All about that good bubbly

I was talking about cham­pagne to some wine connois­seurs the other day, when someone said there was a lot of misinformation about it going the rounds. It was sug­gested I try to correct the situation with a column. Here it is.

Many people believe cham­pagne is the generic name for any wine with bubbles in it. Those who think so apparently are unaware that there is “still” champagne, both red and white. What makes a champagne is Champagne, the area in France where it is made. The two main grapes that produce it are the Pinot Noir, which also makes the red “still” wine of the area, and the Chardonnay, from which white is made.

Most of the bubbling cham­pagne is made from a mixture of the wines produced by the two grapes, with the red in the majority. There are, however, champagnes made entirely from white grapes, like those which Taittinger produces. They are delightfully light drinks and among my favorites. Rarer is the champagne made entirely from the Pinot Noir. I have drunk it, but found it a bit too heavy.

Bollinger is one company which produces red champagne, but that is because it has a small area of the red grape that still has European roots. When the devastating aphid hit the Champagne yards, for some reason it left that spot of land untouched; and untouched by the phylloxera it still is today. To give an idea of the mixture of the grapes in champagne, Bollinger generally uses 70 per cent Pinot Noir and 30 per cent Chardonnay, depending on the year and the condition of the grapes, of course.

Sometime in the autumn the grapes are picked, crushed and fermented. When the fer­mentation is complete, the wine is bottled with some liqueur de tirage, which contains sugar and yeast. The yeast starts to eat the sugar, changing it, by its metabolic processes, into alcohol. The slower the second fermentation takes—it can be slowed down by a lower tempe­rature — the finer the bubbles and the better the champagne.

Up to this point most champagne drinkers have their facts straight. But from here on, it was agreed among the discussion group, confusion enters. How long do the bot­tles stay in the cellar after the second fermentation is com­pleted and the bubbles pro­duced? It varies according to company. Some of the cheaper bottles are kept only a year before being put out on the market. The better companies keep them for two to three years. We are speaking of non-vintage champagne. However long the wine is kept in the cellar, it eventually is prepared by the remuage process for the market.

The remuage process is the specialty of the Champagne country. Again, depending on the company, it can take as little as three weeks, if a remuage machine is used; or a year, if the old-fashioned me­thod of turning by hand is used. The purpose of the remuage is to get the sediment of dead yeast and other impurities into the neck of the bottle.

This is done by first letting them settle on one side of the bottle as it lies flat and gradu­ally raising the end, while turn­ing the bottle, until it is almost vertical. When the remuage is completed, the bottle is un­corked, the bubbles push the sediment in the neck out, and the champagne is recorked.

I saw the disgorgement, which the uncorking is called, at Bollinger. There the neck is frozen, and the sediment, now solid, flies out. Next, the bottle is topped up with some cham­pagne from another bottle, a dose of liqueur d’expedition is added (liqueur d’expedition is made of some champagne in which sugar is dissolved). Not all champagne-makers add this dosage, although most do. It is said that the liqueur d’ex­pedition is necessary to soften the wine and remove the astringency which would result from a bone-dry champagne.

Some years are so heavy in sugar, though, that they don’t require this dosage. Such a year was 1959. I was told also by Ralph Michelson, chairman of the Wine Committee of the Tokyo American Club, that champagne “sans dosage” is now on the market and getting popular. The “sans dosage” means without the liqueur d’expedition. I shall have to try it some day.

Up to now I was speaking of non-vintage champagne. Vintage champagne, by law, must remain in the cellar at least three years before bottling. Some firms, like Bollinger, keep theirs longer. In Bollinger’s case, vintage champagne is not bottled until after five years in the cellar. Once the wine is bottled, it should be drunk within five years or it faces the danger of becoming maderized, turning brown and becoming unpalatable. Usually, the non-vintage is sold the year it is bottled.

Vintage champagne is what you must watch out for. If it is more than eight years old, be careful!

Champagne is a particularly useful drink. It is excellent as an aperitif and it goes with any food. When in doubt, they say, order champagne.