February Spotlight: Champagne
This story begins on coronation day in 987 at the Reims Cathedral; located in the heart of the champagne region in northeast France. The Pinot Noir champagne was poured at the request of the king, Hugh Capet, and from that time forward, it made its appearance for coronation days, marking the beginning of champagne as a celebratory wine.
However, throughout the Middle Ages and part of the Renaissance period, the winemakers envied their Burgundy neighbors to the south and desired to create the same style of wine. “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Little did they know the gem they had.
Even the Monk Dom Perignon, known for his precise winemaking skills, worked diligently to stop the “bubbles” occurring.
The Champagne region has always been very cold. For this reason grape ripening is a challenge and still wine is difficult to make, the grapes being too green and not ripe.
The addition of sugar has been a necessity. The sugar is added through a liquor called Tirage, (which is mostly older wine with added sugar). The still wine is bottled and kept in the lees. An entry level champagne is kept for a minimum of fifteen months and a cuvee vintage is kept for a minimum of three years.
Up until the late 1600’s, because of the cold, when secondary fermentation took place inside the bottle, the bottles would burst! A round of applause for the British for developing glass strong enough to hold champagne.
In the traditional method, the bottles sit upside down where they are rotated every day and moved slightly upward, in a process called riddling. You can thank Madame “Widow” Clicquot for that. At the end of the process when the sediment has reached the top, the cork and the sediment is pulled. (Many different methods for cork removal exist). After this, the “liquor of tirage” is added. A champagne label can be confusing in terms of sugar dosage, here is what you need to know.
(We stick with the first three!)
Brut Nature-no addition of sugar
Extra Brut-0-6 grams
Brut 0-12 grams
Extra Sec 12-20 grams
Demi sec 33-50
The remaining yeast will start the secondary fermentation, transforming the sugars into alcohol and liberating CO2, which in turn stays trapped in the wine. It’s labor intensive and expensive-the reason why champagne is always slightly pricey.
Throughout the years that followed many champagne “houses” were formed and each grew bigger through the purchase of fruit grown by small, family farmers scattered throughout the region. These farmers knew how to work the land, but they did not possess the required structure for processing their grapes into Champagne. This deficiency has changed tremendously in recent decades. Now instead of selling their harvest, they produce small to minuscule quantities of their own, controlling each step from vineyard to Champagne, with singularity and pride. While you easily encounter recognizable large brands on store shelves, the discovery of an artisan producer bottling requires some seeking. Even so, it is a search that leads you into a series of adventurous journeys in champagne, each filled with distinct personalities and individual terroir traits.
Among our many discoveries, we came across the wonderful Vesselle family, Grower/Producer in the town of Bouzy. We were already well acquainted with their wines, but the chance of an intimate visit at their Domaine Jean Vesselle, brought even brighter light to their impressive panoply of champagnes- the light of dedication, hard work, honor and character. Dominique and I were so impressed that we felt compelled to share details with you through a personal Q/A, featured below with owners
Delphine & David,