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One of the most famous natural wines is champagne. Bubbly. Associated with weddings, other celebrations, and hot air balloon rides. What makes this particular type of natural wine so special? How does it differ from “sparkling wine?”
What is Champagne?
Champagne is defined by the European Union in a very specific way. It is only champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in northern France and is also a sparkling wine. Anything else is sparkling wine. You cannot, for example, call American sparkling wine champagne. This does not necessarily mean that wine is bad, but it doesn’t have the specific qualities that make champagne champagne.
Why does it matter? It matters because wines are strongly impacted by what we call terroir.
What is Terroir?
Terroir is a French term, like so many things in wine making. It means the entire environment in which a wine is produced, covering soil type, climate, traditional farming practices, topography, etc.
Terroir is why a Napa Valley is a Napa Valley and it is why champagne is champagne. An American company can make a sparkling wine from the same grapes using the exact same techniques and it still won’t be champagne. One could argue that the difference is splitting hairs, but the fact is that all of those factors do go into making the wine what it is. One major factor here is the microbiome on the grapes, including the yeasts and bacteria. This can cause a difference in taste between two vineyards that aren’t even that far apart.
That said, there is also a certain psychological aspect to this. We may expect champagne to be superior to other sparkling wines and if we do, then it will taste better at the subjective level.
And also, with regard to champagne, it is not an accident that it comes from that particular region of France…on in which the soil and climate are conducive to good growth of the kind of grapes used to make it.
What Kind of Grapes Are Used to Make Champagne?
Unlike some other wine varieties, champagne is not defined by a particular type of grape. In fact, several types of grape are used to make champagne, and most champagne is a blended wine. This means there are multiple varieties of grape and, often, multiple years, in the same bottle. Each champagne maker thus has a unique approach to which grapes they use and in what proportions. The three most common varieties used are:
- Pinot Noir
You might be surprised to note that two of the three are red grapes, given the color of champagne! Red wines are red because the dark-skinned grapes are left to soak in the juice. This is not done with champagne, leaving it closer to the white color of grape juice.
Four other varieties are also authorized for use in champagne production:
- Petit Meslier
- Pinot Blanc
- Pinot Gris
These varieties account for about 0.3% of the area, but they are still in use to increase variety and seek specific qualities. For example, pinot gris is also known as “Enfumé” for the smoky notes it introduces.
How Champagne is Made: The Méthode Champenoise
Champagne is made using a traditional production method. Simply using the méthode champanoise does not, of course, make a sparkling wine champagne; many American sparkling wines are also made using this method.
The steps of the process are this:
- The grapes are harvested, pressed and fermented.
- Liqueur de tirage is added to the still wine. This is a mixture of sugar and yeast.
- The wine is bottled, and fitted with a crown cap like beer.
- The bottles are racked horizontally.
- Every day, each bottle is turned a quarter-turn to unsettle the sediment. This is called riddling.
- The bottles are flipped upside down to allow the sediment (lees) to settle in the neck of the bottle.
- The neck of the bottle is frozen and the solids extracted. This is called disgorgement.
- A small amount of sugar diluted in wine is added to top off the wine. This is called liqueur de dosage. Some winemakers add more, some less, influencing the dryness or sweetness of the champagne. Some winemakers do not add dosage. More dosage is not necessarily a bad thing, and low dosage isn’t always better. It is a matter of personal taste and how sweet you like your champagne. Some people prefer Extra Brut and Brut Nature, without dosage. Others prefer a good amount of it.
The key part of the méthode champenoise is that the second fermentation to create the bubbles happens in the bottle. Some other sparkling wines, such as Prosecco, are femented for a second time in a large tank before bottling. This is less labor intensive, but affects the way the wine bubbles.
The méthode champenoise is also called the méthode traditionelle or traditional method. Technically this term should be used for all sparkling wines made outside Champagne.
Where did the word Brut Come From?
The word brut refers to a dry version of any sparkling wine, but originated in Champagne. It does not, however, mean “dry” as it is often translated. In fact, it means “raw.” Think about the word “brutal” for a moment.
So a brut champagne is a “raw” champagne to which dosage has not been added. It makes sense that a term like that would come to refer to skipping a step.
What’s With the Hot Air Balloons?
Champagne, or at least some kind of sparkling wine, is almost a requirement at a traditional white wedding. But what about it’s other association, with hot air balloons?
In 1783 in Paris, two men climbed into a hot air balloon. Their names were Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent le Vieux d’Arlandes. Their 25 minute trip was one of the earliest hot air balloon rides. Because balloons aren’t so easy to steer, they landed in a random farmers’ field. The farmers got a bit worried about this, and the legend goes that de Rozier and d’Arlandes took a bottle of champagne with them to offer to the farmers to help them get used to this new hobby. Or, possibly, to share with the farmers.
This is the origin of the still-current custom of celebrating a successful hot air balloon trip with a bottle of bubbly!