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Champagne and Sparkling Wine

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A bottle of Brut, bubbles and grapes.

Whether you call it bubbly, champers or simply fizzy, there's nothing to beat a bottle of Champagne for celebrations or just plain high living.

Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France, which is centred around Epernay in the north of France. It is made by taking ordinary white wine and doing an extra fermentation in the bottle. This converts any remaining sugar in the wine into carbon dioxide, producing the bubbles. It also has the effect of making the wine very dry (the opposite of sweet).

How it Is Made

First Fermentation

The grapes are picked and pressed. Three main types of grape are used in Champagne: Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It is interesting to note that the Pinot grapes are black grapes, yet Champagne is a white wine. To ensure that none of the dark colour comes from the grape skins into the wine, the grapes are pressed quickly and the skins are removed.

The one exception is pink Champagne (rosé), where some of the red colour is allowed into the wine.

The grape juice is fermented in the normal way and a white wine is produced. This wine is not a particularly good one, by French standards, but this does not matter, because this is only the first stage. The fermentation is stopped before it is complete by chilling the vats, so that there is still some natural sugar left in the wine. This wine is then stored.

Blending

The next step is blending. Wines from different areas of the region and from different years are blended together until the desired taste is achieved. The aim is complete uniformity: every bottle of Champagne from a particular maker should taste exactly the same. There are differences between makers, however. Bollinger and Krug are renowned for producing very strong-tasting Champagne.

The blending process was invented by Dom Perignon, a 17th Century monk whose name is now synonymous with Champagne. Ironically, in the Dom's day, the bubbles were considered a real nuisance, because the bottles were not strong enough to contain them. They lost nearly half their harvest to broken bottles. Dom Perignon did everything he could to reduce the amount of bubbles in the wine. In later years, with better glass-making techniques, the bubbles stopped being a problem and started being a feature.

Secondary Fermentation

When the blend is right, the wine is bottled along with some extra yeast. The yeast acts on the sugar in the wine and produces the fizz. This process can take two years. When it is complete, all the natural sugar in the grapes is used up. The resulting wine tastes so dry as to be undrinkable.

Dégorgement - Removing the Yeast

The yeast must now be encouraged to move towards the cork so that it can be removed. This is done by storing the bottles with the cork downwards and letting the yeast settle. The bottles are regularly shaken gently and turned to encourage the yeast to move downward onto the cork. Another famous wine maker, the Widow Clicquot (La Veuve Clicquot) is credited with the invention in the 19th Century of a rack to allow the shaking and turning of the bottles by hand. In a modern Champagne factory, there is a machine to turn them. Eventually, the yeast is all sitting in a lump on the cork.

The problem now is how to remove the big lump of yeast from the end of the bottle. The ingenious method by which this is done is to freeze the neck of the bottle so that the wine there turns to ice with the yeast trapped in it. The cork is then removed. The pressure of the fizz pushes the ice out with the yeast encased in it.

Topping-up and Corking

The Champagne is now tested for dryness - it is still far too dry to drink. Since some wine is lost along with the yeast, the bottle is topped up with a mixture of sweet white wine and sugar. Depending on how much sugar is used, the resulting bottle will be:

  • Brut - very dry
  • Extra Sec - dry
  • Sec - slightly sweet
  • Demi-Sec - sweet
  • Doux - very sweet

The French prefer slightly sweet Champagne, while the English go more for the brut taste.

After topping up, a new cork is put in the bottle. Because in the past, varying amounts of wine were lost during the removal of the yeast, there was no way of guaranteeing exactly how much wine was left in the bottle. To prevent people from fighting over exactly which bottle had the most in it, somebody thought up the idea of putting foil over the neck of the bottle, so that you can't see exactly how much is in the bottle. This practice has continued, even though the modern machines are fairly consistent.

Hangovers

Many people don't get one after drinking Champagne. This Researcher has done extensive experimentation on this subject and can confirm it. Of course, any alcoholic drink will cause you to become dehydrated, but as long as you drink lots of water, you shouldn't get the other unpleasant side effects of over-indulgence.

Not Quite Champagne

Many countries now produce wine by the same method as Champagne, giving a drink which is comparable. In former times, such drinks were called méthode Champenoise ('Champagne method'), but they are now forbidden by French wine laws from using the term Champagne in the title, even in this roundabout way, so the term Méthode Traditionelle ('traditional method') is used.

A very good traditional method wine is the Californian Cuvée Napa Mumm, which is made by the Mumm Champagne house using Californian grapes. It is as good as the real Champagne but much cheaper.

Other Sparkling Wines

Some places produce wines which are sparkling but don't even pretend to be Champagne. The classic example is Asti from Italy. This was formerly sold under the name Asti Spumante. Asti is a sweet drink which is very different from Champagne. Spain's Cava is a sparkling wine similar to dry Champagne.

Regions in France outside of Champagne also produce sparkling wine, for example Blanquette de Limoux from the Pyrenees or Cremant d'Alsace from (you've guessed it) Alsace.

You may see some of the following words on a bottle of fizzy:

  • Non-vintage - grapes from different years were used, so no year is displayed on the bottle. This is the normal sort of Champagne, ready to be drunk immediately.

  • Vintage - all grapes were picked in the one year. This is supposedly better and much more expensive. It is best when between eight and 15 years old.

  • Blanc de Blancs - made with only green grapes (usually Chardonnay)

  • Mousseux - Sparkling (French)

  • Pétillant - Slightly fizzy (French)

  • Spumante - Sparkling (Italian)

  • Frizzante - Slightly fizzy (Italian)

  • Cava - Spanish sparkling wine

  • Rosé - Pink Champagne

Big Bottles

A standard bottle of Champagne is 75cl, that is, three quarters of a litre. The bottle is extra thick to withstand the pressure of all those bubbles. But you can get much bigger bottles as well and each size has a special name, mainly named after biblical kings, to emphasize the importance of drinking Champagne in vast quantities. These are listed here with the equivalent number of standard bottles.

  • Magnum - Two bottles
  • Jeroboam - Four bottles
  • Rehoboam - Six bottles
  • Methuselah - Eight bottles
  • Salmanazar - 12 bottles
  • Balthazar - 16 bottles
  • Nebuchadnezzar - 20 bottles
  • Sovereign - 33 bottles

How to Open

There are two basic ways to open a bottle of Champagne: the spray method (favoured by motor racing drivers) and the don't-waste-a-drop method (preferred by Champagne drinkers). The latter is described in detail in Opening Champagne.

A more unusual method, not to be tried at home kids, is using a sabre! The top of the bottle is struck at a particular spot and the end shears off neatly, leaving no splinters, just a clean sharp edge. There is a society for practitioners of this art, the Confrérie du Sabre d'Or - the Brotherhood of the Golden Sabre.

Of course, another use for Champagne is in the naming ceremony of ships; a bottle of Champagne is smashed against the prow of the ship just before it is launched. This could arguably be described as opening the bottle, but since neither the wine nor the bottle survive the experience, it is probably stretching the point a bit.

Mixing your Drinks

Although the Stolly-Bolly cocktail (Stolichnaya vodka and Bollinger Champagne) drunk by Eddy and Pats in Absolutely Fabulous is only a joke, there is in fact one well-known cocktail which involves mixing the golden drink with other substances: Buck's Fizz1. This is a mixture of two parts Champagne and one part orange juice. It is traditionally drunk with brunch.

The UK's Prince Philip said of it:

Champagne and orange juice is a great drink. The orange improves the Champagne. The Champagne definitely improves the orange.
1This cocktail is known in America as a Mimosa.

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