first fermentation is finished, there is a wine rich in green apple, peach, banana, almond and nuts flavour.

It is at this point when the oenologist will decide if wine should carry out a malolactic fermentation that would smooth wine's acidity, as malic acid turns into lactic. Great Champagne maisons, such as Krug, Salon and Selosse choose not to have it in their champagnes, so they rise more acid and sharp when young but also age better thru time.

As far as alcoholic fermentation is concerned, in Champagne there are different wine containers: stainless steel tanks, fibreglass vats (rarely), and old oak casks that range from 225 litres to 1.000 litres, used in the celebrated maisons Bollinger or Krug. What does wood supply to Champagne? Wine is deeper, more intense and far-reaching. It has been scientifically proved that the base wine is richer in glycerol, so the sensations are more unctuous and deep and at the same time oxidation is more noticeable. Roasted coffee, toast, smokes and hazelnuts are typical in old wood aged Champagne wines.

Champagne assemblage: This is doubtlessly one of the key moments where the oenologist in chief adds his personal style and the winery's temperament in their Champagne. It is a hard work, requiring careful attention; great maisons such as Moët & Chandon have hundreds of vats containing wine from over 150 different counties. All along the process, wineries have reserve wine from other vintages that would be used for their secret blending. Nevertheless, assemblage is a stage that will ascertain the future champagne; so many points have to be considered. Will wine develop elegantly if Pinot and Chardonnay are not in different development moments? Should we maintain the winery style or follow the vintage's personality? How will wine be once it has become sparkling? An unbalanced and immature wine can bring freshness to a dense blend, while a neutral and pale wine can bridge a Cuvée's light and heavy wines. Finally some wines are just not suitable for blends, although they can be great Champagne wines individually.  

Sparkling formation in Champagne: Once the winery's foreman has established the blend of base wines, the mixture is completed in large deposits before bottling. In this moment sugar and yeasts are added, the so-called tirage or expedition liqueur. The common relationship is 22 sugar grams per wine litre and is increased in 1.2% of alcohol. The next step is to bottle the blend and seal it with a natural cork corker or crown. Bottles will rest piled up horizontally in the cellar at 10 to 12ºC. The second alcoholic fermentation will last for around two weeks and this is the period when the sparkling is generated, as a result of carbon dioxide action. In the course of fermentation, sediment is also formed, being the solid matter of dead yeasts that have positive effects on Champagne, these process is known as autolysis. The bottle will rest a minimum of 15 months for new wines and three years in case of vintage dated champagnes.

After ageing, bottles are arranged with corks down in desks. The starting angle is 45 degrees but they will be turned periodically one eighth of a turn until 90º are reached. This is called remuage and is necessary in order to get the solid matter (dead yeasts) settled at the bottom, on the bottle cork. Nowadays the whole action is performed under computer control.

Disgorgement in Champagne: the last stage in Champagne producing is the disgorgement or dégorgement. A “Champagel” equipment freezes the bottle's neck (the machine's inside liquid is at -28ºC). Then at the moment of uncorking a dark ice plug goes out, taking with it all the dead yeasts. Still some exceptional craftsman accomplishes this process manually, at room temperature and with no mechanical aid.

The small volume of wine that gets lost with the disgorgement is replaced by some base wine and sugar. The quantity of sugar or expedition liquor will define the resulting Champagne, according to the following classification:  Extra Brut, if the sugar content goes from 0 to 6 grams per litre; Brut if the sugar content is not higher than 15 grams per litre; Sec in case of sugar content from 17 to 35 grams per litre; Semi-Sec when it ranges from 33 to 50 grams per litre and Doux if the Champagne has over 50 sugar grams per litre, which renders it necessarily sweet.

How should a Champagne label be read?

There is a great deal of information in a Champagne label: producer name, wine classification according to its dosage or expedition liquor, year in case it is a vintage champagne, alcohol content, society name, county where it is produced, country of origin (France), nominal volume, rank of the wine according to the varieties used, code of registration and finally two capital letters but, what do these letters mean?

  • NM: négociant-manipulant. It refers to a Champagne maison authorised to purchase grapes, must or wine for Champagne production.
  • RM: récoltant-manipulant. It refers to a wine grower that also produces and sales Champagne made of its own grapes.
  • CM: coopérative-manipulant. It refers to a group of wine growers that have created a cooperative.
  • RC: récoltant-cooperateur. It refers to a wine grower whose production is sold to a cooperative that will produce the wine for the later sale.
  • MA: marque d'acheteur. It refers to a wholesaler who purchases wine with his own label to the producing cooperative.  

Find your Champagne….Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs or Rosé, which should you choose?

  • Blanc de Blancs is produced exclusively with Chardonnay varieties. In the past Blanc de Blancs champagne could have Chardonnay, Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. The more elegant and noble champagnes can be find in Côte de Blancs, within Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil counties. Blanc de Blancs wines are acid, light, pure and mineral, with toast and butter scents. After some time in the bottle they develop roasted flavours of coffee and nuts. Which are the best maisons? Krug, Pierre Peters, Salon, Selosse, Ruinart, Taittinger, Roederer and Billecart-Salmon.
  • Blanc de Noirs is produced only with the red varieties Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This type of Champagne is harder to find than a Blanc de Blancs even though there are more plots with red varieties. It is pointless to compare these with the elegance and subtlety of Blanc de Blancs, but they are absolutely incredible to pair with meals. The typical aromatic notes for Blanc de Noirs champagnes are green and red fruits. After some time in bottle they develop sweet, honey, mushroom, leather and even cheese rinds scents. Grand Cru villages, producers of the best Pinot Noir, are Verzy, Verzenay, Bouzy, Ambonnay and Mailly.
  • Rosé is the rosé champagne that can be obtained either with the traditional method, adding between 10 to 20% of red wine to the tirage liquor previously to the second fermentation in bottle, thus having a strawberry and raspberry aroma; either with the free running method, where Pinot Noir must is let to macerate with its pomace before the alcoholic fermentation, however this second option is quite unusual.  

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Champagne wine

Sparkling wine options

 Vintage dated
André Clouet Grande Réserve Grand Cru - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
18,05 £
Charming
bottle x6: 17,13 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Mathusalem, Magnum, Doble Magnum, Standard
PK90
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Type of wine Champagne Winery André Clouet Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Claude Cazals Carte d'Or Grand Cru - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
19,37 £
Charming
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum, Standard
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Claude Cazals Appellation Champagne Grapes Chardonnay
Pol Roger Brut Réserve - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
20,92 £
bottle x6: 19,87 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum, Doble Magnum, Standard
PK92
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Pol Roger Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay
Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
21,65 £
Charming
bottle x6: 20,56 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum, Doble Magnum, Standard
PK87
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Billecart Salmon Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier
Louis Roederer Brut Premier - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
22,80 £
Other Bottle sizes: Mathusalem, Magnum, Doble Magnum, Standard
PK90
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Louis Roederer Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier
Michel Arnould Brut Tradition Grand Cru
Quantity:
23,39 £
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Michel Arnould Fils Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Veuve Doussot Brut Tradition
Quantity:
23,44 £
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Veuve Doussot Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut - 37,5 cl.
Quantity:
24,99 £
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum, Standard
PK90
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Champagne Bollinger Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Piper-Heidsieck Brut
Quantity:
25,95 £
PK87
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Piper Heidsieck Appellation Champagne Grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Bourgeois-Diaz Brut Nature
Quantity:
26,09 £
Charming
Eco / Bio
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Bourgeois Diaz Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Michel Arnould Grand Cru Rosé
Quantity:
26,13 £
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Michel Arnould Fils Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Bourdaire Gallois Brut Tradition
Quantity:
26,54 £
Natural
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Bourdaire Gallois Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Meunier
André Clouet Grande Réserve Grand Cru
Quantity:
26,73 £
Charming
bottle x6: 25,40 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Mathusalem, Magnum, Doble Magnum, Demi
PK90
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Type of wine Champagne Winery André Clouet Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Huré Frères Invitation Brut
Quantity:
27,27 £
Natural
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum
PK88
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Huré Frères Appellation Champagne Grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier
Michel Arnould Grand Cru Extra Brut
Quantity:
27,32 £
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Michel Arnould Fils Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Robert Barbichon Brut Blanc de Noirs
Quantity:
27,37 £
Natural
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Robert Barbichon Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Charlot Tanneux Expression Extra Brut
Quantity:
27,37 £
Natural
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Charlot Tanneux Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Michel Arnould Brut Réserve Grand Cru
Quantity:
27,64 £
bottle x6: 26,27 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Michel Arnould Fils Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
André Clouet Silver Brut Nature Grand Cru
Quantity:
28,00 £
Charming
bottle x6: 26,59 £/u. (-5%)
Other Bottle sizes: Magnum
PK91
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Type of wine Champagne Winery André Clouet Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir
Laherte Frères Ultradition Extra Brut
Quantity:
28,23 £
Charming
Natural
PK92
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Laherte Frères Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Françoise Bedel Origin'elle Brut
Quantity:
29,01 £
Charming
Eco / Bio
PK --
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Robert Barbichon Brut Réserve 4 Cépages
Quantity:
29,06 £
Natural
PK --
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Pierre Paillard Les Parcelles Grand Cru 2011
Quantity:
29,38 £
Natural
PK --
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Pierre Paillard Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial
Quantity:
29,60 £
PK86
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Moët et Chandon Appellation Champagne Grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay
Lenoble Brut Intense
Quantity:
29,74 £
PK88
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Type of wine Champagne Winery Champagne Lenoble Appellation Champagne Grapes Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir
Wine in moderation
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