Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Champagne 101


Intro2Champagne 002

Recently, I took a class at Flute in New York City; it was an Introduction to Champagne – in other words, “Champagne For Complete Idiots”. It sounded appropriate for the likes of me, so naturally it seemed to sense for me to report on it for youse guys.

On this evening, we tasted three different Champagnes – Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve

… followed by Paul Goerg 2002


… and finishing with Ayala De Puy Rosé Majeur, the only Rosé Champagne from the tasting.


The evening started with a brief history of Champagne, which began over 300 years ago. Champagne is the most successful wine category in the world and is very regulated. Its name comes from where it is made -- in the Champagne region of France, an area northeast of Paris. All sparkling wines in that region are Champagne, but if they come from outside of that region, they cannot technically be called Champagne – they must instead be generically referred to as sparkling wines. Popularized in the 18th Century, its success is attributed to the monarch of France, the Monks of France and – of all people – the British.

France’s Louis XIV was born the same year as Dom Perignon, the monk who made Champagne famous; coincidentally, they both died the same year, too. As a monarch, Louis XIV served Champagne extensively, giving it great visibility. The reason why the British are attributed to its success is due to the fact that when it was originally exported to England, while the British loved this new sparkling wine, they found it too sweet; suggesting it be manufactured with a lower sugar content, Champagne gained even wider appeal in the world.

Typically, Champagne is made from a blending of three grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Muniet; the percentage of each grape varies from one Champagne producer to another. These are one white grape and two dark grapes. In the “body” that is Champagne, Chardonnay is considered the blood, Pinot Muniet the skeleton and Pinot Noir the muscle. Usually, the lighter and more refined the Champagne, the greater the concentration of Chardonnay grapes.

The sugar content of Champagne can be anywhere from six to 12 grams; the lower the sugar content, the “drier” the Champagne. Today, there are Champagnes made with absolutely no sugar – these are called either Zero Dosage or Low Dosage Champagnes. The benefit of these so-called Zero Dosage Champagnes is that because they have no sugar, they are low in calories. However, there can be something of a drawback to these Zero Dosage Champagnes, too – some can be so dry that they have an acidic taste, which can render them virtually undrinkable. They tend to have around three grams of natural sugar – which is residual sugar from the grape – but no further sugar is added.

When Champagne is manufactured, it is not unusual to lose anywhere from 10-15% of the bottles in aging; this is due to the fact that the bottles will tend to explode at some point during the aging process. In 1776, for every 3,000 bottles of Champagne manufactured, about 90% exploded. This led to two very important inventions: one was the Riddling Rack and the other was the type of glass used to make the bottle. A Riddling Rack is a special type of shelving used for aging wine bottles; the neck of the bottle is inserted into the rack and the bottle is held at an angle. Each day, the bottle is given a one quarter turn to make sure the sediment does not settle in one spot. The daily turn used to be done by hand; now, however, it is performed by a machine which is capable of turning six bottles per second.

The change in the type of glass used in bottling Champagne had to do with using a more fortified type of glass in order to prevent it from exploding. Thanks to these inventions, only about one Champagne bottle in 30,000 tends to explode. The explosions can never be 100% prevented due to the fact that the Champagne bottles contain living organisms in the wine.

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