The following entries will take you on a poorly-planned journey through France’s verdant & viney Champagne region. When I write “poorly-planned”, I mean that Dan and I waited until a few weeks before spring break to decide where to go (Scotland? Poland? France?) and then hastily booked a few things that didn’t break the bank. By the time we’d figured out a plan, most of the English tours of the Champagne Houses were totally booked, so we assumed we could just rock up and do a tasting. This was not always the case, so fear not! I am here to guide you if you, too, are a terrible trip planner and prefer to fly not in Business but by the seat of your pants. Our journey begins in the town of Châlons-en-Champagne, a rather enchanting name for a surprisingly charmless town. Where I envisioned grape vines clawing sprawling green fields, I found what appeared to be a prison and a beige town under construction. However, our hotel was beautiful and staffed by an ebullient, warm man named Jean-Baptiste whose affability and helpfulness completely made up for the fact that I wasn’t spending my days in a little Beauty and the Beast town overlooking fields fizzy with champagne. It also didn’t hurt that Le Jardin d’Hiver, our lodging, served mostly as a wedding venue; having hosted a wedding that weekend, they were in the turn-down process and somehow Dan and I scored what seemed to be the room usually reserved for bride and groom. With ceilings five times my height and room enough to waltz between the bed and the bathroom, there wasn’t much to complain about. And it is here that our story really begins, but before we embark on any cellar tours or tastings, I thought I’d begin with some very cool facts about champagne.
Perhaps none of this is news to you, but it was mostly new to me, and so before we proceed, I thought I’d dazzle you with some of the wisdom I have accrued after three cellar tours, three unplanned tastings, and an episode of “How Stuff Works”. If you’re someone who’s looking for a few savvy bits of wisdom to serve up the next time you’re standing at a high table at a gala, holding a glass of champagne between fingers gloved in satin that reaches up past your elbow, then read on. If you’re also someone who finds themselves scratching their heads in the grocery store when tasked with bringing champagne to an engagement party or a New Year’s celebration, you, too, should read on.
- There are lots of sparkling wines in the world, but only the ones produced in Champagne, with grapes grown in Champagne, can call themselves Champagne. Champagnes are protected by an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée), which basically lays down the law that growers have to follow, and ensures that the rich history of champagne, whose roots plunge deep into Champagne’s chalky terroir and way back to the days of kings, is protected. (To read more about the AOC, go here.) This not only protects the label, but sets out the standards and methods for producing champagne. (For Swiss folk out there, the same goes for cheeses, only they get an AOP; in the cases of both cheese and champagne, though, there are several countries out there who still don’t “recognize” these labels or honor them and…the US is one of them. Shame!)
- Three grapes are used to make Champagne. Before you read on, have a guess! Are you thinking they must be white grapes, because Champagne is white? Well, you’d be wrong! Sort of. The three grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, the third and most mysterious grape (in my mind, because I’d never heard of it). Chardonnay is a white grape, and any “Blanc de Blancs” you buy are 100% Chardonnay. Pinots Noir & Meunier are both referred to as red or “black” grapes because the skins are dark, but the juice is white. If you see a “Blanc de Noirs”, you’re looking at 100% Pinot Noir grapes. Everything else is basically a blend of all three, but with varying percentages of each grape. That rosé you’re eyeing strikes a balance of Noir and Chardonnay, but leans fruity with 40% Pinot Meunier. And each grape brings its own special character to the mix: Chardonnay brings brightness and light, with a mineral edge; Pinot Noir packs the flavor; Pinot Meunier provides fruitiness.
- Brut is drier than dry. I’m not one for sugary beverages, so when I pick out a wine or a Champagne, I want dry. So when I learned that a Brut Champagne can pack up to 15g of sugar, I was reluctant to try one. And then I did, and I realized that as an uninformed consumer, it’s best I trust the process of the people who have been making champagne for 300 years or so. If you’re at the store and puzzling over the label, it’s good to know that Extra Brut is super dry, Brut is dry, Extra Dry is actually less dry than Brut, Sec is Semi-dry, Demisec is getting a little sweeter, and Doux, which can pack more than 50g of sugar, is on the sweet side. Having completed my tour of Champagne, I can safely say I’ve never met a Brut I didn’t like.
- Motley Cru! The difference between Grand Cru and Premier Cru. Grand Cru means something like “old growth”, so if your Champagne is labeled as Grand Cru, it means your grapes have all come from old vines on the best sides of the hills, the vines that have been doing this for years. Apparently there are 17 Grand Cru villages making champagne. Everything else is Premier Cru, which is either 100% from Premier Cru villages or a mix of Premier and Grand.
- Consistency is key. Back in the early days of Champagne, it might not have been uncommon to compare glasses, noting the differences in color, maybe even bubble production. But it’s important that Champagne look the same. So when it came to pressing the grapes, it was usually done by hand so as not to allow any skins to get into the champagne. Now, machines have replaced humans in that regard, but they must still be extremely gentle during the grape-pressing process.
- Machines have mostly replaced humans in the champagne process, but not entirely. Grapes are still hand-picked, with Champagne houses calling in pickers during the harvest season. During our conversation with a grower named Guillaume, he explained that his family calls in about 30 workers over 8-10 days at the end of August, and they pick the grapes in the fields. “Could I come in and do that?” Dan asked, to which Guillaume replied, “Yes. Most of the people who come in are college students or people without work.” To think that growers might trust me to pick the grapes that have been growing on their family vines for hundreds of years is a rather daunting thought. And while machines have replaced humans in the fermentation process, several Champagne houses stressed that with the expensive vintages, they’re still pretty hands-on.
- What’s a vintage? A vintage Champagne is special. To be a vintage, all of your grapes must come from one year’s harvest and often just one section of field. While other Champagnes ferment in cellars for about 15 months, a vintage must be in its second fermentation for 36 months in order to be called a vintage. You can recognize one on the shelf because the label will bear the year. Apparently 2002 was a great year, and 2022 as well – keep an eye out!
- How do you make Champagne? Wherefore art there bubbles? I read once in 1000 Years of Annoying the French that Champagne was discovered sort of accidentally, not unlike penicillin. Then, when people realized it wasn’t the worst thing in the world to have bubbles in your wine, they began to refine the process. So here it goes. First, the grapes are harvested and then pressed. The liquid is stored in barrels – some use oak, many use stainless steel – and a fermentation takes place where yeast eats the sugar in the liquid and produces alcohol. Like any wine; in fact, no bubbles are involved in the first fermentation. But then, in bottles, the liquid undergoes a second fermentation. More yeast and more sugar are added, and a metal cap is placed on the bottle to prevent pressure from escaping. The yeast eats the sugar again and releases carbonic acid that can’t escape. When the yeast eat up all the sugar, they die (a pleasant thought, next time you feel those bubbles dancing down your throat!), and they leave behind a layer of silty sediment called Lees. Yum. Of course we don’t drink that, but how to get it out of the bottle? According to Champagne law, once the liquid is in the bottle, it stays in that bottle until you pour it into a glass on your 50th wedding anniversary or alone on your living room couch over a re-run of Friends. So why are we not sipping on silt every time we drink Champagne?
- The Riddler disgorges! This is not a Batman headline. When the sediment forms, it sort of sits along the bottom of the bottle as it lays sideways in its cool chalk cellar. But someone had the brilliant idea to create wooden racks where bottles could be inserted, neck down, at 75-degree angles, luring all the silt into the neck of the bottles. That someone happened to be the widow of Francois Clicquot, whose name you might recognize against a gold-yellow Champagne label. When Francois died, his widow (Barbe-Nicole, amazing name), took over the business. And the word for widow in French is veuve, so next time you see a bottle of Veuve-Clicquot, think of the Champagne widows! With the racks created, all anyone needed was a person to go down into the cellars and turn each of the thousands of Champagne bottles just an eighth of a turn, marking each bottle with chalk to note the turn. This person was called a Riddler, and the process called Riddling. By hand, it took something like 4-6 weeks; now, most places use machines that turn many bottles at a time in giant crates, though the special vintages are still turned the old way, by hand. From there, the coolest part of the process occurs: the degorgement. Once the sediment has collected in the neck, it forms a little yeast-cube. To get it out, the necks of the bottles are dipped in a briny-water bath at about -26 degrees. The cube freezes, someone pries off the metal cap, and the cube launches out, just like you might imagine a Champagne cork doing. Brilliant! Some Champagne escapes with it, so a combination of liquor and sugar called a dosage is injected into the bottle, it’s corked, and then sealed with a muselet, those little wire clasps that keep the cork in place (something about like 60 atmospheres of pressure on the liquid inside the bottle). So next time you sip a glass of Champagne and you feel the joy of bubbles popping along your teeth and swallow the liquid without a trace of yeast sediment, thank Barbe-Nicole.
- Champagne growers can’t irrigate their vines. If it’s a particularly hot and dry summer, and there’s not enough water, the vines will begin to push down into the soil in search of hydration. Because Champagne’s terroir consists of chalk, which retains humidity, perseverant roots will be rewarded with water, giving the grapes a flavorful, mineral taste. According to a tour at Ruinart, roots can penetrate 30 meters down into the chalk bed. When it rains again, they recede.
And voila! A few shareable facts about Champagne you can pass on when you’re struggling for small talk at your next big social gathering. In Part Deux, we’ll head to Épernay to a few Champagne houses for tours, tastings, and tidbits about this fabulous beverage once reserved only for French kings and Russian royalty.
PS: I did a little research on sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne, bearing the champagne label, such as Korbel, produced in California. The most eye-catching distinction for me was the use of different grapes (where Champagne “Blanc de Noirs” is usually Pinot Noir [labeled as a “black grape”] exclusively, Korbel’s “Blanc de Noirs” also contains Gamay, Zinfandel, and Sangiovese [a “purple grape”]) and the colorful advertisements for Korbel as a mimosa or brunch champagne. The French sites seem to highlight the brand itself, the history behind it, and the cellars. I struggle to imagine the French Champagne houses allowing orange juice in even the same room as a bottle of their finest.
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