A Quick Guide to Champagne

How is Champagne produced? it needs a remarkable combination of climate and geology along with a leavening of human ingenuity and good luck. The natural phenomena could be described as a mixture of chalk and chill. The chalk cliffs which stare at each other over the English channel between Dover and Cap Gris Nez are part of a long billowing seam roaming across southern England and northern France. Theres nothing light white wine seems to thrive on as much as chalk, and around the cathedral city of Reims, north east of Paris, the chalk manages to find those deep cleft river valleys and tucked-away sites which can ripen wine grapes. This is the Champagne Region and it has an average temerature just one degree above what is needed to ripen wine grapes. In some years the grapes never get warm enough to ripen. But this risk is crucial to the eventual character of the wine since, when they ripen, the struggle has given a fresh and a lingering depth to what is still a light wine in much the same way as a cool-climate apple or pear or plum, fighting eternally against wind and rain, will always taste more interesting than the fat-cat table fruit from sunny climes

The word 'Champagne'. It dosen't just mean a style of wine. It can only legitimately apply to the wine coming from a very distinct, carefully delimited part of France. Champagne can only come from the chalky, chilly hills and valleys centred on the river marne. But the Champagne method can be used where ever you want to make a still wine sparkle.

Champagne and indeed all sparkling wines are naturally still. Champagne is so far north and the wines ferment very slowing in the late autumn, and, if left to their own devices, usually fail to finish off the job before the icy winter winds freeze the cellars and put the yeast to sleep. Traditionally, most wines everywhere used to be made to be drunk within a year of the vintage. This meant that the wines of Champagne were shipped off in barrels during the winter, to Paris first, and then later to London. Spring came, the weather warmed up and the yeasts, which had gone into hybernation, woke up and returned to the task of fermenting out the sugar in the juice. Nobody quite realized why it happened, but it meant that a creamy, foaming mousse appeared in the wine around Easter, and for six to eight weeks in the early summer this laughing , gurgling liquided cascaded and throthed out into barrels.

Eventually the frothing stopped of its own accord when the yeast had eaten up all the sugar, and it was not until a way was devised of keeping the bubbles in the wine that Champagne could reliably be made sparkling. Ironically, the figure who first properly understood the process, a benedictine monk called Dom Perignon, in fact most of his time was spent trying to stop the sparkle. All that was needed now were new stronger glass bottles from England, and cork stoppers from Spain. Even so, a lot of early bottles of Champagne burst, because the pressure inside can build up to five or six atmospheres.

The ones that survived produced a wine full of sparkle and also far richer in fruit and perfume than the thin, still wines people had been used to. Today, the Champagne method means the inducing of a second fermentation of the wine inside the bottle, and the consequent dissolution of carbon dioxode in the wine under pressure. Cheaper sparkling wines are even pumped full of gas or even given their second fermentaion in enourmous presurized tanks. The latter needn't be worse than the Champagne method, Its the quality of the base wine that counts.


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