Champagne is the world’s most famous pick-me-up. It lifts you up and fills you brimming with good spirit. And in these uncertain, Covid-ridden times, I can’t think of a better commodity than the good spirit in large, much-needed doses.
Champagne, by definition, is a sparkling wine made a certain way by only certain people in a certain region of France. This is of course the eponymous Champagne region in northern France. As a seasoned wine investor, you likely already know this. As a seasoned wine investor, you’ll also know that you can get vintage, fancy bottles of champagne that cost quite a bit, and gain in quality and worth as the years go by. You can also get the big-brand labels you recognise, which will taste quite good and are great for a family celebration. And you can also get bottles of sparkling wine that might call themselves Champagne but are far from the beautiful Krugs, Dom Perignons, and Roederers that we have in our cellars.
If you’re thinking of expanding your portfolio to include some bubbles then read on. Your wine investment app will never have looked so good.
Brief History of Champagne Wine Production
Champagne famously began its life by happy accident. It all started in the 17th century when Champagnois resident and winemaker – and Benedictine monk – Dom Perignon grew envious of the success his Burgundian neighbours were having with their region’s wine. Champagne’s winters were notoriously colder than Burgundy’s, which was causing problems with the cellar fermentation of Perignon’s bottles.
Additionally, the glass bottles that Perignon was using to ferment his wines were of poor quality. This, coupled with the carbon dioxide that was released every spring once the weather grew warm again, was causing the bottles to explode. Perignion’s initial intention was to eliminate the bubbles but it was in vain. Instead, he decided to add a second fermentation to his stock. Upon trying a glass of his new batch he is said to have proclaimed “Come, for I am drinking stars!”. And the rest is bubbly history.
Dom Perignon has gone on to be one of the most lucrative and recognisable brands in the world, with certain vintages reaching eye-watering sums. So, if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one of these, we advise savvy investors to resist popping the cork.
Sub-Regions of Champagne
The Champagne region is quite big – extending around 150 km north to south and nearly 120 km east to west. Champagne’s most northerly vineyards are found 20 km to the north and north-west of Reims in the Massif de Saint-Thierry. Heading west, you’ll need to follow the A4 autoroute to Paris for about 15 km along to Vallée de la Marne beyond Château Thierry.
The Champagne wine region has 5 main sub-regions:
- Côte des Bar
- Montagne de Reims
- Côte des Blancs
- Côte de Sézanne
- Vallée de la Marne
These five sub-regions are further divided into 320 villages, 17 of which have Grand Cru status (see below). There are also 42 Premier Cru villages. It is worth nothing that all 17 Grand Crus villages are located either in Montagne de Reims or Côte des Blancs. This is undoubtedly due to the neighbouring villages’ exceptional terroir: rich, chalky-limestone soils with exceptional drainage. This soil is additionally known for reflecting sunlight up to the grapes, helping them ripen. The city of Reims and the town of Épernay are the commercial centres of the area.
Champagne Grape Varieties
The grapes primarily used for producing champagne are Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay but also a small amount of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Arbane, and Petit Meslier is used as well. Only these grapes grown according to appellation rules on designated plots of land within the appellation may be used to make Champagne.
This is considered the top of the top of producer’s range and includes such Champagnes as Louis Roederer’s famous Cristal, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Armand de Brignac, Gold Brut.
Blanc de noirs
The term Blanc de noirs has the literal meaning of a white wine produced entirely from black grapes. The colour, due to the small number of red skin pigments present is often described as white-yellow, white-grey or silvery. The most famous Blanc de noirs champagne is that of Bollinger’s prestige cuvee Vieilles Vignes Francaises.
Blanc de blancs
“White from whites” – meaning a Champagne made entirely from white grapes and exclusively Chardonnay or, in very rare occasions, Pinot Blanc. The term is occasionally used in other sparkling wine-producing regions, usually devoted to Chardonnay.
This is not to be mixed up with the cheap and sweet sparkling champagne produced in the 1950s and 60s for the American consumer that thought Champagne was too “dry”. Real Rose Champagnes came along in the 1990s and are as dry as a regular Brut Champagne. The colour is most often produced by adding a very small amount of still Pinot Noir to the sparkling wine cuvee.
Vintage & Non-Vintage Champagne
Today, there are basically two different types of Champagne; vintage and non-vintage. Non-vintage Champagne is a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages and makes up for more than 80% of the production. This type of bubbly represents about 80% of the region’s output. It is based on a single vintage, typically about three years old. Non-vintage Champagne is also wildly variable in quality. These bottles only mature in the cellars for 1-3 years or less before going to the market. Ideally, they should stay in your own cellar for a further 1-2 years before you enjoy drinking them.
From an investor’s perspective, more interesting are the so-called vintage Champagnes. These bottles wear a vintage year on the label and they are only produced in years with a good harvest. Under Champagne wine regulations, houses that make both vintage and non-vintage wines are allowed to use no more than 80% of the total vintage’s harvest for the production of vintage Champagne. This allows at least 20% of the harvest from each vintage to be reserved for use in non-vintage Champagne. This is naturally more expensive. The blend is made exclusively from grapes grown in that year, typically released at about six years old but usually reliably superior and capable of ageing for more than a decade.
Champagne Classification System
Many winemakers in the world use the word Champagne to brand their sparkling wines. However, in the European Union and some other countries, it is illegal to label and produce Champagne unless it comes from the Champagne region and is produced under the rules of the appellation. As already established, Champagne is divided into crus. To the non-educated (and even to the initiated to be honest) French wine labels can be incredibly confusing. There is a plethora of information to be gathered from the label, which should indicate the region a wine was produced, but not always the grapes used. “Grand” and “Premier” are wine terms that are used a lot, but do not necessarily mean the same thing in all regions (check out our fantastic piece on Bordeaux wine classification here if you’re not familiar with the terms). And finally, there’s the word chameleon word “cru” which takes on different meanings across various French wine regions.
In short, cru translates to “growth.” More precisely, it references a great or superior growing site or vineyard, which is defined by the region’s terroir. AOC (Apellation d’Origine Controlee) regulations specify the production conditions that define the product including planting, viticultural practices, pressing, the winemaking process from start to finish, labelling and packaging, soil, climate, altitude, drainage and every aspect all come together to create the perfect storm and be classed as a “cru”. The term is very common in France but is also used in Germany and Italy, although it doesn’t carry quite the same weight in these other countries.
Champagne cru is without a doubt, some of the best fizzy wine in the business.
The all-encompassing term Champagne AOC designates the product and links it to its geographical origin. This product is then bound by very strict rules of production and manufacturing. It expresses the close link between a product and its terroir, coupled with the decisive and enduring impact of human savoir-faire.
Champagne is therefore classified into three main crus, according to their terroir:
non classé, “Premier Cru” and “Grand Cru”. The classification determines the price of the grapes.
How Is Champagne Made?
So, you’ve understood a little about bubbly’s history, how the wine is classified and the difference between vintage and non-vintage champagne. You know the difference between a Blanc de Blanc and a Blanc de Noir. But how is the world’s favourite fizzy drink actually made?
As Dom Perignon found out, Champagne owes its sparkle from a second fermentation that takes place in the bottle. But it’s not as easy as that: the entire process is very technical and labour-intensive: Grapes are picked and fermented into still wine, then yeast and sugars are added to the cuvée to start the second fermentation as it is bottled.
1. Preparing the Base Wine
After the harvest, which is usually earlier in Champagne than in other regions of France, producers will begin to prepare their base wine. It is interesting to note that when producing a wine that will be labelled with the prestigious Champagne label, you are not allowed to harvest by machine. Grapes have to be picked by hand so that only the best and ripened fruit contributes to the Champagne. The first pressing follows shortly after and the base wine is prepared by putting the clear grape juice into a vat for its first fermentation. This is when all the natural sugar present in the grapes is fermented out of the wine.
2. Assemblage (Blending)
Next comes the art of blending. Still white wines are combined with some of the estate’s reserve wines and are assembled to create what will become the finished product. Depending on the cuvee, the wines made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, and/or Chardonnay are combined together. Assemblage starts in the early spring, about five months after the harvest.
3. Le Liqueur De Triage (Secondary fermentation when the bubbles appear)
The all-important second fermentation is next. This process is also known as the méthode champenoise or “Champagne method” after the region. The liquor de triage (a mixture of yeast, nutrients, and sugar) is added when the wine is put into the thick glass bottles that we associate with bubbly. As Champagne grapes are lower in natural sugar than other varietals, this is necessary in order to generate enough carbon dioxide to make the fizz. As wine is sealed in the bottle, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and solves in the bottle.
4. Sur Lie Aging (Keeping the wine with the lees)
Over time, yeast cells die allowing the fermentation process to complete. But this does not mean that the Champagne is ready to hit the shelves of your local supermarket. In order to get its toasty, yeasty character, the Champagne will need to age “on lees” in the cool of the cellar for several years. More expensive crus will age on lees for five years or more.
5. Remuage (Removing the lees)
Remuage or riddling is an essential process where wine is regularly twisted in the bottle back and forth to ensure that it remains free of sediment. The riddler ensures that the bottle is placed upside down in a holder with a 75-degree angle and gives the bottle a 1/8th of a turn whilst keeping it upside down every day. Invented by Veuve Clicquot, this procedure forces the dead yeast cells to float into the bottleneck where they are subsequently removed.
6. Dégorgement (Freezing the wine)
The penultimate step in the production of Champagne is when the neck of the bottle is frozen in an ice-salt bath. The bottle must remain upside-down throughout. This process results in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the remaining dead yeast cells that have not been removed in the remuage. The bottle’s cap is then removed (bottles are only corked at the very end of all the processes). The pressure of the carbon dioxide gas the plug of frozen wine out (also known as “disgorging”), while leaving behind clear Champagne.
7. Dosage (Adding sugar)
The final step is when the winemaker adds the sugar. This is actually a mixture of white wine, brandy and sugar (also known as Liqueur de tirage/Liqueur d’expédition) and is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine. The sweetness of Champagne is also classified in different categories. Today the sweetness is generally not looked for per se but the dosage of cane sugar and wine is used to fine-tune the perception of acidity in the wine. A wine labelled Brut Zero has no added sugar, and will usually be extremely dry. Obviously, the mixture is differing per producer and is a (very) well-kept secret.
So there you have it. You now know the ins and outs of what makes Champagne fizz. But don’t stop there – enjoy reading more on French Wine Regions in our great piece here!