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A year in a French vineyard: November 2018

We all love fizzy, but why all the fuss? Jonathan Hesford goes back to bubbly basics to explain how Champagne is created

The most famous wine region and style in France is undoubtedly Champagne. It is the first choice for celebrating weddings, sporting events, New Year and business successes.

How it achieved this status is described in plenty of books and magazine articles. Its history contains colourful characters like Dom Pérignon and Madame Clicquot, stories about the British marketing the attractiveness of wines which underwent secondary fermentation in barrels during shipping and then developing bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure, and the business acumen of Germans who founded the houses of Krug, Deutz and Mumm.

However, in this article I want to write about how Champagne is made and what gives it its (arguably) unique qualities.

Champagne is grown in the coolest and northernmost vineyards in France from three grape varieties, only one of which, Chardonnay, is a white grape. Three quarters of the vineyards are planted in Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier. Each variety contributes its own character to the finished wine. Pinot noir provides structure, Pinot Meunier gives fruitiness and Chardonnay is supposedly responsible for its elegance.

All the grapes are picked by hand and gently pressed as whole bunches so as not to release any colour from the skins of the red grapes. This pressing is often carried out in the individual villages before the juice is transported to wineries in Reims and Epernay. Unlike other French regions, there are few grower-producers and most of the wine is made from juice bought from the individual farmers.

The base wine made from the fermented juice is high in acid and pretty austere, so pity the master blenders employed by the Champagne houses to taste and decide the blends which will form the various cuvées. Non-vintage Champagne is blended with older reserve wines from previous vintages to try to maintain a house style. This moderates the widely different vintage conditions in such a northern region. Vintage Champagne is only made in years which produce impressive base wines.

Champagne may be blended from just Chardonnay, called Blanc de Blancs, or just the red grapes, called Blanc de Noirs, but most is made from all three varieties, sometimes as a rosé by adding a bit of base red wine.

In order to make the wine fizzy, it needs to be refermented in bottles, sealed with a crown-cork (beer-bottle top), by adding a “liqueur de tirage” (sugar and yeast). The bottles are then stored for several months as the yeast undergoes autolysis, producing the sweaty, biscuit-like aromas and flavours loved by Champagne aficionados. Non- vintage Champagne must be aged for 15 months but Vintage Champagne can be aged for several years.

Once the wines have matured, the yeast has to be settled gradually by “Remuage” and then disgorged by placing the neck of the bottle in freezing brine, removing the cap and popping the frozen plug of yeast out.

The bottle is topped up with a “Liqueur d’Expedition” made of reserve wine and cane sugar and resealed with the characteristic mushroom-shaped cork, held in by wire. The amount of sugar is known as the dosage and accounts for the sweetness of the finished product. These are labelled from Extra Brut through to Sec to Doux.

So we can see that the process required to make Champagne, from the precarious climate, the hand picking and gentle pressing, the master-blending and the years of bottle-ageing all add to the cost of production. However, many other sparkling wines are made using similar methods but cannot command the prices of Champagne.

From a taste perspective, there is a world of difference between a mass-produced, entry-level wine from one of the big houses to a Prestige Cuvée from one of the top producers or a Grand Cru from a small grower-producer. While few people have enjoyed the pleasures of a perfectly aged Vintage Champagne, millions have drunk the popular brands, often without appreciating what makes Champagne special.

In my next article I would like to write about the flavours and aromas of the different types and brands of Champagne and compare them to the competitors – Prosecco, Cava, Limoux and numerous regional Crémants – as well as the industrial, tank-fermented fizz on sale for under €3.

Jonathan Hesford has a Postgraduate Diploma in Viticulture and Oenology from Lincoln University, New Zealand and is the owner, vigneron and winemaker of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon - visit

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