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What is it about Champagne?

Kate O'Brien

'My only regret is that I have not drunk more champagne in my life' -

John Maynard Keynes.

What a terribly tragic regret to have! But given JMK was one of the greatest British economists of his time, I dare say that splurging on a top notch bottle of champagne was not a regular occurrence- far too detrimental to the bottom line. Perhaps this was why he was such a staunch advocate for increased government expenditure and lower taxes during the Depression-'make them buy champagne!' he probably thought, and so Keynesian economics was born??

Don't fear, the economics lesson ends right here. But Keynes' quote is so accurate and provocative, that in light of Global Champagne Day (tomorrow), I felt it the perfect time to explore why champagne has had, and remains to have such a prodigious impression on it's drinkers.

So lets go back to basics.

What is Champagne?

Champagne is a sparkling wine that comes from France. To be called 'Champagne' the wine must adhere to a very strict set of regulations. In very simple terms, they consist of:

  • the wine must come from the Champagne region in France (140 km NE of Paris). Here the soil is chalky and the climate is cool, resulting in higher acid and lower alcohol wines..key characteristics of Champagne. Sparkling wine produced outside of the Champagne region, is simply that-sparkling wine.
  • Only three different grape varieties may be used in the production of Champagne- chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier.
  • The entire harvest must be handpicked! Three pickers are required per hectare of vineyard. With 30,000 hectares to be harvested, thats 90,000 pickers...all requiring lodging, meals and of course a pay check!!
  • the wines must be produced under the 'methode Champenoise' (or the traditional method).

How is Champagne made-The Methode Champenoise

Although rigid, it is this strict wine making process that to me makes Champagne the revered and holy grail beverage that it deserves to be.

-the first fermentation sees the production of the still, base wines that will be used to make Champagne.

-Assemblage is the process of choosing and then blending up to as many as 70 different base wines from various vineyards and vintages (non vintage champagnes). This blend is then referred to as the cuvee. 

-Secondary fermentation- the cuvee is bottled and additional sugar is added (the liqueur de tirage) before the bottle is sealed with a crown cap. This will trigger a secondary fermentation in the bottle and the crown seal will trap the CO2, creating the finely beaded bubbles and fizz that Champagne is renowned for. The secondary fermentation process must occur over a period of at least 15 months.

Remuage-The sealed wines are stored deep in the Champagne Houses' crayeres or cellars. During this time the bottle is riddled by hand or machine in order to move the residual yeast/lees into the neck of the bottle.

Degorgement-Once complete, the neck of the bottle is dipped into a solution of -25 degrees celsius for 2 minutes in order to freeze the lees.The crown seal is then released in order to discard the frozen plug of yeast.

Dosage- the small void that is left in the top of the bottle neck after degorgement is topped up with dosage ( a blend of wine and sugar). This is the vital step of determining whether the champagne will be dry, off dry, etc.

Corking-the bottle is finally corked, labelled, boxed and ready to be shipped to your local bottle shop.

What is the difference between Vintage and non Vintage Champagne?

Vintage Champagne-all the grapes that go into making the champagne are harvested in the same year. Hence, champagne houses tend to only produce and release vintage champagnes if the vintage year was exceptional. Vintage champagnes are generally more expensive than their NV counterparts as they are obviously significantly limited. Louis Roederer Cristal 2002 and Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque 1998 were the two most incredible vintage champagnes i have ever tried (to date...happy to try more!)

Non Vintage Champagne-is a blend of grape harvests from different years. They tend to be less complicated and are perfect aperitif style champagnes. Veuve Clicquot NV, Mumm Cordon Rouge NV, Perrier Jouet Grand Brut NV, Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV are amongst my all time favourites to use at a cocktail party (or any occassion really!)

Styles of Champagne?

Blanc de Blancs- translates to 'white from whites' is made entirely from chardonnay grapes (from Champagne) and is generally an excellent food wine. Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is a fine example of this.

Blanc de Noirs- translates to white from blacks. Meaning that the black grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier) are exclusively used to produce a white champagne. These wines tend to be complex and elegant. Mumm's RSRV Blanc de Noirs 2009 is an extravagent example of this!

So why do we love Champagne?

The infinite detail, rigour, cost, blood, sweat and tears (not to mention the history) that is invested into producing one single bottle of champagne is nothing less than mind blowing!

For me, the Champenois' respect for tradition and their adherence to such rigid regulations and processes is what makes every bottle of champagne worth the spend.

Champagne is synonymous with occasion- a really good one, or indeed, a really bad one. In fact for me, the worse the occasion, the better the champagne needs to be. Covid-19 and the delightful experience of home schooling whilst juggling the running of a business, a toddler and a new born, was testament to this (note to self: need to somehow replace all the 'very special occasion' Dom's that were once in cellar).

My good mate Napoleon Bonaparte agrees with me; 'In victory you deserve champagne, in defeat you need it'.  Quite frankly, the popping of a bottle of 'Frenchie' is always a good idea.

Champagne and its finely beaded bubbles are for many, reminiscent of fabulous times and the sound of that iconic cork popping is a call to action to 'put down the tools', 'let your hair down', stop and immerse yourself in whatever the moment or occasion may be.

The perfect balance of acid, fruit, sweetness and secondary characteristics. The delectable dancing bubbles throughout your mouth. These are just some of the reasons we find Champagne ever so moreish.

Supremely sophisticated and steeped in history, Champagne is also vibrant and effervescent. It is therefore able to appeal across a broad spectrum of palettes, ages and gender. It is the classic, timeless drink.

It is no wonder there exists such a day as Global Champagne Day. A day to sit back, pour yourself a flute of your favourite 'Frenchie' and remind yourself to never behold the regret of not drinking enough champagne!

Checkout our Global Champagne Day specials on our home page. 

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