I love champagne. It is a huge part of my life and I am not ashamed to admit it. One thing I found very interesting, since I moved to the UK in 2009, it was to see how it really became part of the British way of life (which I would have never have guessed). Not just for special occasions like a birthday or New Years… we (those who live here) drink it because it is sunny, or because it actually is raining.. it is not difficult to find a reason TO drink those magic bubbles. Over the last year, I have come to know Jayne Powell, aka Champagne Jayne. She has taught me so much about champagne.. I can’t even tell you. Or maybe I will. Cheers!
So what is champagne?
“Champagne” is a sparkling wine style unique to the Champagne region, produced from the classic varieties of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier and grown, harvested and matured under very strict conditions. The final product is a result of the unique combined effects of soil, orientation, climate and cultivation practises as well as history and commerce. The term ‘sparkling wine’ covers all other carbonated wine.
What are the different styles of champagne?
Although not all sparkling wines can claim to be champagne, it is equally true that not all champagne is just one style of wine. The wines of Champagne are as varied as the different Champagne Houses, the cooperatives, the growers and indeed the region of Champagne itself. Blending is everything in Champagne and the grape variety, the source of the grapes, reserve wines and the degree of dosage all play their part in allowing its wine-makers to create a myriad of champagne expressions:
Blanc de Blancs
‘Blanc de Blancs’ literally translated means ‘white from white’ (ie. a champagne made of 100 per cent Chardonnay). Blanc de Blancs is a delicate and creamy champagne style that may come from any district in the region – but the finest examples of this style are made with grapes from the world-renowned villages in the Côte des Blancs (Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil-Sur-Oger). When young, Chardonnay is always extremely pale with tinges of green and can seem rather light and acidic, but with age it develops a toasty richness and mineral elegance that fills the mouth with intense purity of fruit. After four or five years, the best Blanc de Blancs taste of exotic fruits such as mango, peach and apricot and, as they reach maturity (Chardonnay is, after all, the most age-worthy grape), they develop a stunning golden appearance and offer a symphony of complex nutty aromas on the nose and a melting biscuity creaminess in the mouth.
Blanc de Noirs
Even though there are more black grapes (73 per cent) than white grapes (27 per cent) grown in the Champagne region, ‘Blanc de Noirs’ champagnes – ‘white from black’ (which can be made from either Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or both) are far less common than Blanc de Blancs. This is probably because all Pinot champagnes are not suitable as aperitif wines and, even though they make great food wines, they just cannot compete with Chardonnay-based champagnes in terms of elegance and finesse, and so usually the best Pinots are combined with Chardonnay to produce blended champagnes. Blanc de Noirs champagnes are very fruity wines, somewhat animal or earthy in character, full yellow in colour and really need food as a partner in crime. Firm and masculine in their youth as they mellow with age, flavours of honey, caramel and mushroom appear along with smoky notes and even leather aromas. The Grand Cru villages of Verzy, Verzenay, Bouzy, Ambonnay and Mailly are all capable of producing first class Pinot champagnes and this style is also very well expressed by certain growers in the Aube region.
The pleasure of well-made Rosé champagne is both visual and visceral. Champagne is the only Rosé wine in the world that may be legally made from blending white wine with a little red wine. Some Rosé champagnes are made by maceration of the Pinot skins called ‘saignee’ (such as Laurent Perrier, the most popular Rosé in the world), which gives more strawberry and raspberry aromas to the blend. However, the majority of Rosé champagnes are made by the addition of still red wine (10 to 20 per cent usually from Bouzy or other Montagne de Reims villages added at the assemblage or liqueur de tirage stage), which affords greater control of the colour and allows for a substantial proportion of Chardonnay to be included in the blend if so desired (eg. Billecart-Salmon). Whatever their method of production, whether vintage or not, Rosé champagnes have less acidity than white champagnes and are generally best drunk soon after release because they have a delicate, perfumed floral style that loses its sweet fruity edge over time and their vibrant colourways gain nothing from being laid down, apart from turning orange (15 to 20 years) or even white (after 40 years).
What’s the difference between NV, Vintage and Prestige cuvee champagne?
Non vintage champagne is the calling card of any producer and normally represents about 80 to 90 per cent of annual sales – usually an assemblage based on wines from the current harvest blended with reserve wines from several different years to create a harmonious marriage of fine aromatic complexity, quality – and, above all, instant maturity – ‘ready to wear’ in the fashion sense. Here, the wine-maker’s goal is to create an easily recognisable signature House style that is consistent year in and year out, regardless of particular vintage conditions, so that a customer will know what to expect each and every time they purchase this particular label, whether it’s today or in five years’ time.
A declared vintage in Champagne implies that the harvest was really exceptional and the unique personality of these fully matured grapes deserves to be recorded for posterity. Vintage champagne must be 100 per cent from the year indicated, but elsewhere in the world it varies: Australia 85 per cent, California 95 per cent, and the European Union 85 per cent, for example. Tasting a vintage champagne can prove to be an altogether different experience than tasting a non-vintage for two reasons. First, although a vintage champagne is aged much longer before release than a non-vintage champagne (15 months for non-vintage, three years for vintage and usually much longer) and contains the best grapes, the qualities of the wine will be somewhat defined by the character of the vintage itself, without the benefit of the mellowing effects brought to a non-vintage blend by the addition of aged reserve wines. Second, the high quality raw material used in making vintage champagne will make these wines more age worthy and reward patient cellaring (vintage wines are more toasty and biscuity in nature, having spent longer on their lees).
The ‘Cuvée de Prestige’ is all about selection and is the crowning jewel of any Champagne House. The wine-maker will select the very best grapes from the finest vineyards that he has at his disposal – and use the ripest fruit from the oldest vines. The period of maturation before release for Prestige Cuvées is always longer than for vintage champagne (often 10 years or more) and the bottle will be presented in the most ornate packaging, while the champagne itself will be intense, well aged, deep in flavour and impeccably styled. As a result, the bubbles in a Prestige Cuvée champagne are typically finer and more delicate, the aromas and flavours more intense, more complex and more elegant, and the finish is longer than other champagnes. Prestige Cuvées are only produced in tiny quantities, which is why they are the most expensive champagnes sold by any House.
At what temperature should I serve champagne?
Bubbles are an integral part of the pleasure of champagne appreciation and the rate at which they are released is determined by temperature. Serving champagne anywhere between 4.5ºC to 7ºC is perfect for a slow release of the mousse – but remember that if you serve a champagne too cold, all the aromatics will be suppressed and it will taste practically flavourless. On the other hand, if you were to serve champagne at room temperature, the bottle would be extremely dangerous to open because the wine would immediately explode from its container, froth up and then go flat. The best method to thoroughly chill a bottle of champagne is to either (a) place it in the fridge for two to four hours before you need it or (b) place the bottle in a champagne bucket half filled with water and ice cubes for approximately 30 minutes before serving. (NB: you need both water and ice in the bucket as the water acts as a conductor for the temperature transfer).
How long can I keep an open bottle of champagne?
Unfortunately once you’ve popped that cork all the CO2 dissolved in your bottle of champagne (which creates the bubbles) slowly escapes so its best to finish the lot in one sitting. Did you know there are 21 million bubbles in a single glass of champagne? If you can only manage 1 or 2 glasses of champagne, then you can keep the rest of the bottle fairly fresh (but less bubbly) for up to 48 hours in the fridge using a champagne stopper.
Where does Champagne come from?
The word “champagne” comes from the latin word “campagna” meaning flat farm land. The Champagne region is a continuation of the English South Downs, once part of an inland sea that covered most of France until about 70 million years ago. Being as far north as vines can possibly grow pushes the vineyards’ growth cycle to the limit (ie. it takes longer to ripen grapes). Having only poor chalky or clay-based thin soils doubles the workload of the vines (ie. they have to work extra hard to burrow their roots as deeply as possible). Magically, the heady combination of all these challenges actually results in a higher sugar/acid ratio in the grapes, which later on gives subtler aromas, elegance and finesse in the wine itself.
Do I serve it in a special glass?
Although crystal flutes will definitely enhance your appreciation of any champagne, surprisingly, ordinary wine glasses are also good enough to do the job – they capture the vitally important bouquet but they just can’t retain the mousse like a flute. So you need to decide which is more important to you – the aroma or the mousse or both?
The other style of glass, the coupe (originally called a ‘tazza’) is a broad, flat, short-stemmed saucer-shaped glass first created in 1663 by Venetian glass-makers at the Duke of Buckingham’s factory in Greenwich. Legend has it that the most famous versions of the coupe were modelled and moulded in Sèvres porcelain on the breasts of Madame Pompadour (Louis XV’s mistress) and Marie-Antoinette (Louis XVI’s wife). Unfortunately, the large surface of wine exposed to the air in a coupe means the aromas quickly dissipate, the bubbles go flat almost immediately and the temptation to cradle this kind of glass in one’s hand simply heats up the champagne – so all in all, the coupe, although it may be romantically perfect, is definitely not the right kind of glass for appreciating champagne at all.
Whichever glass you choose, always remember that the way you clean your glasses is almost as important as their shape. Always hand-wash your champagne glasses in warm water without detergent – because any washing liquid residue affects both the bubbles and the bouquet. If the interior of the glass is too polished, there will be no infinitesimal particles on the inner surface of the glass for the carbon dioxide to stick to in order to create the bubbles in the first place.
So its been around for a while, how did it all start?
Renowned as the natural partner for any event where celebration, luxury and romance are the themes, champagne is in fact both a wine and a place. The Champagne region was first settled by the Romans after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (52 BC)and its strategic capital Durocortorum (modern day Reims) was already a thriving metropolis when Paris was still just a natural bog. First mentioned in the history books in 496AD when Bishop Saint Remi baptised Clovis King of the Franks in Reims Cathedral, the wines of champagne have been intimately connected with sex, politics, religion, monarchy and celebration ever since. The scientific improvements of the industrial revolution made champagne accessible to the middle classes and today the Champagne region produces more than 300 million bottles a year. Thank goodness the wines of Champagne can now be found all over the world!
Can I visit Champagne?
Yes absolutely, for any lover of champagne there is nothing quite like witnessing how this wine miracle is made. The historical Champagne region is less than one hour North East of Paris, so easily accessible for the day, but its many cultural and foodie attractions may tempt you to stay much longer. The tourist offices in Reims and Epernay (the region’s two main champagne capitals) can provide with a list of champagne houses open to the public. Famous names to visit include Moet, Mumm, Pommery, Taittinger and Veuve Clicquot.
I’ve heard enough, where can I get some champagne?
You can find a decent range of champagnes in most supermarkets and usually at least one or two big names in your local corner shop. Small more exclusive grower champagnes and rare vintages can be sourced at boutique retailers. The best champagne deals can be ordered by the case online from the comfort of your armchair at home.
Jayne Powell (aka Champagne Jayne) provides a uniquely rich yet accessible introduction to the world’s most enigmatic wine. Dubbed the ‘Champagne Socialist’ by Financial Times, Jayne is an award-winning author and champagne educator, freelance lifestyle journalist, broadcaster and special events MC, who has been awarded Champagne Dame status (Dame Chevalier) by the champagne industry in recognition of her global efforts to democratise prestige.