By MAURICE P LEE (Cellar Master)
Let’s start with the facts: Champagne can only be made in the Champagne region of northern France. Although all champagne – except the still one – is sparkling wine, not all sparkling wine is champagne.
There are only three grapes allowed to be used – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. A very high percentage of the Pinot Noir grape is used in many champagnes.
Surprisingly, champagne starts its life as ordinary wine. Then, when the fermentation is finished, the wine is left to rest. Nearly all champagnes are blends from different vineyards – after careful blending, they are ready for bottling, which is when the real process starts.
Liquid sugar and yeast are added to the wine, which is then bottled in extra strong bottles, and the corks are firmly clamped down. The yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and, as the CO2 cannot escape from the bottle, we get sparkling wine.
When the yeast dies, it has to be removed. This is done in two parts and the first stage is called Remauge. This is the art of getting the sediment into the neck of the bottle very slowly. The bottles are put in a type of rack with oval holes. They lie horizontally and, every day, they are slightly tilted, given a little wiggle and, when they are finally upside down in the racks, all the sediment will be in the neck. Remauge can take three months or more to complete. The bottles are kept in that position and rested en masse until required.
Degorgement is the next stage, which is when the sediment is removed from the bottle neck. The winemaker then puts the neck into chilled brine and the sediment solidifies. The degorgeur removes the cork and the frozen pellet is forced out by the CO2. Then, he very quickly tops up the bottle with a similar wine, to which a little sugar may have been added. The amount of sugar will determine the style of the wine and can be from zero to 10 per cent.
That is a very simple explanation of the champagne process called Methode Champenoise. These two words and the word champagne cannot by law be used to describe any other type of wine – sparkling or not. They may appear on New World labels, but only in their country of origin. If they’re exported to an EU country, they have to change the label.
On a Champagne label, you will see:
BRUT Very Dry
SEC Medium Dry
DEMI SEC Medium Sweet
RICH, DOUX Sweet
CREMANT Semi Sparkling
BLANC de BLANC From 100 per cent Chardonnay grape
You may not know, but Coteaux Champenoise is still champagne. It is only produced when there is a surplus of grapes, due to an exceptional harvest. The law states that only 570 gallons (285 cases) can be produced from every four tons of grapes and the surplus used to make another wine, usually still champagne. When making this wine, the second fermentation takes place in the cask.
Do’s and don’ts
Do make sure the champagne is chilled, not iced, before serving. Always hold a napkin over the cork before removing it. Twist the bottle in one direction and don’t twist the cork. Ease the bottle away from the cork and the pressure against it will be reduced. Always keep a good grip on the cork. Never put a napkin around the bottle – it looks as if you are ashamed of the label, and it also warms the champagne, even if only slightly. Never point the bottle at any precious object or person when removing the cork – it could cause serious injury and even prove fatal. Never let the cork ‘pop’ when opening champagne in a restaurant – people only do so to let the other diners know what they’re drinking. Never shake the bottle before opening, like the Formula One drivers do. When Napoleon said: “In victory, you deserve champagne, in defeat you need it” – he meant drinking it, not washing in it.
Professionals should respect other professionals whose achievements are equally important. Drivers don’t wilfully destroy their cars. Why destroy champagne, which takes years to produce?
Some years ago, while catering at a wedding in Sandown Park, we were opening extra bottles of champagne, and in my haste I forgot to put a napkin around the cork. Opening the bottle too quickly, I lost the cork which travelled about 60 feet, hit the low ceiling, ricocheted onto the table, shattered a glass of red wine and travelled on, never to be seen again. Fortunately, the only damage done was to the glass and tablecloth, but the poor ladies got quite a start and never found out why the glass shattered. If they happen to read this, I plead guilty and offer my apologies.
The widow Bollinger was asked when she liked to drink her favourite tipple. She replied: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I considerate it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it at all.” There’s no arguing with that!
Next issue: Wine and your health
Answers to last issue’s question: Can you name six different types of port? Vintage, LBV, Tawny, Ruby, White, Crusted, Vintage, Character and Colheita.
This issue: How many Portuguese islands produce wine – two, three, four or six?
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