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Champagne

Champagne is one of the oldest and most famous wines in the world, and has always been synonymous with luxury, elegance and prestige. It is produced in the Champagne region of France using the Champenoise method, mainly from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. The accumulation of anecdotes and legends, the identification of the most suitable production areas, called 'cru', the great qualitative investment of the producers and a series of ingenious intuitions contributed to its great fortune all over the world. As the Breton poet Max Jacob said, "Champagne, if you have time to listen to it, makes the same noise, in its foam and bubbles, as the sea on the sand".

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Champagne is one of the oldest and most famous wines in the world, and has always been synonymous with luxury, elegance and prestige. It is produced in the Champagne region of France using the Champenoise method, mainly from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. The accumulation of anecdotes and legends, the identification of the most suitable production areas, called 'cru', the great qualitative investment of the producers and a series of ingenious intuitions contributed to its great fortune all over the world. As the Breton poet Max Jacob said, "Champagne, if you have time to listen to it, makes the same noise, in its foam and bubbles, as the sea on the sand".

The Champagne Production Method

Champagne is produced using the Méthode Champenoise, a set of procedures revolving around the practice of refermentation in the bottle. The method involves a process of double alcoholic fermentation: the first vinification, carried out in steel or in wood, leads to the production of a still, dry, low-alcohol wine, the expression of a cold continental climate with little sunshine, which, thanks to the addition of yeasts and sugars, ferments a second time in the bottle, generating the famous bubbles.

The starting wine is mostly made from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes and can come from a single harvest, giving rise to a vintage or Millesimato Champagne, or from the gatherings of different years. In this case, it is called a cuvée and is identified as sans année, i.e. "without a year". The idea of cuvée was born from the intuition of Dom Perignon to ensure, year after year, a qualitative constancy to the final product.

The base product is then decanted into the bottle with the addition of the liqueur de tirage, which is a mixture of wine, sugars and yeasts that have the task of triggering its refermentation. The bottle is then corked with a crown cork fitted with a bidule, a plastic support to collect the residue. This second alcoholic fermentation lasts about 5/6 months, during which the yeasts transform the sugars into alcohol, raising the alcohol content and releasing carbon dioxide. Since carbon dioxide cannot be dispersed into the environment, it remains inside the bottle, where it causes an increase in pressure and makes it effervescent, i.e. with the typical bubbles, called perlage.

At this point, the ageing phase begins: the bottles are placed in a horizontal position in the cellar, remaining in contact with the yeasts for a minimum period of 18 months, which can continue for more than ten years for the best ones. During this period of refinement, the yeasts release substances that give it a great aromatic richness and the typical scent of bread crust. The great sapidity that characterises the best wines is instead due to the chalky composition of the soil from which the grapes come, formed after the withdrawal of ocean waters about 70 million years ago.

At the end of the ageing period, the bottles are placed in upside-down V-shaped wooden racks called pupitres, which support them by pointing the neck downwards. They are then turned a quarter turn with a dry movement following the practice of remuage, which can last up to 6 weeks and has the function of concentrating the lees deposits towards the bottle cap, in the bidule. The elimination of these residues by removing the crown cap is called dégorgement. The operation can be carried out by hand, à la volée, by experienced and traditionalist producers, or à la glace, a safer and more widespread method that involves freezing the neck of the bottle and removing the frozen residue.

The wine is then topped up and liqueur d'expedition is added, a mixture of sugar and reserve wine, regarded as the trademark of the house, which determines the dosage, i.e. its residual sugar. Those produced without the addition of sugar are called nature or pas dosé, and are very dry. The bottle is then sealed with a mushroom-shaped cork and a wire cage called a muselet. Further ageing in the cellar completes the production process, after which the best Champagne can finally be put on the market.

 

Its History

The history of the famous bubbles is similar to that of the ugly duckling: produced in a cold, sunless region, in decidedly unfavourable climatic conditions, characterised by great acidity and a low alcohol content, it has evolved into one of the best and most prestigious symbols in the world.

The origins of viticulture in the region seem to date back to the Roman conquest of northern Gaul, but the first significant productions are only attested from the 8th century onwards, thanks to the activity of monks. Due to the unfavourable climatic conditions, the fermented wines produced in the area throughout the Middle Ages and the early Modern Age were still, distinguishable in two types: alongside the so-called vins gris, white wines made from red grapes, light reds were produced with a pale colour, tending towards rosé. The introduction, by English landowners in the 17th century, of glass bottles, corks and new enological practices made it possible to raise their quality and spread the practice of bottling, but caused an unpleasant drawback: spontaneous re-fermentation in the bottle made them fizzy. The very cold climate of the region did not allow the complete transformation of the sugars in the must into alcohol and interrupted the action of the yeasts, which restarted after bottling. The pressure caused by the refermentation was responsible for more than half of the bottles bursting and the corks popping, which is why it was called 'of the devil', or saute-bouchon, i.e. cork popping. As early as 1675, the English poet George Etheredge wrote: 'the effervescence quickly revives poor suffering lovers'.

The decisive contribution to its evolution is attributed to the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715), abbot of Hautvillers, an abbey a few kilometres from Epernay, who is traditionally recognised as the father of bubbles. Dom Pérignon was the first to realise the great potential of frothing in the bottle and to introduce all those practices which, taken together, today constitute the Méthode Champenoise.

The intuition of using, in less favourable years, reserve production from previous years to guarantee, according to a commercial logic, a constant quality every year opened the way to the practice of assemblage of different vintages and the creation of the cuvée, today fundamental to its production. This explains why it is traditionally sans année, i.e. without indication of the vintage.

In the 17th century, the trend spread throughout France and the first historic maisons were born. The reasons for this success can be explained by bearing in mind a number of factors:

- The city of Reims, located in the north of the region, had become so important that it was designated as the site for the coronation of the kings of France. This event was followed by a long period of festivities in which all the kings of Europe took part, allowing them to discover the region's wine.

- Reims also became an important commercial centre. Once they had sold their goods, merchants from all over France filled the empty wagons with bottles of Champagne, thus spreading the fame of Reims.

- the convenience of river transport favoured trade from the region to the capital and the court of Versailles. A motto attributed to Louis XIV bears perfect witness to this success: 'Champagne is the only conceivable drink'.

During the nineteenth century, technical improvements made the production process simpler and more efficient: the Cliquot house devised a method to eliminate lees deposits in bottles, invented pupitres and introduced the practices of remuage and dégorgement.

A better understanding of the relationship between sugar dosage and pressure inside the bottle, together with the manufacture of stronger glass bottles and the use of the mushroom cork dramatically reduced the number of burst bottles. Even today, however, despite modern knowledge and technology, one in every thousand bottles still explodes.

It achieved great fame and prestige during the Napoleonic Empire. The Corsican general's successes were celebrated by distributing entire crates among the soldiers, and the technique of sabrage, which consists of uncorking the bottle with a sabre, was born. Napoleon personally travelled to the production area before each military campaign to obtain large quantities. The famous phrase: 'When you win, you deserve it. When you lose, you need it' is his.

Many centuries have passed that have seen its fame, fuelled by centuries of prestige, grow ever greater. The favourable trend in international markets has prompted producers to focus more and more on quality, making it one of the best and most valuable in the world.

 

The Various Types

In the world of online Champagne and beyond, there are many differentiations. The first of these leads to the distinction between sans année and millésime. The cuvée of the sans année comes from an assemblage of young wines from the last harvest, called vins clairs, and others from previous harvests, the 'de réserve' ones. For vintage wines, French legislation requires that 100% of the base wine must come from a single harvest and requires at least 36 months ageing on the lees in the bottle. While sans année wines fully represent the Maison and embody a distinctive and established style, vintage wines are the expression of a specific vintage. For this reason, the houses only produce vintage wines in the best years. The first vintage produced was Champagne Veuve Clicquot in 1810, the first great year in history, followed by other great vintages. The most recent vintages include 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2004 and 2008. Subsequent vintages have remained at very high levels and the houses have produced great vintage wines in recent years.

The dosage of sugar is another fundamental variable that determines the degree of dryness or sweetness. In relation to the quantity of sugar present in the liqueur d'expedition, there are different types, summarised on the scale: pas dosé or natural (no added sugar), extra brut (addition of less than 6 g/l); brut (up to 12 g/l) and other types with a high sugar level. It was originally a sparkling wine with a high residual sugar level, and it was only at the end of the 18th century, with the spread of the so-called goût anglais, or English taste, that the tendency arose to produce it dry: thus the first brut wines were born.

There are three typical grape varieties from which it is made: two black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white grape, Chardonnay. In addition to these, there are other old varieties, which only account for 0.3% of the region's total vineyard area. In the case of those made only from Chardonnay grapes, we speak of Blanc de Blancs. Those made only from red grapes are called Blanc de Noirs.

Rosé wines are also very popular and appreciated, a type that has imposed itself for its remarkable level of complexity and aromatic richness. Depending on how it is produced, a distinction is made between rosé d'assemblage and rosé de saignée.

Buy Champagne on Callmewine to suit your taste and needs. You will find several for sale online that you can easily buy, at competitive prices, and that will arrive comfortably and directly to your home.