The first Champagne house, Ruinart, was founded in 1729, although the oldest wine-making house is Gosset, founded in 1584 as a producer of still wines. Champagne is made from 3 famous grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and can be either white or Rosé. It ranges from bone-dry (Brut Nature) through to sweet (Demi-Sec or occasionally Doux).
It is impossible to say when the first sparkling wine was made, as it was probably accidental. Fizziness in wine was originally perceived as a fault, and winemakers put their effort into eradicating it, not encouraging it. It wasn't until the fizziness could be controlled and contained that the first deliberately sparkling wine could be made.
It is in fact the containers that point towards the foundation of sparkling wine, and it was the English who first had the technology to make glass bottles that were strong enough to withstand the pressure of the gas. The first evidence of sparkling Champagne dates from England in 1676, approximately 20 years before its appearance in France and the first evidence of the deliberate production of sparkling wine dates from 1662 when on 17th December, Christopher Merret presented a paper entitled 'Some observations concerning the ordering of wines' to the Royal Society in London. The English therefore invented sparkling wine some 70 years before the oldest Champagne house was established in France. Of course, the English only invented the basic processes of making sparkling wines, and it was the French who can rightly claim to have refined and perfected the process. The famous Dom Pérignon was the first to successfully make white wines from red grapes and demonstrated the use of various cuvées to produce a better and more consistent style of wine. Scientists such as Chaptal and Pasteur were able to demonstrate the causes of fermentation and how to control them. But perhaps the person who was most influential in improving the production process was Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin, otherwise known as Veuve Clicquot, who, together with cellar master Antoine Müller, perfected the processes of remuage and dégorgement that are so important to the finished product we know today.
The Traditional (Champagne) Method is the oldest and most famous method of producing sparkling wines, and is used in the best quality wines. The production process is split into five steps: the primary fermentation, blending, the second fermentation, remuage and disgorgement. Firstly the normal fermentation takes place, as with still wines. The grape must is fermented en masse, and, especially in Champagne, each individual parcel is fermented separately. The resultant wines tend to be dry, tart and acidic, and would not make good drinking at this stage. As with still wines, some may go through a malolactic fermentation.
The second step is the blending, or assemblage. This is the process of selecting which wines from which parcels and which grape varieties go into the different blends or cuvées. This requires great skill and knowledge, as there could be as many as 70 different base wines used to make a non-vintage cuvee. 'Reserve' wines may also be used in non-vintage cuvées - these are wines than were made in previous years and held back for later use.
The second fermentation is the all-important stage at which the wine gets its sparkle. After the assemblage, the wine undergoes a gentle fining and after it has thrown a sediment it is racked into a clean bottle. The liqueur de tirage, a mixture of still wine, sugar, selected yeasts and a clarifying agent, is then added to the bottled wine. The bottle is then sealed with a crown cap, holding in place a plastic widget to catch the sediment during remuage. The duration of the second fermentation depends primarily on temperature. The cooler it is, the longer the fermentation takes and the more complex resultant wine will be. In Champagne, where the second fermentation takes place in large, cool, underground cellars, the fermentation can take up to 3 months. The wines are often aged on their lees for much longer than this to develop further complex, autolytic aromas and flavours.
The bottles then undergo the process of remuage - this is the process of gradually tilting the bottles to move the sediment that has formed as a result of the second fermentation into the neck of the bottle, where it is caught by the plastic widget. Traditionally this was done by hand in pupitres and a skilled remuer would manipulate the bottles over a period of weeks until the sediment gradually worked its way down to the neck. It is now much more likely to be done mechanically in custom-made machines called gyropallettes, which are much faster and cheaper.
The final stage in this long and complex process is the disgorgement. This is the process of removing the sediment from the bottle. Following the remuage, all the sediment has been caught in the little plastic widget affixed to the crown cap. In order to remove this, the neck of the bottle is immersed in a shallow bath of freezing brine. This freezes the sediment, and the bottle can be quickly inverted to its upright position and the crown cap removed. The force of the gas inside the bottle will push out the sediment and a small amount of the wine. Before corking, the bottle is topped up to the same level and the liqueur d'expédition added. Except for bone-dry wine, this will include a small amount of sugar to bring the wine to the desired level of sweetness to counteract the acidity of the wine. Generally speaking, the younger the wine, the greater the level of sweetness required to balance the acidity. For Champagnes labelled as Brut, the wine can have up to 15 grams per litre of sugar.
Champagne is in North Eastern France, a couple of hours drive east of Paris. The Appellation is spread over 35,000 hectares in over 300 villages in 5 départements. The region can be split into 5 major districts, each of which have different macro-climates, topographies and soils. They produce base wines with very different characteristics, which helps to explain the wide variation in styles of Champagne.
Côtes des Blancs The name of this district to the south of Epernay is derived from the white Chardonnay grapes which make up over 90% of the plantings. It produces some of the best Chardonnay of the region and contains some of the most famous villages such as the Grand Crus of Crament, Avize and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger.
The Aube district is the most southerly in Champagne and produces some of the ripest and fruitiest wines. It is thus very suited to growing red grapes and over 85% of the plantings are of Pinot Noir.
Montagne de Reims stretches north of Epernay towards Reims. Whilst not particularly mountainous, it has higher slopes than most of the region and these slopes are the key to the success of the district. As the cool air and frosts sink into the valleys, the vineyards planted on the high slopes are warm enough to produce ripe and deeply coloured red grapes which make up over 70% of plantings.
Vallée de la Marne Stretching west of Epernay, the Marne Valley is particularly successful for Pinot Meunier, producing fruity, forward and easy-drinking wines. The best villages are to be found in the east of the region and include Aÿ-Champagne and Mareuil-sur-Aÿ.
Côte de Sézanne southwest of the Côtes des Blancs, this region is also particularly suited to Chardonnay, but tends to produce richer, fruitier wines that lack the elegance of the best Côtes des Blancs wines.
Non-Vintage Champagne, in theory, is the product of two or more vintages, however there are many growers (Pierre Moncuit among them) who label wines from a single vintage as non-vintage. This may be done either because the non-vintage wine does not meet the criteria (such as amount of time spend on its lees) of a vintage wine, or to differenciate it in terms of quality and price. Non-vintage wines can be produced from as many different parcels of wine as the winemaker has access to. Older reserve wines are added to the blend to add complexity to the finished product, and also to produce continuity in the house style which is so important for many large houses.
Vintage Champagne must be made only from the vintage stated on the label (vintage sparkling wines from outside Champagne may have up to 15% of wines from other vintages). Vintage Champagnes are only made in years which were particularly successful, thus allowing the character of the vintage to come through in the finished wine. The best houses select only the best grapes to go into their vintage wines, with the rest going into the non-vintage cuvées. The best wines can age for decades.
Blanc de Blancs literally means 'white of whites' and denotes a white wine made exclusively from white grapes - in the case of Champagne this invariably means Chardonnay. The best sites for Chardonnay in Champagne lie in the Cote des Blancs, between Cramant and Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. The top Blanc de Blancs have the greatest potential for ageing.
Blanc de Noirs the opposite of Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs means a white wine made from red grapes, and thus denotes a Champagne made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. The wines tend to have a deeper, golden colour than Blanc de Blancs, and generally have richer, fruitier flavours compared to the elegant biscuity creaminess of Chardonnay.
Rosé Champagne is unique in EU law as it is the only pink wine that can be made out of blending a small quantity of red wine with the base white wine prior to the second fermentation. However, there are also many Rosé Champagne methods produced by the traditional maceration (saignée) method, where the red skins are allowed to mix with the white juice for a few hours, prior to the first fermentation, thus drawing out a limited amount of colour. The wines tend to have a delicate, perfumed, floral style that is at its best in its youth.
Extra Brut Champagne also known as Brut Extra, Ultra Brut, Brut Sauvage and Brut Zéro, this is lighter and drier style than Brut. The terms refers to the fact that there is no added dosage prior to bottling, so the wines have very low sugar content, typically less than 6 grams per litre. The wines make a great aperitif style, and are good with seafood and oily fish. They are best drunk in their youth.
Prestige Cuvées are the most expensive cuvées sold by the champagne houses, epitomised by the likes of Dom Pérignon and Louis Roederer Cristal. The most important factor that defines a Prestige Cuvée is its quality. Very tight selection criteria means that only the best grapes go into making the wines, and they are only made in the best vintages.This strict selection means very small quantities, which results in very high prices.