“The sommelier arrived with some elegant Champagne flutes, placing one in front of each of us. He retrieved the bottle we had ordered earlier from the ice bucket, wiping it meticulously before presenting it to us. With his left hand, he firmly grasped the bottle's neck. Meanwhile, with his right hand, he removed the wrapping foil, loosened the wire of the muselet and then placed his right hand at the bottom of the bottle. He tilted the bottle at a 45-degree angle and, with a gentle turn of the bottle, eased the cork out while retaining it with his left hand, producing a faint "PSSSSHHHH" as the air pressure released. He poured up to a third of each glass, creating the signature fizzy crackling sound of the Champagne as the bubbles collapsed at the liquid surface. We raised and clinked our flutes for a convivial toast, looking at each other respectively before taking the first sip, as tradition commands. The sommelier placed the bottle back in the ice bucket, and with a smile and sparkles in his eyes, he said, "Enjoy!" It was a night to remember.” – Dom
Created in the 17th century, Champagne has become the quintessential classic drink that adds a delightful touch to every party, reception, and celebration. It symbolises joy and memorable moments such as friendships, promotions, success, victories, birthdays, and weddings.
There is always a good excuse to pop up a bottle and enjoy its delicious taste. And when it comes to “taste”, we should refer to "Champagnes" in the plural form rather than as a singular entity. There are so many types and styles of champagnes that it can be challenging to determine which will best suit your palate.
Yet, before getting into Champagnes' different types and styles, let’s briefly go back in time to its origins.
Champagne's Origins (*)
In 1662, six years before Dom Pérignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers, Christopher Merret, an English scientist and physician, first documented the process of adding sugar to a finished wine to obtain a second fermentation. Merret presented his findings on what is known today as the “Methode Traditionnelle” ("Traditional Method" aka “Méthode Champenoise”) at the Royal Society.
In the 17th century, English glassmakers utilized coal ovens to manufacture glass bottles that were more robust and long-lasting compared to those produced by French glassmakers who used wood-fired ovens. At the same time, Merret's discoveries coincided with the progress made by English glassmakers, who could produce bottles able to withstand the internal pressure produced by secondary fermentation. Meanwhile, French glassmakers were not yet equipped to create bottles that met the required quality and strength standards. So, until the French adopted the same technique, the Champagne produced at the time was bottled in English bottles.
Dom Perignon, who is often credited for it, did not invent Champagne. Still, his research and inventions greatly enhanced certain techniques that led to the elaboration of Champagne as we know it today. He was the first to make Champagne out of black grape varieties such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which are part of the 3 main grape varieties still in use for its production today. He used the traditional second fermentation process, called "Méthode champenoise". He was also the first to use cork maintained by hemp ropes and sealed by wax to prevent wine bottles from exploding.
The Muselet (*)
The becoming of Champagne (suite of "Champagne's origins")
Champagne's 3 main grape varieties
- The liqueur de tirage (the addition of sugar and yeast to obtain the 2nd fermentation in the bottle)
- The ageing with the dying yeasts (giving the distinctive toasty, yeasty character to champagne)
- The "Dosage" (or "liqueur d'expedition", which is a mixture of white wine, brandy and sugar, added after disgorgement before final corking)
After 12 to 24 hours, the clear juice is drawn off and transferred to the "cuverie" (the room containing the fermenting vats) to commence the first fermentation.
The percentage of grape varieties varies depending on the “type” (White, Rosé, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, etc.) and the “style” (Brut Nature, Brut, Extra Brut, Extra Dry, etc..) the champagne house wants to achieve.
Wines from different grape varieties, vintages and vineyards are combined to obtain different “types” and “styles” of Champagne.
- Regular Champagne (white or rosé, Brut, and non-vintage, Cru or not) is usually a blend of the three main grape varieties, for example, 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Pinot Meunier.
- Special or Prestige Cuvée (white or rosé, Brut, or other, vintage or non-vintage, Cru or not) is usually richer and more complex than a regular Champagne and thus might have a higher percentage of one dominant grape. Pinot Noir-based Champagnes are usually more opulent and substantial, while Chardonnay-based is lighter, brighter, refined, and chiselled.
- Vintage Champagne (white or rosé, Brut, or other, cru or not) made uniquely with the wine of a particular vintage might tend to have a relatively balanced blend of the two main grape varieties, for example, 50% pinot noir and 50% Chardonnay (60/40).
- Blanc de Blancs Champagne (Brut or other, vintage or not, cru or not) is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes and are usually lighter and more refined.
- Blanc de Noirs Champagne (Brut or other, vintage or not, cru or not) is made with 100% black grapes, usually Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier grapes.
- Rosé Champagne (brut or other, vintage or non-vintage, cru or not) usually tends to be blended with a higher percentage of pinot noir and less of the other two grape varieties. When producing rosé champagne, there are two methods commonly used: blending red and white wines together in a process called 'rosé d'assemblage' or macerating the grapes in a process called 'rosé de saignée.' The pinkish hue comes from the crushed grape skins in the latter method.
5. Second fermentation (Liqueur de Tirage et Prise de Mousse)
7. Riddling (or remuage)
Following the “ageing” process, "riddling" (or remuage) consists of loosening the sediments and lees (dead yeast cells) remaining in the bottle from the second fermentation by moving them towards the neck of the bottle. This makes it easier to remove them afterwards through the disgorgement process.
There are two ways to do it:
- The traditional method, also known as "Manual Riddling”, involves transferring the ageing bottles onto wooden racks with angled holes called "Pupitres." The bottles are loaded horizontally with sediment resting on the side. To riddle the bottles, they are given a sharp quarter-turn daily by a "bottle turner" who rotates the bottles 1/8 or 1/4 turn at a time, with a chalk mark on the bottom for reference. The bottles are gradually tilted “neck-down” (“sur pointe”) so that the sediment moves down to the bottleneck. Manual remuage takes about 4-6 weeks and involves an average of 25 turns per bottle. A professional "remueur" can handle up to 40,000 bottles daily.
- The modern method, “Mechanical riddling” (or “automated remuage”), consists of putting the ageing bottles into racks or cages that can hold up to 500 bottles, depending on their size and brand. The bottles are then riddled using a machine called a “Gyropalette which means "turning palette" in Greek (from the Greek word "Gyros" meaning "turn"). This machine operates 24/7 and takes only one week instead of the 4-6 weeks it normally takes for the manual method, without compromising the quality of the product.
At the end of this process (either manual or mechanical),
all the sediments will have moved to the bottleneck, and the bottles are now “neck-down” (“sur pointe”), ready for the next stage: disgorgement.
8. Disgorging (Disgorgement)
Disgorgement is the process of removing the sediments (accumulated in the bottleneck) from the Champagne. It is done in 2 steps:
1. Plunging the bottleneck in a cold solution at approximately -27°C, causing all the sediments gathered there to form a frozen plug.
2. Put the bottle back in an up position and swiftly remove the crown cap, which expels the frozen plug thanks to the pressure built up inside the bottle.
This is a crucial stage for the wine since it is also the first time in months (even years) that it will again be in contact with the outside air. The oxygen penetrating the bottle at this stage will help to enhance the wine’s aromatic personality further.
Although disgorgement is done mostly mechanically nowadays, for most regular bottles, especially in the most renowned Champagne Houses producing large volumes, large format bottles and some premium cuvées are still disgorged by hand ("à la volée"), especially for the small, independent producers.
A small amount of wine is forced out when the frozen sediment plug is expelled. And this is where the next stage begins when the “liqueur of dosage” is used to top up the bottle before corking it.
9. Dosage (Liqueur d'Expedition / Liqueur de Dosage)
- Brut Nature contains <3 g/l of residual sugar
- Extra Brut < 6 g/l
- Brut <12 g/l
- Extra-Dry 12-17 g/l
- Dry (Sec) 17-32 g/l
- Demi-Sec 32-50 g/l
- Doux 50 g/l
10. Corking and Inspection
11. Labelling (or Habillage)
Champagne's Types and Styles
I differentiate Champagnes by “Types” and “Styles”. We can separate them by their literal definition to quickly understand their differences.
- Brut NV (Non-Vintage)
- Brut Vintage
- Multi-Vintage (Special or Prestige Cuvée, etc..)
- White (made from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier)
- Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay)
- Blanc de Noirs (100% Pinot Noir)
- Rosé (made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, may include Chardonnay too)
- Vineyard Classification/Location
- Grand Cru
- Premier Cru
- Autre Cru
Champagne's Styles (or Sweetness Level)
Understanding Champagne's various "types" can be pretty challenging, yet it gets even more complicated when you consider the 7 different "styles" in which each type can be crafted.
Champagne "Styles" are classified based on their sweetness level, meaning the amount of residual sugar in grams per litre (or “dosage”) upon bottling. As mentioned in "Champagne's making" above, “Dosage” consists of a “Liqueur d’Expedition" (a mix of sugar and wine) added to top up the Champagne after disgorgement and before the final closing of the bottle with the cork and muselet.
Some people prefer a visual as it might be easier to understand, and, as you know, I love making visuals/drawings/illustrations to add more appeal to my posts. So, here is one.
Reading the label
Jacques Selosse Lieux-dits 'Sous le Mont' Mareuil-Sur-Aÿ Grand Cru Champagne Extra Brut - NV
Pascal Agrapart "Vénus" Fossé aux Pourceaux Blanc de Blancs Avize Grand Cru Champagne Brut-Nature - 2015
One last label, and I stop there. 😁👍
Egly-Ouriet "Les Vignes de Vrigny" Premier Cru Brut, Champagne, France - 2017
I could speak about Champagnes for hours and write many more paragraphs and pages about it. Yet, maybe in another post, as I will conclude this already lengthy post here.