Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Champagne the Most Famous Sparkling Wine in the World. Choosing the Champagne that Meets your Sweetness Preferences.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman

Bottles of Mumm Champagne.
Photograph courtesy of dpotera
The Champagne story.
The traditional story begins with a Benedictine monk named Dom (Brother)  Pérignon (1639-1715),  who was the  cellar-master at the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers in the old French Province of Champagne. According to tradition, Dom Perignon was checking wines that had been fermented in barrels and had just been transferred to bottles. To Dom Pérignon’s surprise the wine started fermenting all over again: it had failed to complete the fermentation before being bottled. Now with fermentation taking place a second time, inside the bottles, the bottles began exploding or firing off their corks. Dom Perignon quickly realized that he could do nothing to stop this and so he waited until peace and quite had returned. Then he saw that a few bottles remained undamaged; those bottles when opened by Dom Perignon  and his fellow monks surprised them with a new and unique wine. They were the first in the world to taste Champagne.

A Champagne Cork.
Photograph by courtesy of  faberzeus.
Dom Perignon knew a great deal about wine and realized that during the second fermentation the carbon dioxide was trapped within the wine, and that had created the bubbles. Dom Perignon also sold the Abbey's wine and so he knew that he was onto something big; though how big it would become, he never could have imagined. Moreover, in the 1600’s bottles were expensive, and all were hand-blown. Nearly all wine was delivered in barrels, with only the very wealthy able to afford wines in glass bottles; however, Dom Perignon realized there would still be plenty of  wealthy customers ready to pay for this new wine. After discussing the possibilities with his brother monks, they used heavier glass bottles and repeated the initially accidental process.  Heavier glass bottles solved part of the problem and to prevent the corks flying off Dom Perignon use a specially shaped cork that was tied to the bottle with string. 

The moral behind this story.
Either drinking enough Champagne, or sweeping enough floors covered in glass and swimming in Champagne, may be the mother of invention.

Now for the rest of the story.

One hundred years before Dom Perignon another sparkling wine had been made with similar production methods, though it is quite likely that Dom Perignon had never heard of it. Also a lightly sparkling wine Clairettede Die, made with very different methods, had been around from at least the 1300’s.  Still, Dom Perignon had his own unique creation and he also added a great many, completely new, ideas into the production of Champagne. Dom Perignon created Champagne, and by the way most of the modern sparkling wine industry.  With the founding of such an important product and the industry that it supports Don Perignon deserves every bit of the fame he has received,.
Champagne AOC/AOP goes global
With the opening of the Marne-Rhine canal in 1853 bottled Champagne could reach the Paris wine market at Bercy in quantity, and with little breakage. Twenty years later came automated bottle production and with that, Champagne’s price became low enough to reach a completely new market.  Since that time our wine-lists, menus and celebrations have never been the same
Choosing the sweetness, or dryness,  of Champagnes
and/or other sparkling wines.
During the final bottling of champagne that comes after the traditional second fermentation the wine lost in the process must be replaced. Topping up the bottle is called the dosage, and to fill the bottle  a limited mixture of white wine, brandy, and sugar may be added. That addition also adjusts the alcohol level and sweetness of the wine in the bottle. The bottle is then corked and wired down and  only then may be sent off to market or sent to the cellars for aging.

Champagnes can be ordered in five degrees of sweetness.
Most other sparkling wines and even French cider have copied the terminology used for  the sweetness grades of Champagne.

Order your bottle of Champagne or other sparkling wine using the terms on  the list below. NB, A still dry wine in French is a vin sec; however, a Champagne sec will be slightly sweet.  Please check the list below before ordering.

Bruit Nature or Brut Zero -  A very, very dry Champagne, a wine that is as dry as a piece of slate. To this wine, during the dosage, the filling up of the bottle, no sugar will have been added.  
Ultra Brut – This is a very dry Champagne; a Champagne with a pleasant bone dry taste; Personally think that the ultra-brut along with brut shows the best in Champagne. I believe the same is true with other French sparkling wines like the Crémants or Italian sparkling wines like Prosecco.
 Brut – A dry, Champagne. Not as dry as the ultra-brut, but for many considered the best for sparkling wines; this is a very pleasant and dry wine.
Sec - Dry in a still wine; however, in a Champagne or other sparkling wine this will be slightly sweet!  A champagne sec compared with a dry wine sec is entirely different. If you want a slightly sweet champagne then, you must order it sec, dry.  Confusing as it may be remember  tradition is tradition.
 Demi-sec or Semi-sec  With regular wines this means semi-dry; In a Champagne or other sparkling wine, a demi-sec or semi-sec will be a very sweet sparkling wine. A Demi-sec champagne will be as sweet as the sweetest dessert wines.
  Doux- Sweet.  A really sickly sweet dessert champagne or sparkling wine;  for me it is just  like sugar poured into the wine.

Millésimes - Vintage Champagnes

Most years, in the world of Champagne, are good years, but they are not great years. Just good is not good enough to produce a Millésime, a Vintage, in Champagne country.   A Champagne vintage year will have all the grapes used coming from the same year; that will be a year good enough to remember for the unique taste of that Champagne. Vintage years are declared when the rain, the sun, the humidity and the winter all work together and produce grapes that make a clearly distinct wine. However, Vintage Champagnes from different producers  will have different tastes and only you can decide which is the best.

Cuvees Champagnes

Champagne cuvees are made using only the first pressing of the grapes. Among Champagne mavens a Cuvee Millesime, a Cuvee Vintage Champagne,  will be considered better than a regular vintage champagne, A Cuvee Millesime Grand Cru will be considered the best of the very best; it will be best wine that the Champagne House who made it can offer.

Non-Vintage Champagnes.

During those ordinary years the cellar master must enter the picture and begin his or her work.  A Champagne house makes non-vintage champagnes by taking this year’s wine and blending them with wines of past years.  Cellar masters use their innate abilities to taste and smell wines and visualize how that taste will blend with the wines of past years.  The cellar masters have to know how to make thousands of bottles that will achieve the same taste from bottle to bottle and year to year. When you see a Champagne bottle with no year on the label that is a non-vintage Champagne. For most of us, an enjoyable non-vintage Champagne is what we buy and what will be used at family, and other celebrations.

Grand Crus and Premier Crus.

The terms above apply to the grapes grown in specific vineyards; only later the names may be transferred to a bottle’s label.  With rare but occasional changes the vineyards  where the grapes are grown are re-graded and then the value of the grapes it produces increases or decreases accordingly. For more in depth information on Champagne grades this post, like my knowledge, would never be enough. You will need to read one of the many excellent books written by the Champagne experts and take a special Champagne tasting course.
Champagne is chosen as the wine to flavor many dishes and cocktails;

Granité de Fraises au Champagne. A granité is the French version of the Italian granita and began like the Italian original  with just sugar, fruit and water served with crushed ice  on a hot day.  Many guide books translate a French granité  as a sludge, which the aperitif noted here definitely IS NOT. The  granité above will be a delicious aperitif; it is  made with strawberries, champagne and crushed ice.

Filet de la Pintade Avec une Sauce au Champagne – Breast of Guinea hen served in a Champagne sauce.

Huîtres Gratinées au Champagne Oysters cooked with Champagne and then browned under the grill before serving

Les Médaillons de Lotte aux Petits Légumes  au Champagne – Round cuts from the tail of themonkfish served with  young vegetable cooked in Champagne. The monkfish is one of the tastiest fish with a firm texture and in the top ten popularity stakes in French restaurants.

Magret de Canard au ChampagneDuck breast cooked in Champagne.

Back to Champagne in the bottle

The grapes that make Champagne.

Most champagnes today are blends of  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, though altogether seven different grapes are permitted. When a wine is a made with a single white wine grape, most often that will be a Chardonnay, then the Champagne is called a Blanc de Blanc, a white wine from white grapes.
Other Champagnes that are well known include the Blanc de Noir, white wines from black grapes. Blanc de Noir Champagnes are most often made with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes used together or separately. Other grapes that go back to earlier Champagne traditions use Arbane, Petit  Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris grapes. When a Champagne House makes a Champagne using a traditional grape  that  will offer a different taste, you may be sure that that will be well advertised, and Champagne cognoscenti will place their orders.
Champagne Producers

The House of Champagne Bollinger.
Photograph courtesy of DerekL
There are approximately 15,000 vineyard owners in the champagne growing area; however, nearly 70% of the Champagne made comes from the large Champagne Houses.  Vineyard owners may either sell their grapes to the large Champagne House, produce Champagnes themselves or make Champagne through a cooperatively owned venture. Many growers  will try their hand with all of these options.  Among the vineyard owners, 5,000 also produce a finished Champagne under their own name,  or sell  it to wholesalers who put their name on the bottle. That’s a lot of different Champagnes to choose from; to begin testing I suggest a three-month trip to Champagne land for starters.

On Sale at Tattinger.
Photograph courtesy of Pablo Monteagudo
Champagne labels
The labels on  Champagne bottles  begin with the name of the producer whether a great Champagne House, an artisanal produce, a wholesaler who put his name on the bottle, or even a supermarket who bought directly. If you wish there are producers who will sell you bottles with your name on the label.

Apart from the name there is a great deal of other information on the labels:

      The year:  Only for vintage champagnes. If the label has no year then the champagne is a non-vintage.
Champagne ageing in the cellars of one of the great Champagne Houses.
Photograph by courtesy of pimgmx.
The title for special wines:  Premier Crû  or Grand Cru for  a Champagne made with the top rated  grapes. Special Cuvee  with the year indicates a very special wine. Many Special Vintage Cuvees are considered superior to Premiers crus.

The percentage of alcohol: 12%- 14%.

The volume of wine:  A standard bottle is 75cl

A Champagne label for a non-vintage Brut Champagne
 from Perrier Jouet.
Photograph courtesy of Thomas Hawk
Two letter codes:  These are printed in very small print, usually on the lower left-hand side of the label.. These codes indicate who really is behind the production of the Champagne.
CM: Coopérative de Manipulation. A co-operative which makes and sells wine from grapes  grown by its members, .
ND:   Négociant Distributeur. - A wholesaler who buys finished wines and sells them under his own label.
NM: Negociant-Manipulan – A Champagne producer who buys grapes and makes Champagne.
MA  Marque d’Acheteur – A Champagne sold with the buyer’s name, not the producer’s name.
RC: Recoltant-CooperativeA wine made with grapes from a single grower, but blended and bottled for him at a co-operative;  then sold under the grower’s own brand.
RM: Recoltant-Manipulant: Growers, who make and sell their own Champagne. They may  also sell and or buy grapes from other growers.  
SR  Société de Récoltants. A company set up to make Champagne from a number of vineyards that the company owns. A Société de Récoltants may also buy additional grapes.
Champagne Glasses

To avoid horrifying the locals remember that a champagne glass in French is never a verre, a glass.  There are two styles of  Champagne glasses that will be used when you are served Champagne.
If the champagne glass used is bowl shaped it is called a coupe,

A Champagne coupe.
Photograph courtesy of DIVA007
 If the Champagne glass used is tulip shaped then, it is called a flûte.

Champagne Flutes.
Photograph courtesy of Waldo Jaquith.
Pink Champagne

Pink champagne (Rose) from the House of  Veuve Cliquot.
Photograph by courtesy of by Wesley Vieira Fonseca.
Pink Champagne became popular ten or fifteen years ago or so, and it has been marketed well though it is in no way any different to white champagne.  The Champagne region is the only AOC/AOP wine-producing region in France allowed to mix a white wine with red wine to give it its rosé color. Try that with any other wine elsewhere and you'd get kicked out of France, let alone Champagne. The red wine used is usually Pinot Noir.
The Champagne method and  using the name
méthode champenoise.
There are other excellent sparkling wines that use the méthode champenoise, the Champagne method.  However, the European Union bureaucrats have forbidden us all to use the words méthode champenoise outside the area of Champagne, even when the method of production and the grapes used are exactly the same. The Champagne method is now called, outside of Champagne, the méthode traditionnelle.  All sparkling wines made with the méthode traditionnelle,  with whatever grapes are chosen, have a second fermentation within the bottle; exactly the same process that gives the sparkle to Champagne. Other excellent sparkling wines may be made the same way all over the world. They may be made in France like the Crémants, in Spain like Cave, in Italy like Prosecco, and in the USA and Australia where to the horror of the French they sell many of their sparkling wines as Champagnes.
Still wines from the Champagne growing areas.
There are still wines made in the Champagne growing areas. When you are in the area and have had enough sparkling wine, try the reds, roses and whites from the Coteaux Champenois AOP wines
Champagne Bottles.
Champagne bottles, or copies of the Champagne type bottle are recognizable on sight;. their official sizes begin from minuscule and reach to enormous.
Un Quart or a Quart Bouteille - A quarter bottle; the smallest Champagne bottle made  and it  is only used in France for Champagne. The contents are one-quarter of a standard 750 ml bottle; that is 187.5 ml.
 DemiBouteille.  A half bottle 375ml
 Bouteille – A standard bottle 750 ml
 Magnum – Not a gun; rather a double-sized bottle for  with the same name but in different shapes used for Bordeaux wines and Champagne. Both bottles contain 1.5 liters.

Champagne bottle sizes.
Photograph courtesy of PelgrimsPlekke.
Jéroboam – Jeroboam; there are three differently shaped Jeroboam bottles. One Jeroboam is for Champagne, another for Port and yet another for Burgundy;they all hold the same 3.1 liters like a Marie-Jeanne from Bordeaux. To complicate matters, a Jéroboam, is also the name used for a 4.5-liter, a 6 bottle size used for Bordeaux wines.  I have no idea why the same name is used for different sizes and after checking around it appears that no one seems to care too much either.
The name Jéroboam comes from the Old Testament. Then Jeroboam a local revolutionary who became King of Israel after the Kingdom of  Israel split into two in the 10th Century BCE. The division followed the death of King Solomon and created the Kingdom of Judah led by Rehoboam with two of the twelve tribes in the South and Jeroboam, now King of Israel, with the other ten tribes in the North. At that time wine, though not champagne, was plentiful, though the information on the standard amphora size that King Jeroboam preferred is scanty. However the website gives the  sizes of  Roman amphora at about 26.2 liters.
  Melchizédech  - The largest bottle in commercial production. The Melchizedek holds the contents of 40 regular bottles that’s 30 liters.  This bottle is a fairly new addition to the world of giant champagne bottles; however, do not try and pick one up unprepared. Including the glass a full Melchizedek bottle of   Champagne will weigh over 100 kilos (63 lbs).
The Melchisédech is produced by the Champagne House Maison Drappier in Reims. I imagine that a Melchizedek is what you may be offerred when you walk into Maison Drappier  and ask to buy a regular bottle of their Champagne; then a salesman or saleslady says “can we jumbo size that for you?”  For about  2,000 Euros, plus the cost of shipping, you may charge your credit card and have a bottle delivered overnight.
 In the Old Testament Melchizedek brought bread and wine to Abraham; however Maison Drappier, on their web site, has Melchisédech as a King of Babylon. That is possible as within the various traditions, there are a number of Melchizedeks, some were good, some were bad; however, as far as I know none drank Champagne.
Where Champagne comes from.

The French region of Champagne-Ardennes produces most of the Champagne grapes. However, new regions were made out of old provinces and agriculture knows no boundaries.  So Champagne grapes also come from parts of the department of Aisne in Picardie, Meuse in the Lorraine, Seine-et-Marne in the Ile-de-France, and Yonne in Burgundy. All these departments were part of the traditional province of Champagne.
Visiting the Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers where it all began.

The Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers was destroyed during the French revolution, but much of it has been rebuilt by the Champagne house of Moët and Chandon, which together with the Champagne House Dom Perignon is part of the luxury product  group LVMH.

 The rebuilt Abbey of Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers
Photograph courtesy of Commons
The Abbey is in the department of Marne in the region of Champagne-Ardennes. To visit the village of  Hautvillers, population about 1,000,  is 145 km (91 miles)  from Paris,  that is one and a quarter hours  by TGV fast train and just under two hours by car. The English language website for the Tourist Information Office in Hautvillers is:
Just 6 km (4 miles) way from Hautvillers is Eperrnay, 5 minutes by car and 15 minutes by bus. This is the second most important Champagne trading center with many Champagne House headquartered here.  For Champagne tours in Epernay see their  French language website at With Google or Bing translate it  will supply much of the information you may need to visit.
For the largest champagne trading center visit Reims and its 13th century Notre-Dame Cathedral, where most of the Kings and Queens of France were crowned. Reims is about 142 km (89 miles) and 1 and a half hours by car from Paris, and 45 minutes by TGV fast train.  

If you are coming or going to Reims by way of  the Abbey of Hautveillers take the train from Epernay;  Epiwnay to Reims is 28 km (17 miles), about 30 minutes by car and 22 minutes by train.  Reims is a beautiful City and the  Reims Tourist Information Office  offers a great deal  of information. Their English language website  is:

The English language web site for the whole of the Champagne Ardennes region is

When the party is over.
Photograph courtesy of theqspeaks.
Bryan G. Newman

Behind the French Menu
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For information on the unpublished book behind this blog contact Bryan Newman