Once the nectar of the wealthy and the symbol of luxury, the essence of finesse and grace is now thankfully accessible to all of us. We drink bubbly wine to celebrate the biggest events in our lives, to ring in the New Year and to make an already wonderful event even better. But understanding Champagne vs. other sparkling wines is still misunderstood. Why would you pay a starting price of, say $50 for Champagne, when you can buy a bottle of Prosecco for $8?

The devil is in the details: the soil, the climate, the tradition and the master blender. There are traditionally three ways to get sparkles in the bottle, and Champagne is the most rigorous but also makes the most complex wine.

The Region

Champagne contains grapes from the northernmost vineyard area in France and is among the most northerly in all of Europe, lying just northeast of Paris. Before sparkling made its introduction into the Champagne region, winemakers there were making still wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes and were trying to compete with the region of Burgundy. However because of the northerly location, it is very difficult to get the grapes ripe enough to make a wine better than drinkable. The winters are cold and the summers are warm, with an average growing-season temperature of 60 degrees. It makes it a challenge to get grapes to fully ripen, but it’s ideal for sparkling wine.

One of the most important ingredients to make great wine is the soil. Thanks to a prehistoric sea that covered northern France and Britain the result is a subsoil that consists of mainly chalk and even in some parts kimmeridgean marl (an ancient limestone clay which is heavy with nutrients from the fossils of sea life, quartz and zircon). The chalk retains water, which is necessary in a region that doesn’t get much rain, and the kimmeridgean retains the rich nutrients. The different soils and terroirs play a role in quality that is rated by the government. The top villages with a 100-percent rating are known as Grand Crus; 43 villages are Premier Crus with a rating of 90-99 percent. Unlike Burgundy, where individual vineyards can be rated, in France, it’s the entire village that’s considered.

The History of the Bubbles

In the seventeenth century the Champenois were making still wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, attempting to compete with Burgundy. But with the challenge of the climate came issues in the cellars. The wines were made in the fall and then left to settle in the cellars over winter. The cold temperatures would paralyze the yeasts, thus stopping fermentation before all the sugars were gone. Once spring came, the wines and yeasts would warm up and start to re-ferment causing a sparkle in the wine and as much as 20 to 30 percent of the bottles to explode from the buildup of the CO2. The Champenois were continually frustrated with this phenomenon and winemakers such as Dom Perignon and Dom Ruinart worked diligently attempting to halt the fizz, but eventually came to look at their wine in a different way instead. Many believe Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne, but his contributions to Champagne history should not be underestimated. He was the first to develop the concept of blending wines from various grapes from different villages to achieve a better-balanced wine. He used a shallow press to produce clear juice from black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), he reintroduced the cork closures (lost to most of France after the Roman withdrawal), and he also introduced fellow winemakers to a type of English glass that could withstand the second fermentation in the bottle without exploding.

Read Maggie's next article on the process of making Champagne. 



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