A wine that truly sparkles

For centuries Champagne has been the most widely recognized beverage in the world. Yet if asked for any basic information about it, such as the grapes it is made from or what produces all of those bubbles, most people would be stumped.

I know this to be true even among regular wine drinkers. Sadly, one of the most intricate and pleasurable products we grow and craft on the planet is generally regarded as a commodity. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

In that spirit, what follows is a basic course on Champagne. Let’s begin with the importance of the name itself.

Strictly defined by international law, Champagne is wine from the Champagne region of France produced in accordance with a comprehensive set of rules and regulations for all wine produced in the region. The rules include codifications of growing places and grape varietals, requirements specifying most aspects of viticulture such as pruning techniques, vineyard yields and the time that wine must age before bottling. They can also limit the release of Champagne to market to regulate pricing.

Despite popular vernacular, all other carbonated wines cannot trade on Champagne’s famous name and must be called something else. In Spain, it is Cava. In Italy, it is Prosecco or Asti. In South Africa, it is Cap Classique. In Germany, Sekt is a common sparkling wine.

Literally translated, Champagne means “open landscape.” The topography is a series of low-lying slopes regularly exposed to weeks of cold, cloudy skies. These cooler temperatures result in high levels of acidity in grapes that is ideal in sparkling wines. 

What makes the space sacred is not the skies above the vines but the ground beneath them. Ancient oceans left behind chalk subsoil deposits and earthquakes pushed the marine sediments of fossils up to the surface to create the belemnite chalk terrain. The soil absorbs heat from the sun and gradually releases it during the night, as well as providing perfect drainage for the roots.

The differences between Champagne and all other sparkling wines extend far beyond their provenances. Méthode champenoise is the traditional process by which Champagne is produced and, again, only wines from Champagne are allowed to boast about it on their labels.

It involves two separate fermentations. The first creates a basic wine. After it is bottled, a second one is induced inside the bottle by adding several grams of yeast and sugar. The yeasts eat the sugar and release carbon dioxide — enter the bubbles — and release solid sediments called lees. Letting the wine age with the lees leads to Champagne’s distinctive yeasty, bready aroma and taste.

But that creates a problem: nobody wants to chew on dead yeasts cells in their wine, so how are they removed? The solution is centuries old. The bottles are set on a rack and slowly, over a period of weeks, manipulated to a vertical position, either manually or mechanically, so that the lees gently settles in the neck of the bottle. The neck is frozen and the cap and wire guard are removed. The pressure in the bottle ejects the small chunk of ice containing the solid lees, and the bottle is quickly corked to maintain the carbonation. Some syrup is added to maintain the level within the bottle and, importantly, adjust the sweetness of the finished wine.

That is why Champagnes come in a range of styles. From driest to sweetest they are Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Sec, Demi-Sec and Doux.

Lastly, and most importantly, the grapes: Champagne can be made from only three grapes. Chardonnay makes Blanc de blancs (“white from white”) and red grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier make Blanc de noir (“white from black”). Because the juice is extracted gently and the skins do not stay in contact during fermentation, a white wine is yielded. 

This column is a basic and yet woefully incomplete outline of the wonder of Champagne. The next time you drink France’s famous bubbles, I hope you will pause and appreciate their exclusive character.

Derek M. LaVallee, partner at Kemp Golberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.