Champagne

 

No other wine is more directly associated with celebration than Champagne. As Dom Pérignon said after his first sip, "Come quickly, I am drinking the stars! "

 

The world's most famous wine, Champagne is produced in the Champagne region, 90 miles east of Paris, in France's northernmost controlled place of origin (AOC/AOP).

 

The product of a chalky soil and an austere climate, Champagne can be made from 3 grapes: the white Chardonnay and the black Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Champagne that is made from white grapes only is known as Blanc de Blancs.  A small amount of Champagne is made as rosé.

 

All Champagne is blended wine and all great Champagne is the result of the blender's art. Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from several years; vintage Champagne is a blend of wines from one particularly outstanding year. (Not every year is declared a vintage year.)

 

The vine was known in the region before the Romans arrived, and they continued to cultivate it. They also dug tunnels for quarries that are used as wine cellars today.

Champagne was essentially a still wine until the 17th century, when a Benedictine monk named Dom Perignon introduced the cork; only then was it possible to keep the bubbles in the bottle.

 

The grape harvest in Champagne follows a painstaking process in which each individual bunch of grapes is examined and the imperfect ones are discarded. Those that pass inspection are immediately brought to the press house, where grapes from different vineyards are pressed separately.

 

The fresh juice, still separated by vineyard, then undergoes its first fermentation. At the end of that time, the young, still wine will be ready for one of the major steps in the Champagne process: blending. The blender uses his skills to combine the best characteristics of the various vineyards' wines, until he finds the combination of body, bouquet and flavor that best reflects the Champagne house's style. This is called the cuvée, or blend, by which the house is known and on which it stakes its reputation.

 

Once the new cuvée is completed, it is bottled with a tiny amount of sugar and yeast dissolved in wine (known as the liqueur de tirage). This solution is responsible for starting the next major step in the Champagne process - the second fermentation, which takes place in the corked bottle itself, where there there will be no way for the resulting carbon dioxide to escape; instead, it will become that most remarkable part of Champagne, its magnificent bubbles.

 

The bottled wine is stored in the cellars for at least one year and often longer. At the end of that time, the wine has undergone its second fermentation. The bubbles are in the bottle, but so is the sediment left by fermentation. To remove it, the bottle is placed in a pupitre, or riddling rack, with the neck slightly downward. Each day, skilled workmen twist the bottle and tilt it farther down to force the sediment into the neck next to the cork, a process known as remuage.

 

When all the sediment has been worked into the neck, the wine is ready for disgorgement (dégorgement): the neck of the bottle is quickly frozen so that the sediment is sealed in a plug of ice. When the cork is removed, the gas in the bottle pushes out the ice plug. A slight dose of cane sugar, usually dissolved in wine and known as the liqueur d'expédition, is added to give the wine its required degree of sweetness. The bottle then receives its final mushroom-shaped cork which must, by law, say "Champagne", and it is wired.t

 

Thus, approximately 3 years after its grapes were picked, the wine is ready to drink.

 

As you can now understand, Champagne can never be inexpensive: by the time a bottle leaves the cellars, it has been handled at least 150 times over a period of from three to five, six, or even seven years.

 

Trivia trove:

Champagne comes in many different-sized bottles, from very small to very large; the largest are named after biblical kings known either for their long reigns, their long lives, or their excesses.

  • Split (187.5 ml)

  • Half-bottle (375 ml)

  • Bottle (750 ml)

  • Magnum (equivalent to 2 bottles, 1.5 liters)

  • Jeroboam (4 bottles, 3 liters)

  • Rehoboam (6 bottles, 4.5 liters)

  • Methuselah (8 bottles, 6 liters)

  • Salmanazar (12 bottles, 9 liters)

  • Balthazar (16 bottles, 12 liters)

  • Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles, 15 liters)

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