What Exactly is Champagne? – Written Edition

Do you prefer reading to listening? This is the original draft of the scripted portion from the “What Exactly is Champagne?” episode of Wine & the Bottle. It is a bit different from the final podcast. Enjoy!

View the full episode, featuring an interview with Paula Kornell here.

Mmm, golden bubbles in a slender flute glass. Where I’m from in the United States, “Champagne” is often used as a blanket term referring to any bubbly wine. But that is not correct! There are so many different styles of sparkling wine which vary widely depending on the region of origin, so it’s actually incredibly important to define what champagne is. Here’s the sitch – Champagne isn’t just a wine, it’s a place! In many countries, wine is legally regulated by geographic region. The French term for a designated winegrowing area is appellation d’origine controllee or AOC. For contect, the US equivalent is an American viticultural area or AVA and in Italy, the most common term is Denominazione di Origine Controllata (or DOC) although Italy has a whole slew of designations that. To earn the AOC protection, vintners must adhere to winemaking restrictions which ensure consistency in the style and quality of wines throughout the region. This practice is most prevalent in Old World wine regions with hundreds of years of tradition and expectation to adhere to while New World wine regions tend to focus less on terroir and consistency, and more on experimentation and progress.

Only 7 grape varieties are approved for Champagne production. Pinot noir, chardonnay, and munier are the top 3 varieties used but petit meslier, pinot blanc, pinot gris, and arbane are allowed as blenders. These grape varieties are suited to the cool, continental climate of the region and thrive in the chalky limestone-rich soil. Limestone is porous and drains well while allowing for water reservoirs to form deep underground, protecting the vines from dry years. The biggest climatic challenge is frost at the beginning and end of the growing season. In 2021, crop yields were greatly diminished as the growing season kicked off with 12 days of severe frost and hailstorms. It was a miracle to get any viable grapes at all!

In bountiful growing years, farmers must control the yield from the vines because there is a maximum yield cap. Yield control is done by managing vine growth all throughout the season and pruning lesser quality inflorescences so that only the best develop into berries. All vine management, including harvest, is done by hand. But the regulations don’t stop in the vineyard – Once in the winery, the process must be followed exactly. The berries are gently pressed, and a still base wine is produced from the juice. This wine is then bottled and with a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast and sealed to undergo secondary fermentation. This time, as carbon dioxide is released by fermentation, it is trapped in the sealed bottle and dissolves into the wine, creating the signature bubbly sensation. After fermentation, the wine must mature on the lees for 12 months at minimum. If it will be labeled as a vintage wine, and all the grapes were harvested in the same year, it must age for 3 years. And this is where it gets kind of gross – The lees are the dead yeast cells. As the yeast cells decay, or autolyze, they impart bready, biscuity, and sometimes cheesy flavors into the wine. There is actually a huge debate on whether or not Champagne is vegan depending on whether you consider yeast an animal or a plant. It’s kind of neither because it’s a fungus, like mushrooms, if that helps you decide which camp you belong to.

Even filtering the wine is regulated. The process is called riddling. The bottles are laid in a palette horizontally during maturation and are gradually turned until they are standing upright. The necks are then frozen, trapping any sediment in a tube of ice, and the ice pellets are disgorged from the bottle, simply by the pressure inside. The bottles are topped off with wine and sugar (if the winemaker wants to boost the sweetness) and recorks the same bottle for sale

Rose must be produced by maceration method – red grapes are pressed and the skins are left to soak in the juice for a short time, to infuse color, flavor, and structure. Blending red wine into white wine is not allowed.

The final product, this Piper Heidsick, show all sorts of fruit characteristics depending on the grapes used. Citrus, green apple, pear, stone fruit. Sometimes strawberry or raspberry. But on top of all of that will be a bready note and the older wines will have mushroom, hay, or nutty flavors.

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