Published Sat, Jul 30, 2022
What is sparkling Champagne? Why does it cost so much? Why does it taste so good?
The number one rule when considering Champagne is that to be called "Champagne", the wine must be hail from the Champagne region in France, east of Paris, and subscribe to a rigorous set of rules and conditions that are enforced by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, or AOC. They must also follow a very time-intensive and intervention-heavy winemaking practice, simplified under the term, méthode Champenoise. There are a bunch of different regions within Champagne known for their own twists on the winemaking practice but also the favouring and growth of certain grape varieties. The major growing areas from north to south are Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne and Aube.
When considering what we know about 'natural wine', it's difficult to throw Champagne into this category. No wine from Champagne that is truly Champagne, is ever going to be definitionally 'natural'. This is because crafting Champagne is a highly involved process, attributing to its hefty price tag. Alongside this, it's incredibly traditional. So much so that the method of making sparkling wine in Champagne was awarded UNESCO heritage in 2015. A quick run through, to give you the idea:
The grapes are picked early – to preserve acidity and ensure lower alcohol – and fermented into a still, dry wine. The winemaker then takes the various base wines and blends them together.
Afterwards, a concoction of yeast and sugar, known as a pied de cuve is added to the still wine, in a process called tirage. This is to begin a secondary fermentation. The second ferment adds more alcohol and in turn produces more CO2, which carbonates the wine, naturally. The yeast then dies as they run out of sugar and remain at the bottom of the bottle. The wines are aged on these spent yeast, or 'lees', developing texture and creaminess. To be considered Champagne, a wine must age for a minimum of 15 months on lees; 36 if it's vintage. To remove the yeast from the bottle, the wine is placed on an angle so they collect in the neck, before being plunged into a freezing liquid and the seal removed, then quickly replaced, shooting the frozen lees out of the bottle. Occasionally, there is another mixture of wine and sugar added to the bottle before it is corked, to add sweetness - termed dosage. Less and less though, and certainly almost never when looking at Grower Champagne. The term brut refers to this sweetness. The most dry wines, which contain no sugar, are called brut nature, followed by extra brut, brut, extra-dry/extra-sec, dry/sec, demi-sec and doux. Often we don't notice the higher levels of sugar in Champers, because of the bubbles.
The main three grapes used in Champagne production are red-wine grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay, a white-wine grape. The predominant soil in Champagne comprises chalk, limestone and fossilized seashells, a highly regarded mix known as Kimmeridgian soil.
It's a little ridiculous that all of these factors are involved and that Champagne is so highly regarded. It all came from a random happenstance. Early wine from the region was pale pink and still. They were competing with the fabled wines of Burgundy but because of their awful weather, never quite managing to achieve the same thing. The cold, cold seasons halted the fermentation after harvest, but there wasn't the technology to see this so the wines were bottled. The yeast lay asleep until warmer weather, which then sparked a second fermentation in the wines. The fizzy wines would force the corks out, or worse, explode. It was a combination of persistence, good marketing and a few happy accidents along the way that have led Champagne to its contemporary prestige. There's a lot to discuss, but in terms of navigating the styles on our website, there's an important concept to understand. In Champagne, there are three specific groups of people who produce wine.
Maisons (aka ‘Houses’) make up the vast majority, 95%, of Champagne that is exported. Champagne houses buy their grapes from lots of grape growers from all over the region. The goal is consistency, so they blend wines from different years to produce a consistent, remarkably consistent, product. Think Moët, Krug, Dom, Ruinart, etc.
Then there are co-ops. These are typically wines from a specific village in Champagne, made from grapes grown around that village. Growers who don’t have all the sparkling wine making equipment can opt into a village co-op. There are many different ways in which co-ops function, but usually the growers supply their grapes to the co-op and the chief winemaker makes the final cuvées.
The third group of producers are called Grower producers, and this is where we, WINONA, source our Champagne from. Growers typically own small parcels of vineyards in very specific places within the Champagne region. They tend to their vines all year round and harvest their grapes on their own. Our Grower Champagnes are crafted with organic or biodynamic fruit, fermentations occur with indigenous yeasts, and there is zero dosage. Every wine and every year is unique, and the most looked after you can possibly get from the region. Extra, extra special stuff.