Champagne is a sparkling wine made exclusively in the Champagne region of north-east France and made in strict accordance with regulations of the 'Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne'.
Wine has been made in the Champagne region since the Romans first planted vines there well over a thousand years ago. Back then the wines produced were still and not for many years would they become the bubbly Champagne we all recognise today. The early wines were red, but lacked the quality of their wine counterparts further south, due to the inclement and colder weather that would produce grapes that were high in acidity and low in sugar, producing light-bodied, lack-lustre and thin wines and not considered high in quality.
Fast forward to 1662 where an English scientist, Christopher Merret, more associated with glass-making than wine, presented a paper to the Royal Society where he describes the process of adding sugar and spirit to a still wine after it's initial fermentation to create a wine described and 'brisk and sparkling'. The addition of this 'liqueur de tirage' would cause the wine to undergo secondary fermentation and would cause carbonation, and thus the méthode champenoise was founded. Due to his expertise in glass-making, bottles were manufactured to withstand the extreme pressures associated with production.
The French did not use Merret's technique until the 1800's and for many years would bottle wine before it's initial fermentation had finished to produce a sparkling wine known as the 'méthode rural'. Most Champagnes were sweet until Perrier-Jouet produced the first 'brut' (dry) Champagne for the British in the mid 1800's.
Champagne's cool climate and chalky soils are ideal for the growing of three grape types: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These grapes are used in differing ratios to make most Champagne but not all.
A base wine is first produced and then a mixture of sugar and yeast is added before bottling, sealing and storage where a second fermentation will then take place. This will increase the alcohol level and the carbon dioxide produced will dissolve into the wine as it can not escape, thus causing the sparkles. The dead yeast cells which form a sediment in the bottle called the 'lees' impart much of the flavours associated with Champagne and after ageing for as long as several years will be removed (disgorged) by freezing the yeast plug in the neck of the bottle and the pressure inside will force the plug out when unsealed and then the bottle will be topped up with wine and sugar (dosage) to determine its sweetness ad then the cork will be put in and prevented from coming out with the application of a wired, caged-cap and foil. Some top quality vintage rose Champagnes will often improve over five to ten years whilst most Champagne drinkers prefer vintage wines relatively young as an aged Champagne will lose much its freshness and vivacity. Non-vintage Champagne are a blend of several vintages to maintain consistency for each Champagne house.
The most consumed are non-vintage as described above and these reflect the producer's 'house style'. Vintage Champagnes will be declared roughly every three or four years and must consist of a blend of wines produced from that year alone and they offer a more complex wine with flavours that are intensely fruity and autolytic (biscuit, bread, toast), and may be vegetal, nutty or even honeyed. Prestige Cuvee is regarded as a producer's best Champagne and often from a declared vintage. Blanc de Blancs Champagne is a style of Champagne made only from Chardonnay grapes and its cousin, Blanc de Noir is made only from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier or a blend of the two. Rose Champagne is a less popular style produced by allowing the skins of red grapes to be in contact with the pressed juice for a short period of time known as the saignee method but many are produced by blending a little red to white. RD Champagnes; RD meaning 'recently disgorged' and is where the plug of yeast has been removed just prior to shipping and is usually aged for much longer than a vintage Champagne.