I spent a fascinating day in Epérnay yesterday, which is one of the two primary commercial centers of the Champagne region of France, and I had a ball learning about the history of Champagne, and of course — tasting the goods.
What is Champagne?
Champagne is sparkling wine that comes from the grapes grown in the Champagne region of France, and this wine always contains bubbles, hence the name bubbly.
I used to think that Champagne is always white, but that is not true, it can also take a pinkish color, and that color is called Rosé in French.
I was quite surprised to learn that there are three kinds of grapes that are primarily used to make Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are in fact black grapes.
How is Champagne made? I visited the cellars of Moét and Chandon and Tattingier, and I thought this was highly educational. They show you a short film of how Champagne is made, and then take you through the cellars to show you bottles undergoing different steps of the process, and tell you a little bit of the mechanics of the process. The grapes are harvested in September every year after which they are pressed gently with the use of machines, and their juice is extracted. They are pressed gently because you don’t want any part of the skin to seep into the juice as that influences the color and taste of the champagne. You want the juices alone, and for this reason, the grapes are pressed quite slowly with machines. Once the juice is extracted, it is bottled up, and stored in cellars which maintain a constant temperature and humidity. For instance, the cellars at Moét and Chandon are at 10 degrees C and 90% humidity throughout the year. I think they said they had the biggest cellars of all wine producers, and it ran up to 28 kms underground!
Cellars of Moet and Chanson. 28 kms of Champagne bottles! #champagne #moetchandon A photo posted by Manshu Verma (@manshuv) on
Once the wine is stored in the bottles, the process of fermentation begins. There are natural sugars and yeast in the bottle, and the yeast eats up the natural sugars, and release carbon dioxide. However, these bottles are tightly lid with the kind of crowns you see on beer and soda bottles, and hence it can’t escape. In fact, this trapped carbon dioxide are the bubbles in the bubbly!
The only problem is the dead yeast in the bottle which forms a sediment at the bottom of the bottle.
Getting rid of this sediment used to be a huge challenge but then they discovered an interesting idea of tilting the bottle on its neck, and making the sediment collect at the neck of the bottle. Then they immerse the neck of the bottle in a very cold liquid, and freeze the liquid, and the yeast sediment which becomes like an ice deposit.
Then they place the bottle upright, and uncork it. The high pressure in the bottle shoots out the sediment in a neat and clean manner, but it also shoots off some of the wine outside the bottle. The process I described above is called ‘disgorging’ and after this a second fermentation is done by adding what’s called ‘le dosage’. This is essentially sugar, and a type of liquor, and Brut is one kind of le dosage which has a sugar content of 8 grams per liter which is slightly less than other types. After they add le dosage, they finally cork the bottle with the corks you see in the final bottle and let it rest for another six to eight months before it is ready.
This entire process can take anywhere from 3 years upwards, and vintages, which are wines harvested from grapes that are considered to be from years of great harvests can be matured for twenty years or more.
The end result is amazing, and I quite enjoyed my glass of rosé champagne at the end of it.
This was quite an entertaining and educational tour — and not a bad first visit to France at all!
I also learned a little bit about Dom Piérre Perignon who was a monk who is largely credited for making champagne famous, but I’ll keep that story for another post.