Champagne. The very word conjures up images of sophistication and celebration, and whether one should drink this sparkling wine from a flute or coupe is the subject of intense discussion. What is champagne, and how is it different from sparkling wine? The answer to those questions is really pretty simple, but before we get into that, let’s talk about what champagne is not.
Champagne is not made in the United States, Spain, Australia, or any other country except France. In fact, it isn’t even made throughout France; it comes from a very specific region in France centered around the towns of Reims and Epernay. Other sparkling wines made in France outside of this area are called cremant, as in Cremant de Bourgogne (Cremant of Burgundy.)
Now, for some champagne basics. It is important to understand that champagne is a very specific term for a very special product. Sparkling wine is the generic umbrella term for wines with carbonation, and if you aren’t specifically talking about champagne, it’s better to refer to sparkling wines as just sparkling wine. So all champagnes are sparkling wines, but not all sparkling wines are champagnes.
There are three grapes that are allowed in champagne: pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier. Each producer creates their own blend or style. All three grapes do not have to be used in each wine, so for instance, making a 100 percent chardonnay champagne is allowed as long as all of the rules regarding champagne production are followed.
Champagne is produced by a process known as methode champenoise. Like all wines, champagne goes through an initial fermentation, but then a secondary fermentation is created in the bottle. This secondary fermentation is what gives champagne its bubbles. After the secondary fermentation, the bottles go through a process known as remoulage to remove the yeast sediment and to top the bottles up. The bottles are aged at least a year and a half (or three years in the case of vintage champagnes, known as a millesime) before being released.
While this is a very basic overview of champagne and its process, there is a lot more information on champagne, food pairings, and more at the Center for Wine Origins (CWO.) The CWO is a great resource to help both the trade and consumers understand just how special champagne wines are and to protect the wines that come from Champagne. I’m proud to be a Wine Location Specialist, a certification offered through the CWO, and I hope you’ll check out the CWO to learn more about Champagne and its special heritage.