Champagne Up Close

The wine trail summer 2016

Sometimes you just need to jump in a car or a plane and a car and go. This is what I did last month and I must say it needs to happen on a more regular basis. There is nothing quite as powerful as visiting a seri4s of wineries nonstop for 6 days, well a wine maker seminar may be close!

sept16_amsommGilles Dumangin was in town and offered to tell us of the history in champagne and share some of its intricacies and secrets. Here is what we found out.

Champagne has a long history of wine making, only it was not sparkling. Being on the trade route form the north to the Mediterranean champagne if you can imagine, competed with… Burgundy. To be crass the Burgundians likely did not notice. None the less champagne did its best to make reasonable dry, still wines, the northern exposure of their vineyards however did not help in this matter. This competition was furthered with the assistance of the medical profession during the court of King Louis XIV, think 1660’s. One doctor ‘prescribed’ the wines of champagne for the sun king’s ailments another the wines of burgundy. So as you can imagine depending on his whim and feeling, one region was in good grace the other not.

The bubbles in the bottle. For the most part this was seen as a fault. The bottle fermentation process predates the birth of Dom Perignon (the person) by nearly 100 years. The abbey de St. Hillaire in Languedoc already had Blanquette de Limoux in the 1500’s. likely a ‘pet nat’ of its day. When the Dom’s Perignon and Ruinart were both in champagne (Benedictines) they were focused on removing the color from Pinto juice. Enter la Presse Coquart (or basket press.) DP believed Pinot Noir was the noble grape in champagne and chardonnay should play not part, but he also wanted nothing of the tannins of a red wine. He is also credited with the advent of lightly colored bubbles or Rose.

As champagne became ‘in’ with various royal courts in Europe, its popularity grew steadily. Napolean certainly assisted with statements like, “in victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it,’ when speaking of the bubble soother. Sabering likely comes from this period as everyone seemed to have a sword at the ready!

While three grapes rule the highest percentages, there are several others; Arbane, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier.

The area is a land based hierarchy similar to Burgundy and Alsace. In all region sof France there is oversight by the INAO or institute national des appellations d’origine et de la qualite. Usually the rules state that as the quality level of the fruit increases say from village to premier cru to grand cru, the yields correspondingly decrease. This is the case in Alsace and Burgundy, champagne gets a pass. That is to say the yields are the same in all three levels of quality.

In Champagne the minimum alcohol at harvest is ~ 9% and can. Should be chaptalized (the addition of sugar to fermenting juice to raise the alcohol level, all sugar added must be converted to alcohol) up to a maximum of 10.5%, this base wine will receive another 1.5 – 2% alcohol through the in bottle second ‘sugar/alcohol’ fermentation. This is where the magic happens. The base wine in champagne is intentionally relatively bland, it is in the champenisation of the base wine that a truly fascinating beverage is born.

It has become the choice of celebration for hundreds of years and we pay dearly for it, choose wisely, for there is no greater deception than a bad bottle of bubbles

© American Sommelier 2016 Andrew F. Bell