Champagne is the ultimate in sparkling wine and has a protected designation of origin. It comes from the region Champagne in north eastern France. The designation “Champagne” distinguishes not only the geographic boundaries, but also the varieties of grapes used.
The region started out in the Middle Ages making non-sparkling wines, but it did not take long after the invention of the sparkling wine for it to eclipse the other varieties. The oldest sparkling wine on record is traced back to monks near Carcassonne in 1531, and a hundred years later the English scientist Christopher Merret recorded a process of adding sugar and yeast to finished wine to create a second fermentation, creating what we know today as either sparkling wine or champagne.
While Dom Perignon is often credited with the “invention” of champagne, he actually developed many of the production advances that helped it become so popular. For example, Dom Perignon invented the wire collar that holds the cork in place to withstand the pressure from fermentation.
Champagne is made primarily from three grape varieties: Pinot Noir N, Pinot Meunier N, and Chardonnay B, and has several unique production features. For one thing, no harvesting machines are used because machinery can damage the grapes, which must arrive in perfect condition. The grape clusters have to be manually cleared of any small rotten grapes, and the harvester has to comply with the winemaker’s instructions to only pick healthy, mature grapes. Harvest dates are determined in advance, with samples taken in the weeks leading up to harvest to determine how ripe the grapes are.
The presses used for making champagne must meet specific tolerances. The presses extract 25.5 hl of juice for 4,000 kg of grapes. The first 25.5 hl is labeled “vintage” and is usually made separately into the best quality wines. The last 1% to 4% by volume of the pressings cannot be labelled as champagne and is shipped to distilleries instead.
The sparkling wine is kept under pressure by the special mushroom-shaped cap that’s held in place with the wire cage. The cap pops when the champagne is opened, causing the wine to foam. When poured, bubbles form from contacting the glass of the champagne flute into which it is poured and also from the crystals and cellulose fibers in the wine itself. Because of the fermentation process, carbon dioxide molecules form and you’ll see columns of bubbles shooting up from different places in the glass.
The vineyards where champagne grapes are grown are classified as “unclassified,” “premier cru,” and “grand cru,” and these designations determine the prices paid to the vineyard owner for his vines. With grand cru wines, the buyer pays 100% of the reference price. The premier cru buyer pays 90 to 99% of the reference price of the grapes. With unclassified soils, the buyer pays 80 to 89% of the reference price of the grapes. Of the 324 wines that can be called “Champagne,” only 43 earn the premier cru designation, and only 17 may call themselves grand cru. The most expensive of the champagnes is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, grown in a grand cru vineyard in Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger for the brand Salon.