When I planned my way back to Germany I thought about a culinary stop in between. I checked the map and found the region of champagne right in the middle of my route and in the north-east of France. So it was clear that I had to stop there and take part of a tasting.
So I searched through the internet and found loads of offers to try champagne. Did you know that there are existing 347 different champagne houses and even more sorts of champagne? And all of them are gathered on 34.000 hectare of land. Champagne MUST be produced and it’s grapes harvested in that certain area, otherwise it’s not allowed to be called „Champagne“.
In general Champagne is made of three main sorts of grapes – Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier and is the only French „wine“, which is allowed to mix red and white grapes. Therefor exist the „Blanc de Blancs“, which is only made of white grapes (Chardonnay) and „Blanc de Noirs“, which is only made of red grapes (Pinot Noir / Pinot Meunier) to indicate „blank“ champagnes. In general the Chardonnay has a fine, Pinot Noir a rich and Pinot Meunier a fruity taste. The mixture of those three grapes leads to the specific character of each Champagne following the recipe of each champagne house.
Champagne is not just geographically protected but has strict regulations about the cultivation as well as the production. The method is called „Methode champenoise“ and means a fermentation in the bottle. First the grapes will be harvested in the end of summer / autumn. The outcome per hectare is regularized per year and the grapes are strictly controlled. Of course those have to be picked by hand! After that the grapes are pressed twice and the first juice is called „Cuvèe“ and is thereof a better quality. It is even prescribed since 1983 that 160kg of grapes need to be pressed for 102 liter of juice. Therefore the first 82 liters are called „Cuvèe“ and the second press is either called „Première“ or „Deuxième Taille“ with have a higher bitterness und accordingly a lower quality. The juice is then stored in bigger tanks and fermenting into wine. There can exist up to 160 different types of wine which can be assembled to a great variety of Champagne. The so called „Assemblage“ decides about the taste and quality of champagne and is the secret of every champagne house.
After the Assemblage the wine is enriched with yeast and sugar to ferment again and stored in bottles in cool cellars. There are temperatures around 12 degree Celsius and the champagne needs to be stored for 12 months (minimum) to 36 months. If the grapes / wine is of a very good quality it might be used for „Vintage Champagne“, which is of a better quality and need to be stored even longer (up to 10 years).
In the end the sediments of the fermentation need to be extracted from the bottle. Therefore the bottle will be stored in a certain ankle and moved a little bit each day for several weeks. By that the sediments are moving into the bottle neck in a very careful way. After that the bottle neck is freezed so that those sediments can easily be extracted. Now happens the most exciting part as some extra flavors can be added. It can be another portion of sugar, white wine or even red wine which gives the champagne it’s unique taste the champagne house aims for. The so called „Dosage“ makes the champagne sweet (doux, demi sec, sec, extra sec), dry (Brut) or extra dry (extra brut, ultra brut).
After that the bottle is corked and ready to be drunken.
After knowing all those details I definitely widened my horizon and actually understood the world of champagne. It’s not just the higher price, which is reasonable for me now, but it’s higher class. I’ve never enjoyed drinking champagne because of it’s bitter and unbalanced flavor but after tasting 5 different good champagnes I changed my mind. Of course bigger champagne houses follow the restrictions in the most comfortable and economical ways which means minimum storage durations and lower quality grapes. And that definitely reflects in flavor. I visited the champagne house of Michel Fagot who pays a lot attention to a higher quality. Every Champagne is stored much longer than other ones and everything is done by hand. I actually enjoyed every Champagne I tasted besides the sweet one (brut). Giving champagne time to develop definitely rewards with taste.
I finally understood why champagne is such an expensive and tasty (!) drink which easily matches every menu. Good champagne tastes refreshing, light and digestible! So I definitely recommend to look for champagne of smaller productions if possible and a visit of a champagne house itself as well!