They say that champagne was discovered by a famous monk called Dom Pérignon. However, that is not entirely true. On the contrary, the monk spent his life trying to stop the bubbles from emerging during secondary fermentation. At the Royal Court, bubbles were considered a defect on the quality of wine. They arose mostly when all the wine wasn’t consumed during the winter and started to ferment again in warm weather. That is why merchants always advised buyers to consume all wine before spring.
The monk Dom Pérignon spent 47 years at Hautvillers abbey and was also a cellarman that supervised wine-making and improving work processes. But over time people came to like sparkling wine and deficiency turned into a sensation. An important aspect was also a good era that supported the birth of this marvel because Louis XIV was on the throne at the time. The Sun King was a big admirer of the drink at the court of Versailles. He made ways for its easier delivery and a large amount was always reserved for himself.
In reality though, the greatest contribution of the cellarman Dom Pierre Pérignon was developing many improved techniques and new principles which are still key elements of the process today. The monk let wine mature in bottles, not in barrels. He was also the first to use cork. However, the most important was the blending of different types of grapes, so called assemblage, to create cuvees. Only a few recipes from the monk were preserved and his method is patented as the only possible way of making true Champagne.
A wine’s quality is determined by a combination of special soil, cool climate, regional geography, and carefully selected and cultivated wine grapes.
There are three basic varieties of wine in the region of Champagne – Ardenne:
Pinot Noir (uncoloured juice and red grapes) – brings the aroma of ripe fruit and gives the Champagne its strength and full bodieness.
Pinot Meunier (uncoloured juice and red grapes) – gives the Champagne fruitiness and roundness.
Chardonnay (white grapes) – sought for its delicacy, subtlety, and distinctive crispiness.
These wines are divided into two regions depending on the colour of the grapes: Côte de Blancs (white grapes) and Côte de Noir (red grapes).
Grape harvest begins around September, one hundred days after wine began to bloom. Harvest in French is “vendange” and it is a traditional event that brings together a group of vintagers who spend a week on the vineyard, handpicking, sorting and pressing the grapes. The must is preserved in barrels and through primary fermentation it becomes wine, which is then filtered multiple times during the winter. One of the crucial points in the life of Champagne comes in February, when the chief cellarman convene a team of the best oenologists and within about one week they judge how to best blend the wines to create a perfectly balanced assemblage. They add cane sugar and yeast into the blended wine and bottle the cuvee.
During secondary fermentation in the bottles we see a foam of bubbles characteristic of Champagne. Bottles are stored in deep limestone cellars with an ideal temperature for ageing that creates a sediment. The sediment is cleared by rotating and shaking in slanted shelves, so called “pupitres”. The process is usually mechanised. After the shaking, or “remuage”, there is “degorgement”: the bottleneck is cooled to solidify the sediment and make it removable together with the cork. Dosage is added into this form of the cuvee. Until this point the Champagne had no sweetness because all sugar was consumed by yeasts during secondary fermentation. But now the Champagne is ready to be turned into its final form – a bottle with a cork, a muselet, and a label, ready for degustation.
Nowadays, there are around 3000 producers of wine that is suited to be blended into Champagne. However, not all of them create the final product – labelled, bottled Champagne. There are 1000 houses (“maisons”) with their own mark to manufacture true Champagne, from either their own or imported grapes.
The biggest consumption of Champagne is in England, USA, Russia, and it is also popular in Chine. 300 000 bottles were imported into the Czech Republic in the year 2015.
Content of sugar
Brut nature - contains less than 3 g of sugar per litre. This label can only be used for products that didn’t get any added sugar after secondary fermentation.
Extra brut - contains between 0 and 6 g of sugar per litre
Brut - contains less than 15 g of sugar per litre
Extra dry - contains between 12 and 20 g of sugar per litre
Dry - contains between 17 and 35 g of sugar per litre
Demi-sec - contains between 33 and 50 g of sugar per litre
Doux - contains more than 50 g of sugar per litre
Types of bottles
The standard Champagne bottle volume is 0.75 l. However, there are bigger bottles for special occasions and celebrations. A bigger one is for example Magnum with a volume of 1.5 l, a double of the standard bottle. Bottles that are even bigger are curiosities, and bottles that smaller are ideal for tastings.