Serious Champagne

There’s big business and serious science behind your celebratory bubbly

Champagne may be the most frivolous of beverages but it’s also one of the most expensive, the most highly regulated in terms of its production, and the most difficult wine to make.

Just to set the record straight, champagne itself comes only from the Champagne region. All other sparklers, even those from Burgundy, Loire and Alsace are, by law, merely vins mousseux. The champagne houses are nothing if not litigious when it comes to protecting their appellation name — as the Ontario wine industry discovered in 1964 and again in 1987.

Champagne, apart from being the perfect aperitif, is also an indicator of the health of the global economy. Worldwide champagne sales set a record in 2007 at 339 million bottles. Following the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Bros. in the US, and its global consequences, demand dropped substantially. By 2009 sales were down by one million bottles. As first world economies rebounded in 2014, champagne sales were back to 304 million bottles.

The most expensive champagne is not Dom Pérignon – nor, indeed, any of the prestige cuvées of the other big producers – but actually Krug’s vintage-dated Clos d’Ambonnay Blanc de Noirs, which has an average selling price in Canada of $2,953 a bottle. The wine comes from a half-acre, walled plot in the village of Ambonnay on the Montagne de Reims. And the average price of Krug’s Clos de Mesnil Blanc de Blancs (100 per cent Chardonnay) in Canada is $1,256 a bottle. How would you like to find a brace of those in your Christmas stocking?

Within the boundaries of the Champagne appellation there are 319 wine-growing villages, and each has been rated on a scale of 80 to 100 per cent, based on the historic quality of the grapes grown there. There are 17 villages that are rated 100 per cent by the Comité Interprofessional des Vins de Champagne, the region’s regulating body. And, as such, these villages have been accorded Grand Crus status. Ambonnay is one of them.

This rating determines the price of the wine and what percentage of that price goes to the growers. Some of the better-known 100-per-cent villages are Äy, Bouzy and Sillery for Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (the two black grapes that go into the champagne blend) and Avize, Cramant and Le Mesnil for Chardonnay, the only white grape permitted in the region.

Slightly less exalted villages in terms of the quality of their grapes, rated between 90 and 99 per cent are known as Premier Crus; and then you go down the ladder to the Deuxième Crus villages that are rated 80 to 89 per cent.

By the CIVC’s regulations, all champagne grapes must be hand-harvested. The Comité tells growers when to pick and when to stop, usually a three-week window. The final yield must be no more than 66 hectolitres per hectare.

The regulations also mandate the amount of juice that can be pressed: around 4,000 kilograms of grapes can yield between 2,550 and 3,060 litres of juice. The first juice that comes from the press is the cuvée and the next 500 to 600 litres is the taille, which is fermented separately.

The wines are blended to the producer’s house style and then given a secondary fermentation in the bottle that you will purchase. A small amount of yeast and 18 grams of sugar in liquid form (called liqueur de tirage) are added to each bottle, which is then stoppered with a crown cap. The yeast eats the sugar, converting it to carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The gas dissolves into the wine as bubbles; but there is a bi-product that has to be cleaned out — the sticky, dead yeast cells that accumulate on the side of the bottle.

The traditional way to clean out the sediment was by putting the bottles into an A-frame and a remueur would agitate the bottles by hand over a period of weeks, gradually tilting them upwards until all the debris has settled on the crown cap. (This process has been mechanised by the use of gyro palettes, which allows 504 bottles in a metal cage to be agitated.) The inverted bottles would then be dipped into a glycol solution to freeze an inch or so of wine in the neck. The bottle would be opened and the pressure of the gas (90 pounds per square inch, bus type pressure) would drive out a plug of ice containing the debris leaving the wine crystal-clear.

With the loss of a couple of ounces of wine, the bottles have to be topped up, and it’s at this point that the producer decides on the particular house style of the champagne by adding a liqueur d’expédition, a mixture of wine and sugar. The amount of sugar determines the sweetness level of the champagne. (Some producers cut the sugar to a minimum to produce the driest champagnes they designate as Brut Nature or Zero Dosage.)

And then there are the bubbles. Someone in Champagne has established that there are 150 to 200 million bubbles in a 750 ml bottle. Thirty to 35 bubbles are created per second and they rise at a speed of 35 kilometres an hour. When a bubble bursts, it forms the shape of a flower with petals. The pressure ejects a champagne cork at a speed of 65 kilometers an hour for the first 10 feet. Whoever made these observations must have too much time on his hands.

Tony Aspler is the author of 17 books on wine, including his latest, Canadian Wineries.