Probably the most famous alcoholic beverage and the epitome of joie de vivre and luxury. As early as 1531, a sparkling wine was documented in southwest France, namely the Blanquette de Limoux from the village of Limoux. But in Champagne, even in the first half of the 17th century, champagne was by no means a synonym for sparkling wine. A common phenomenon in this region was that, due to the cool weather, fermentation was interrupted in autumn and the wines were nevertheless already bottled. In warmer weather in spring, the residual sugar caused an unplanned or undesired second fermentation in the bottle. At the beginning there was no intention behind it, it just happened by chance.
The completely conscious or targeted production of champagne, i.e. so to speak the "invention" of the sparkling drink, is often wrongly attributed to the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon (1638-1715). A statuette of him stands in the head office of the largest champagne house Moët et Chandon in Épernay, which also produces a brand named after him. However, it is an undeniable fact that he brought the artful assemblage of vintages, grape varieties and sites to the highest level of perfection. Not only did he not aim for a second fermentation in the bottle, but he also tried to prevent the undesirable process by various measures. One of these was to use rather red wine grapes.
An important contribution to the popularity was made by the satirist Marquis de Saint-Evremond (1610-1703), who went into exile in London due to disputes with the prime minister of Louis XIV (1638-1715). From 1661 he introduced white wines from Champagne in barrels. Due to the warm spring weather, a second fermentation was often already initiated in the barrels. The lively sparkling wines were bottled on arrival and quickly became a popular drink, mainly in aristocratic circles. These were primitive forerunners of champagne, even twenty years before Dom Pierre Pérignon began to use it. In 1663 a "sparkling champagne" was first mentioned in writing in London. So the first lovers were the English, only afterwards it became fashionable in France, especially in Paris.
In the last third of the 17th century, it became more common in Champagne to add sugar and molasses to the wine during bottling, resulting in sparkling and sparkling wines. The sparkling product was then deliberately produced in larger quantities towards the end of this century. But even thick-walled bottles very often did not withstand the high carbon dioxide pressure caused by the abundant addition of sugar and violent fermentation. Around 80% of all bottles were broken at that time. Therefore, only a few thousand bottles were produced annually throughout the 18th century. And these were extremely expensive. That is why champagne initially developed exclusively as a fashionable drink in aristocratic circles or among the wealthy.
An extensive production of champagne only began in the first third of the 19th century, when the problem of the correct sugar dosage was solved. The chemist Jean-Antoine Claude Chaptal (1756-1832) contributed a lot to the clarification. He recognized the unfinished fermentation as the cause of foaming in the bottle. The greatest merit, however, went to the pharmacist Jean-Baptiste François (1792-1838), who discovered the secret of the correct amount of sugar. Shortly before his death he published this formula. Further milestones were the improvement of the corks, the development of a corking machine and, in the champagne house of Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, the invention of the shaker during the Remuage by the cellarmaster Anton Müller.
Champagne and the champagne produced here enjoys the status of an Appellation d'Origine Protégée (AOP), even if this is not usually indicated on the label. It is mainly produced in white and in smaller quantities also as rosé, but there is no red like a sparkling wine. According to the strict conditions of the CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne), sparkling wine may only be called champagne if it meets precise specifications. The grapes must be grown and pressed in the "Région délimitée de la Champagne viticole" and fermented in double fermentation according to the Méthode champenoise established in 1935. After endless legal disputes, this was laid down by an EU regulation in 1994. Outside of Champagne (and also in other countries), a quality sparkling wine is called Crémant and in the German-speaking world it is called Sekt. The country-specific designations are:
Seven varieties are permitted, but only Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay play a role. The four varieties Arbane, Petit Meslier, Fromenteau(Pinot Gris) and Pinot Blanc are permitted for historical reasons, but only cover 90 hectares. Authorised varieties are Chablis, Cordon de Royat, Guyot and Vallée de la Marne. These are short prunings that guarantee a moderate production. The maximum yield is set annually by the CIVC and depends on the weather and the economic situation. If there is an oversupply of champagne, the production is reduced. In 2019 this was 10,200 kg/ha of grapes (in 2018 it was 10,800 kg/ha).
Producing champagne is an extremely laborious and complicated process. The chronicler Henry Vizetelly (1820-1894) described this in his 1882 book "A History of Champagne": Good champagne does not fall from the sky or jump out of the rocks, but is rather the result of tireless work, prudent expertise, the most precise care and the most careful observation. What makes champagne special is that its production only begins where the making of other wines usually ends. Champagne is surrounded by countless legends and anecdotes. Madame Pompadour (1721-1764), mistress of King Louis XV (1710-1774), said: "Champagne is the only drink that makes women more beautiful the more they drink it. By the way, her favourite brand came from the house of Moët et Chandon. But the most beautiful anedocte of all is undoubtedly that of the legendary Madame Lily Bollinger (1899-1977) from the champagne house of the same name.
The individual work steps listed in the following correspond essentially to the production of a bottle-fermented sparkling wine (quality sparkling wine) or sparkling wine.
As a rule, the grapes are harvested early, i.e. with a lower must weight. A low yield is also not very important. The essential criterion for the optimal condition of the grapes is not a high sugar content, but the ability to produce acid accentuated base wines. Furthermore, astringent phenols (tannins) are undesirable. The grapes are harvested by hand, all unripe and rotten material is selected. The minimum amount of potential alcohol in the must is determined annually (around 9% vol.). The grape prices are determined annually according to market-specific aspects, with the Échelle des crus system with the classification into Grand Cru, Premiere Cru and other communities serving as a guide
The maximum yield is limited to 102 litres of must (giving 100 litres of wine) from 160 kilograms of grapes. Only gentle whole grape pressing is permitted. The traditional presses hold 4,000 kilograms (1 Marc) of grapes, from which 2,550 litres of must may be extracted. The quantities result from the 205-litre barrel type Pièce champenoise used here. The 2,050 litres (10 pièces) resulting from the first pressing are called tête de cuvée, which is the best quality. This is followed by a "waist" (turning over) of the mash and a further pressing process. These remaining 500 litres are called waist (until 1990 there were two Pièces Premiere waist with 410 l and one Pièce Deuxième waist with 205 l). Only these musts may be used for champagne. The must of further pressing is called "Rebéche" and is only allowed for distillation.
Many champagne houses use only the best must (Tête de Cuvée) for the production of the base wines for further processing. The must is clarified at low temperature for 12 to 48 hours by settling before fermentation (débourbage). It is then transferred to the fermentation tanks. Most companies use steel tanks with a volume of 50 to 1,200 hectolitres, and a few still use traditional oak barrels. Yeasts recommended by the CIVC are often used. The fermentation temperature is between 12 and 25 °Celsius. At around 22 °Celsius, the alcoholic fermentation lasts about three weeks. Most wines then undergo malolactic fermentation. Finally, a further clarification follows, the final product is called "Vin clair". Compared to still wines, the base wines for champagne usually have an inconspicuous, acidic taste.
This process determines the distinctiveness and quality of the product. The composition of the wines and vintages requires experience, sensory skills, imagination and care. It is in detail a best kept secret of the houses. It is at this stage that it is decided whether the quality of the wine is sufficient to create a Millésime (vintage champagne), which is only done in particularly good years (free choice of the houses). According to EU regulations, such a millésime must contain at least 85% of the specified vintage, but this has been tightened up to 100% by the CIVC.
In the case of vintageless champagnes, the assemblage is made from different vintages or wines. At Moët et Chandon, a cuvée of up to 30 batches is composed from the huge reservoir of 300 base wines. The reserve wine can also be included here. The "Grande Cuvée" of the Champagne House Krug even consists of up to 60 different wines. The drawing off of the wine on bottles for the following bottle fermentation may not be carried out before 1 January of the year following the grape harvest.
One of the basic rules is that the champagne must undergo a second fermentation in a bottle after the alcoholic one (so under no circumstances in a tank or barrel). The fact that champagne must have been fermented in the bottle in which it is also marketed was restricted until 2001 to the formats normal bottle (0.75 l) and magnum (1.5 l). All small and the remaining large formats were allowed to be filled from normal bottles. Since the beginning of 2002, half bottles (0.375 l) and Jeroboams (3 l) must now also be original bottle-fermented. Some producers like Krug or Pommery have always treated all their formats this way.
To trigger bottle fermentation, the so-called Liqueur de tirage(tirage liqueur) is added to the base wine. Depending on the residual sugar present, this is a small amount of a mixture of cane sugar dissolved in wine and special yeasts of about 25 g/l. Many producers add shaking aids such as bentonite to facilitate the later dégorgement (removal of the yeast sediment). Afterwards the filling is done in bottles, which are closed with a crown cap. Some producers have a small, thimble-sized plastic cup(bidule) on the inside of the crown cork which holds the yeast deposit.
Bottle fermentation takes about ten days to three months at relatively low temperatures between 9 and 12 °Celsius. During this process the alcohol content increases by about 1.2% to 1.3% vol. Under high pressure of at least 3.5 to 6 bar, the typical, very fine-beaded foam (French "prise de mousse") is formed in the form of carbon dioxide. High pearlability of champagne (sparkling wine) with tiny pearls is a decisive quality criterion.
Bottle fermentation produces a sediment of dead yeast cells (lie). The bottles must now be stored for at least 15 months (of which at least 12 months on the lees), or three years for vintage champagne. But there are also champagnes with 10, 20 and rarely even up to 50 years of storage. The longer it is stored on the yeast, the shorter the drinking time in opened condition. On average, however, the storage time for non vintage products is 2.5 to 5 years. During this process, substances are absorbed from the dead yeast residues and the finely sparkling, typical taste is developed.
The bottles are placed with the neck down in the sloping and initially very steeply placed Pupitres (shaking desks). For up to three months, they are shaken daily by hand by the remueur (shaking master), turned around an eighth circle and the desk is set a little flatter until the bottles are upside down and the sediment in the bottle neck is behind the cork. This is usually done 24 to 32 times. As a positioning aid for the remueur, many houses attach a cellar point (marque) to the bottom of the bottle. Experienced joggers can handle 30,000 to 50,000 bottles of champagne per day. The time and labour-intensive manual remuage is nowadays carried out by large companies using gyropallets (computer-controlled metal crates), which reduces the process to one week. The latest processes are designed to make both remuage and gyropalettes superfluous. Adsorptive strong alginates are used for this purpose.
Certain houses delay the removal of the sediment as long as possible after remuage, in order to increase the fullness of taste by storing it on the yeast for a long time. A protected trademark of the Champagne House Bollinger in this respect is Récemment dégorgé (RD). Warm disgorging (Dégorgement à la volée) requires great skill to avoid too great losses. Today, mainly cold degorging (Dégorgement à la glace) is used. The bottles are placed with the neck in an ice-cold salt solution and then opened (dégorgement hook). The lump of yeast, which is almost frozen, shoots out; the champagne that is sprayed in the process is refilled if necessary. The video (click to view) shows the manual process in the Champagne House Philipponnat; the yeast sediment can be seen in the bottle neck:
Alternatively, the bottles are now added to the so-called Liqueur d'expédition(shipping dosage). This is a mixture of wine and cane sugar or, in some producers, brandy. This replaces the quantity in the bottle that is missing due to the removal of the yeast and gives the champagne the desired degree of sweetness(sugar content). With high-quality vintage champagne or with very long yeast storage this dosage is not necessary. In this case, the label will show the text pas dosé, dosage zéro or brut nature - meaning "without dosage". After the cork has been driven into the neck of the bottle by means of compression, it is covered with a metal capsule, which in turn is fixed by a wire basket (muselet) called an agraffe. In order to combine the dosage with the wine in the best possible way, the bottles are shaken manually or mechanically, if necessary, called poignettage (also piquetage). The video clip (click to view) shows the mechanical addition of the shipping dosage and the corking at the Billiot company.
Champagne is one of the best controlled products in the world. A total of five institutions check the specifications and quality. These are the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Wine Control and Trade Inspection, the INAO, the Customs and Tax Administration and the Champagne Association CIVC. The name "Champagne" must appear on the label and, in the case of vintage champagne, the year. Both must also be burned into the cork. Each champagne label bears a six- to seven-digit control number assigned by the CIVC. The first one or two digits provide information about the type of producer or bottler:
For champagne (sparkling wine), special bottle oversizes are often used, often named after famous biblical figures. Since the production is very cost-intensive and complex, this is not done by all champagne houses and only in small quantities.
There are about 15,000 Champagne winegrowers, many of whom are small, grape-growing businesses with only a few hectares of vineyards. But about 5,000 of them, as well as 60 cooperatives and 360 trading houses, produce Champagne. They produce at least one, some even hundreds of brands (in this case mainly MA's). The small producers, often with only a few thousand bottles, very often produce amazing qualities because, unlike the big houses, they can use all the grapes from Grand Cru areas. The total of 11,000 champagne brands are registered with the CIVC. A total of around 300 million bottles are marketed annually. This means that on average ten bottles are opened every second worldwide. Around 40% of the total volume is exported. The main customers are Great Britain, USA and Germany. The product range of large companies includes a vintage standard quality, a vintage champagne, a Blanc de blancs (Chardonnay), a rosé as well as a Cuvée de Prestige as the top product of the house. Some companies also produce non-foaming red, rosé and white wines under the AOC Coteaux Champenois.
Well-known champagne producers or Champagne brands include Ayala, Besserat de Bellefon, Billecart-Salmon, Billiot, Binet, Bollinger, Canard-Duchêne, Charles Heidsieck, Delamotte, Deutz, Drappier, Duval-Leroy, Fleury Père et Fils, Gosset, Alfred Gratien, Heidsieck Monopole, Henriot, Krug, Jacquart, Jacquesson, Joseph Perrier, Laherte Frères, Lanson, Larmandier-Bernier, Laurent-Perrier, Mercier, Moët et Chandon, Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte (Palmes d'Or), Perrier-Jouët, Philipponnat, Piollot, Piper Heidsieck, Paillard, Pol Roger, Pommery, Roederer, Ruinart, Salon, Taittinger, Tarlant, Thiénot, Union Champagne, Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, Vranken.
An often asked question is whether champagne is suitable for long storage and will continue to develop like a high-quality still wine. As a rule, it has already reached its peak from the moment it is marketed (see under sparkling wine). Several finds of bottles in shipwrecks have shown that due to the "ideal storage conditions" (dark, cool, high pressure, quiet storage) even very old champagnes can still be enjoyed. The record is held by a Veuve Clicquot of the vintage 1839 found in a wreck in 2010, which after more than 170 years was not only edible but even tasted excellent (see in detail under Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin). A diverse culture has developed around the enjoyment of champagne (sparkling wine). For example, it is a tradition and international standard to use champagne for christenings on ships. See further examples under Champagne Cocktail, Champagne Bottle, Champagne Glass, Champagne Bucket, Champagne Pyramid, Champagne Tongs, Placomusophilia and Sabrieren (Champagne Heads).
Complete lists of the numerous vinification measures or cellar techniques, as well as the various types of wine, sparkling wine and distillate regulated by wine law are included under the heading "Vinification". Comprehensive information on wine law can be found under the keyword wine law.
A remarkably informative website about champagne is www.champagner.com. With the kind permission of the author John McCabe, this excellent work has been used as a source for company descriptions by many of the champagne houses listed above.