Champagne, The King of Wine – Part 1

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Champagne – we’ve all heard of it. It’s the king of sparkling wine, and you can almost hear the pop of the cork the moment you hear the name. But there are a lot of misconceptions going around about the world’s most famous wine, and today, we will go into a little more detail about them.

Mostly it’s just a case of incomplete information, which is easily remedied.

We know that Champagne is a sparkling wine – but it is actually a sparkling wine from the Champagne region of France. It lies towards the North of the country, where the weather is suitable for producing white wines with high acidity.

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This picture is from WineFolly. It’s a brilliant source for learning more about wines. Check out their article on Champagne here.

The name “Champagne” is actually protected under French law, so the word Champagne can only be printed on the label if the wine was made in that specific region. Manufactured even one step over the border and it simply becomes “sparkling wine from France”.

There are many such examples of names being protected by the French Government, one of the most notable being Roquefort Blue Cheese, which can only be called so if it is aged exclusively in the Roquefort caves in France. As you can see, the French guard their national pride rather jealously.

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The caves of Roquefort, and the cheese aged therein.

Another important note : Champagne is actually made with a blend of grapes, not a single varietal. I will be doing a segment on grape varietals, and how they are different from one another, very soon. There were a lot of requests to cover this topic first, so I shall strive to make it as easy to understand as possible.

There are three different varieties of grapes that go into making Champagne. One of them is quite common, and goes by the name of Chardonnay. The other two grapes are Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. And interestingly enough, Chardonnay is the only white grape of the three – the other two are actually black grapes. So how does Champagne end up becoming a white wine?

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White wine from black grapes? Something seems off here.

The answer is, grape juice is still ultimately white, irrespective of the colour of the grape. I’ve discussed this a little in my previous post Wine 101 – Exploring the What. I would recommend giving it a read in order to understand a little more about wine grapes in general. You can find it here.

Here’s the important bit from the article.

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“This means that the juice extracted by pressing both black and white grapes is the same colour – white. So it’s entirely possible to make a white wine using only black grapes. In fact, it’s quite a common practice.”

A small percentage of Champagnes are actually made entirely, 100% from the Chardonnay grape. These Champagnes are called blanc de blanc (a literal translation being white from white – meaning white wine from only white grapes), and a smaller percentage are made purely from the two black grape varieties, named blanc de noir – white from black.

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The Prestige Cuvee mentioned above refers to the most premium of wines.

However, this is a rare practice because blending the three grapes (debatably) provides much more combined benefit than using a single variety of grape.

A small note from an article I found on dummies.com (judgment aside, it’s a great source), has a succinct write-up on the role played by each grape.

  • Pinot Noir adds body, structure, aroma, and a complexity of flavors. This difficult variety likes the cool climate of the region, and it grows well in the chalky limestone soil.

  • Pinot Meunier contributes fruitiness, floral aromas, and a precocious character (readiness-to-drink sooner).

  • Chardonnay, a star performer in the Champagne region, gives freshness, delicacy, elegance, and finesse. For this reason, many producers make blanc de blancs (Chardonnay) Champagne.

You can find the whole article here.

Here comes the real curve ball. Champagne is quite a complex wine, because it is not only a blend of different grapes, but also of different wines from the previous years. A newly harvested and manufactured wine is often mixed with wines from the previous batches, a process known as back blending.

It’s a common practice for a lot of wines, as it helps to maintain consistency and in a lot of cases, drastically improve the quality of the wine. Most Champagne is known to respond very well to aging, so wine from the previous year’s batches often have a lot to offer.

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The defining factor of Champagne is of course, the bubbles. The actual method for introducing the bubbles into the wine is nothing short of genius, and is in truth, much more dignified  than a simple injection of CO2.

The fact that it was pioneered in the 18th Century (with major contributions from a certain monk known as Dom Perignon) makes it even more remarkable. The tale is a long and glorious one, and we will be discussing it very soon.

A quick note on some famous Champagne producers.

Möet et Chandon remains the largest and most well known of all Champagne producers. Their highest quality wine is labelled Dom Perignon, a tribute to the monk.

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The word “Brut” actually denotes a dry wine. In order of sweetness, wines are labelled Brut, Demi-Sec, Sec/Seco, and Doux.

Other major producers include Krug, Ayala, Bollinger, Mercier, Ruinart, and Pol Roger.

Some very good news for India is that Chandon has recently entered the Indian market, with a vineyard in Nashik. They have two major products, Chandon Brut (a dry white sparkling wine), and Chandon Brut Rosé. I have not tasted either of them yet, but the moment I do, I shall make a note of it here.

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They are priced at Rs. 1200 for Chandon Brut, and Rs. 1400 for the Chandon Brut Rosé. I would definitely recommend getting your hands on these if you can, despite being more expensive than the average bottle we get here. It appears to be in great demand, and there is a good reason for it. There is a lot of information on both the brand and the wine here.

That’s it for this week on Champagne. Still left to come, the amazing story of Dom Perignon, the ingenious method of introducing bubbles into the wine, and a lot of more info on sparkling wines in general.

See you all next week!

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