The Grapes in Champagne

Sparkling wine can be made almost anywhere.  Wine can be made anywhere.  The French, being the foodies that they are have declared that sparkling wine that comes from a region known as Champagne, can only be called Champagne.  France has many regions, all devoted to their wines, Burgundy and Bordeaux are famous for their reds.

The grapes usually grown to make Champagne; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The Chardonnay grapes are white, while the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are dark.  Most Champagnes are a blend of these three grapes, but some producers do make Champagne that is all from one grape.  The Champagne made 100% from the Chardonnay grapes are called a Blanc de Blanc and the Champagne made from the other two grapes are called a Blanc de Noir. It is important to note: The 2010 version of the appellation regulations lists seven varieties as allowed,   Arbane, Chardonnay, Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot noir. For now we will stick to the three main grapes.

Chardonnay grapes do not have a strong floors of it’s own, generally.  The flavors it produces can be changed by the terrier (soil) and the temperatures of where it is grown.  Which is why a Chardonnay from New Zealand will taste different than a Chardonnay grown in France. It is easily influenced by oak barrel aging.  The World Atlas of Wine says that Chardonnay is “Broad, versatile, inoffensive-unless over oaked”. I find that it is crisp and sometimes very mineral-ly.  It rarely has fruity notes, which I prefer to taste in my wines.

Pinor Noir have a fruity, flowery element to them.  The Wine Atlas says that pinot noir have tasting notes of cherry, raspberry, violets, fame and mid-ruby.  The last grape, Pinot Meunier or Schwarzriesling, is more acidic then Pinot Noir.  The Pinot Meunier grape adds fruity aromatics to the Champagnes.  I have read conflicting reports that it does not age well, but it apparently does because one of the big Champagne houses Krug uses it liberally.

In my journey of learning about Champagne, I would like to learn what the main three grapes offer to Champagne.  Since most Champagne is a blend of the different grapes, it would stand to make sense that the different blends will each offer a different experience when drinking.  It is my hope that eventually I might be able to determine by tasting which grape is the most prominent in the blend.

There are around 5,000 Champagne makers in the Champagne region of France.  Some are small houses that bottle as little as 50,000 bottles a year and there are big houses that bottle millions of bottles a year.  They each have their own way of blending their cuvèes.


Premier what Grand who?

Grand Cru, Premier Cru… what the what?  They are part of the Échelle des Crus which was originally established as a fixed pricing structure, which was formed after the 1910 & 1911 Champagne riots. The Champagne system is a bit different than the system in Burgundy and Bordeaux.  While the Échelle des Crussystem was originally conceived as a 1-100 point scale, in practice, the lowest rated villages are rated at 80%. Premier crus villages are rated between 90 and 99 percent while the highest rated villages, with 100% ratings are Grand crus.  Note that it is a classification by village, not be vineyard.

The Champagne region has 17 villages that have been designated Grand Cru and 43 Premier Cru villages.

I found a very good website to refer to if you would like to see a very nice glossary of terms.  I will be explaining more of them in detail!


Some Basics about Cava

Cava is made in the Catalunya region of Spain, think Barcelona.  It is a beautiful place to visit and I highly recommend it if you have not.  Cava is Spanish champagne.  It has been made in Catalonia since 1851.  They called it Champagne until Spain entered the EU, then they have to change the name due to EU regulations.  It is made with the méthode champenoise but with different grapes.  If you are looking for a nice bottle of bubbly to try that is an affordable price, try Cava.  I am a big fan of Cava.

The grapes used in Cava are: Macabeo, Xarel-lo, and Parellada.  Chardonnay makes up about 5% of the plantings and Pinot Noir is used in making the rosé Cava.  The Macabeo grape is white and produces a mild wine that is slightly acidic.  The Xarel-lo grape is also white and is the most aromatic of the three grapes and can be strongly flavored.  The Parallada is also a white skinned grape with a good acidity.  According to Spanish Wines, the grapes each add the following:

  • Macabeo – brings sweetness and perfume to the cava
  • Parellada – brings subtlety, freshness and scent to the cava
  • Xarel·lo – brings body and structure to the cava

Like Champagne, there is a sweetness rating to look for when buying your bottle.

  • Brut Nature: 0-3 g/l residual sugar
  • Extra Brut: 0-6 g/l residual sugar
  • Brut: 0-12 g/l residual sugar
  • Semi Seco: 12-17 g/l R.S. (aka Extra-Dry )

The most famous brands of Cava are Freixenet and Codorníu.  Last summer, we took a trip to Spain with the family.  When we travel, we often grab a bottle of something inexpensive to drink when we are in the store.  I grabbed a bottle of semi-seco Freixnet.  It was good and my mother in law and sister in law, who prefer things a bit sweeter then I do, loved it.  It was a nice bottle and I alternate between it and drinking the brut.  Freixenet has 4 different ranges.  I have tried the Cordon range and a a few from the Vintage ranges.  I would definitely recommend them for a nice occasion.  They also come with a much nicer price tag then the Champagnes!!


Some Basics about Champagne

Champagne can only be called Champagne if it is made in the Champagne region of France.  It is a blend of three different grapes; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuiner.  The method in which it is made is called Methode Champenoise.  The bubbles are what make it special and they are created in a second fermentation that happens in the bottle, it is then aged at least 15 months.

The iconic bottle has a wide bottom with a ‘punt’; a dimple that can be felt on the bottom of the bottle.  The purposes listed are as follows:

  • It is a historical remnant from the era when wine bottles were free blown using a blowpipe and pontil. This technique leaves a punt mark on the base of the bottle; by indenting the point where the pontil is attached, this scar would not scratch the table or make the bottle unstable.
  • It had the function of making the bottle less likely to topple over—a bottle designed with a flat bottom only needs a small imperfection to make it unstable—the dimple historically allowed for a larger margin of error.
  • It consolidates sediment deposits in a thick ring at the bottom of the bottle, preventing much/most of it from being poured into the glass; this may be more historical than a functional attribute, since most modern wines contain little or no sediment.[16]
  • It increases the strength of the bottle, allowing it to hold the high pressure of sparkling wine/champagne.
  • It provides a grip for riddling a bottle of sparkling wine manually in the traditional champagne production process.
  • It consumes some volume of the bottle, allowing the bottle to appear larger for the same amount of wine, which may impress the purchaser.[17]
  • Taverns had a steel pin set vertically in the bar. The empty bottle would be thrust bottom-end down onto this pin, puncturing a hole in the top of the punt, guaranteeing the bottle could not be refilled [folklore].
  • It prevents the bottle from resonating as easily, decreasing the likelihood of shattering during transportation.
  • It allows bottles to be more easily stacked end to end.[17]
  • Bottles could be stacked in cargo holds on ships without rolling around and breaking.
  • It makes the bottle easier to clean prior to filling with wine. When a stream of water is injected into the bottle and impacts the punt, it is distributed throughout the bottom of the bottle and removes residues.–Wikipedia

Champagne is more sensitive to temperature and light than most other wines. For that reason, it is typically bottled in a light-resistant, dark green glass. Champagne should be stored between 40 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit and may be kept upright or horizontally.

The sweetness of the Champagne can be determined by terminology on the outside of the bottle.  Often more sugar has to be added to the Champagne for the second fermentation.  When the second fermentation is complete the designation is determined by the amount of sugar left in the bottle.

  • Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre)
  • Brut (less than 12 grams)
  • Extra Dry (between 12 and 17 grams)
  • Sec (between 17 and 32 grams)
  • Demi-sec (between 32 and 50 grams)
  • Doux (50 grams)

I will happily drink anything between sec and extra brut.  Sometimes the sec is too sweet and sometimes the extra brut is too dry.  My preference is an extra dry or a nice brut.

Other terms that you will need to be familiar with cuvée de prestige and non-vintage.  Cuvée de prestige is a proprietary blended wine.  A vintage year is when the producer has decided that harvest was good enough and makes the vintage from harvest from the same year.  A non-vintage is usually made from a blend of grapes from different years.  If there are years that the vintage is not ideal, a vintage still maybe made, and not labeled as such. 

Champagne should be chilled to a temperature between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature can be attained by placing the bottle in a refrigerator for a couple of hours, whilst in the Champagne region we were advised to not chill the bottle in the freezer. They suggested the classic way, which is to chill a bottle of Champagne. Place the bottle in an ice-bucket, half filled with ice, half with water, for 20 minutes.


Welcome-The Adventure Begins

Are you new to drinking sparkling beverages?  Or maybe you have a passion for them and you are just looking for knowledge.  This blog just maybe for you.

Join me and my friends as we float our way through the world of Champagne, Cava, Prosecco or Sparkling Wines.  This is an interactive blog and I welcome your comments and thoughts as well.

I will post what we are trying in advance so you can try with us, or if you have found us after the tasting, you are still welcome to post your own experiences, thoughts and reflections!