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Champagne: The Wine of Celebration

Clive Coates  | GOOD TASTE 2010
This is the sort of poetry most of us can only aspire to, but it is an apt comment on one of the world's greatest wines: the wine of celebration. Of course, there are nasty champagnes and fizzy imitations, but much champagne is quite delicious, and does not have to be expensive. Even in a recession, if carefully chosen, good champagne is affordable, so doesn't have to be restricted to special occasions.

The Champagne region in north-east France comprises an area more than twice the size of Cayman. Cold and wet in winter and rarely more than warm in summer, it seems far too cool to produce palatable still wine. The great discovery, made by an unknown genius in the seventeenth century, was to conjure out of a thin, acidic base wine, one with fizz which would become the champagne we love today.

When the grapes ferment, with the help of sugars in the grape and added yeast, carbon dioxide (CO2) is then produced. Then follows another, bacteria driven, fermentation. This fermentation converts the malic acid in the wine into the softer lactic acid and even more CO2 is produced. Our genius first bottled the wine quickly, before this CO2 had dispersed into the air, and then induced a second fermentation in the base wine by adding extra yeasts and sugar just before bottling.

The CO2 would then be multiplied a thousand fold, and could only escape when the bottle was opened and the wine poured out. These are the tiny bubbles which give champagne its fizzy taste. Happily, these developments occurred just when glass sufficiently strong enough to withstand the pressure of the CO2 inside the bottle became available. Although recent research suggests that the second fermentation in bottle concept was 'invented' in London, rather than Reims or Epernay, the Champenois soon got the idea.

The second stroke of genius was the art of the blend. Most great wines, and indeed some champagnes, came from single sites, and express the signature of that piece of land. Dom Pérignon, a monk and cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, had gone blind in his youth, but, to compensate, had a particularly sensitive nose and palate. After much experimentation he showed that a judicious blend of different origins of base wine would result in more interesting champagne: the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts.

A further refinement is credited to Widow Clicquot around the time of the French Revolution. The second fermentation creates a sediment of dead yeast cells and other matter. To make the wine clear it is necessary to get this out of the bottle. To do this, without losing the carbon dioxide which gives the champagne its fizz, la Veuve Clicquot devised an A fram, two rectangles of wood, hinged at the top. Holes were cut in the wood to hold the bottles by their neck and the desiment slowly riddled downy twisting hte bottels and raising them from horizontal to vertical. This is called remuage. The sediment rests on the cork which is then released, without losing CO2, by freezing the neck of the bottle. The bottle is then topped up and re-corked. This is called disgorgement. Until the 1870s champagne was sweet or semi-sweet, from adding more sugar at this time. Another widow, Louise Pommery, pioneered the dry or medium-dry champagne we drink today.

There are three main areas and three grape varieties in Champagne. The areas are the Montagne de Reims, the Valley de la Marne, both betweeb Reims and Epernay, and the Côte de Blancs. Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are grown throughout, but the Côte de Blancs is almost exclusively Chardonnay. The villages, rather than individual vineyards, are classified Grand Cru, Premier Cru and the rest. These classifications govern the price of the grapes when harvested.

Most production is controlled by merchants, the most important of which are known as grandes marques. However real value can be found in single-grower champagnes. Other value sources are co-operatives, of which Mailly in the Montagne de Reims is outstanding.

Every few years the weather is good enough for a single vintage champagne to be produced. 2009 looks likely to be declared a vintage year, but those wines won't be released before 2016. The best vintages available now are 2000 and 2002. However, the most important thing for each champagne house is their non-vintage blends, which form the bulk of their annual sales. This wine is largely made up of the previous harvest, laced with older, better wine specially help back to be blended in and to ensure a standard flavour and character. Vintage champagne, particularly De Luxe blends, needs time to mature properly. Even non-vintage blends improve with a year or so in the cellar.

How do you judge champange? As with all wines you should look for purity, depth, balance and finesse. Champagnes vary in style and, marginally, in sweetness, at the brut level. One sign of a superior wine is that the bubbles are usually  very snall, like Louis Roederer Cristal, although this is not always the case, for example, Dom Perignon.

Compared with the great wines produced elsewhere, champagne is still inexpensive. In Cayman a grand marque costs around $52 (much less than a bottle of classed growth claret) and a good single-site bottle costs only around $30. So enjoy champagne! There's no need to suffer indigestion from drinking fizzy plonk or to abstain until the next celebration party.

Multi-award winning wine writer Clive Coates lives in Burgundy. He is a Master of Wine and author of 'The Wines of Burgundy', published by the University of California Press in May 2008. Clive Coates is a consultant to Vino Veritas. www.clive-coates.com.