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Champagne: Explained

Emma Murphy takes a look at what makes champagne the king among sparkling wines.

Champagne. The absolute hero of the wine world. Perhaps, you may wonder, if the hefty price tag comes as a by-product of the unending glamour associated with the good stuff – the result of very clever marketing in the late 1800’s, the fact that after years at the top it still remains the go-to fizz for a celebration enabling it to command a ‘special occasion’ value, or perhaps it’s just due to the undeniable fact that champagne really is the king amongst men.
 
Lively and invigorating, there really is no match for the taste of soft cool bubbles and the heady feeling they bring; sparkling wine is a great invention and one we can’t get enough of in its various guises. A growing number of regions and producers across the globe are offering up an abundance of high quality fizz – England now being right up there with the best of them – many following the same method and technology, some also with the same blend of grapes. But despite all this none are steeped in the history that sets our favourite bubbly apart from the rest, ensuring that all else still recedes into its shadow when it comes to precedence.
  
The History
 
Long before the bubbles came along (a happy accident courtesy of English winemakers some 25yrs earlier), Dom Pérignon – 17th century monk and all-round wonder – was working on a wine of such distinction that its flavour and elegance had put it among the most expensive in France even before the bubbly icing on the cake. Responsible foremost for the highly technical challenge of making a white wine from red grapes, along with being blessed with a seemingly exceptional palate which allowed him to pioneer the cuvée, blending various wines to make a something even more superior – Dom Pérignon was a revolutionary whose experiments ensured that the prestige and accolade of champagne is based on the inherent quality it has held for centuries. Once they’d nailed the base wine, the Champenois went to work finding a better way to contain the naturally occurring gases at fermentation, bought thicker bottles and cork stoppers from their neighbours across the channel, and the rest is history.
 
The Grapes
 
The primary champagne grapes are Chardonnay – an elegant white grape that gives its fruity freshness, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – red grapes that when lightly pressed give a white wine that adds structure and backbone to the blend.
 
Most champagnes are a blend of the three, except for Blanc de Blancs – made from 100% Chardonnay, or Blanc de Noirs – made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

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The Fizz
 
The bubbles in your sparkling wine can come from one of three methods of secondary fermentation – this being when yeast & sugar are added to the already fermented wine to spark off the production of CO2 – the best of which is from second fermentation in the bottle itself (second being in a large tank, and third being carbonation), and how they do it in Champagne. A method oft followed by other premium sparkling wines, any other will use the term méthode traditionelle on the label.
 
The Houses
 
The large champagne houses that most would associate with the good stuff are known as Marques (of which there are about 100) or grande Marques (only a handful) – these include Möet & Chandon, Mumm, Pol Roger, Perrier-Jouët, Piper-Heidseck, Bollinger, Tattinger and Veuve Clicquot. They all produce vast quantities of supreme wines year on year and while there is a growing trend and following towards grower champagnes who have smaller production and a more artisanal approach – the influence and precedence that the Marques have set is extraordinary. Whether you like to opt for the big guys you know and love or the understated craftsmen you’ll not be disappointed – each has their place and the world is all the better for it.
 
The Alternatives
 
It may still be the top dog but not every occasion allows us to stretch to a Champagne budget, and although they may not necessarily have the history and prestige there are a few other sparklers to look out for when you need your fix to come with less of a blow… Franciacorta (from the northern Lombardy region of Italy) and English sparkling wines are at the top of their game, producing world class fizz that is standing up against champagne in many a tasting, while Crémant – French sparkling wines made according to the same method but outside of Champagne, and generally with different grapes – provides a delicious lesser known alternative.