What makes Champagne unique? Everyone considers Champagne to be the obligatory beverage of choice when there is a special occasion to celebrate. Because of this somewhat mystical allure, there are those who want to imitate it. Champagne is a sparkling wine but it has a unique quality which cannot be created elsewhere.
The uniqueness of this beverage emanates from essentially by 3 unique characteristics:
- the chalky soil,
- the climate, and
- the second fermentation in the bottle.
The chalky soils impart particular flavours in to the grapes. Chalk is a natural reservoir for absorbing moisture and heat. This protects the vines against fluctuation in the climate. Did you know they are not permitted to irrigate the vines in Champagne? However, since the chalk acts like a sponge it absorbs the water and the roots of the vines are able to access their water supply as needed.
The predominantly limestone subsoil of Champagne started about 90 million years ago when the earth’s surface was covered by the sea. The naturally formed deposits comprising of chalk, marl and limestone supply nutrients to the vine which impart specific flavours to the grapes. As the soils do differ throughout the vineyards, specific flavours imparted in to the grape may be identified.
Until more recently, Champagne was the most northern region in the world where grapes were grown. The unique geographical location of Champagne means the vineyards are influenced by both oceanic and continental influences which in turn create micro-climates in the region.
The grapes contain a high level of acidity which is perfect for making a sparkling wine.
After the first fermentation occurs, a second fermentation will occur in the bottle. This is referred to as the “Methode Champenois”. This is the stage where the bubbles or the sparkle is created. This process involves adding a small amount of sugar and yeast. The yeasts multiply and the enzymes created interact with the sugar to create a chemical reaction thereby converting sugar in to alcohol and carbonic gas. The process may take more than 8 days, but if the bottles are placed in a very cold part of the cellar it may take months for the process to complete. When the process is complete a sediment remains in the bottle. This sediment is referred to as the lees. The lees will interact with the wine and will be removed by a process known as disgorgement when the bottle is ready to be marketed. For a non-vintage Champagne it is a minimum of 18 months and for a vintage Champagne it is 3 years but most large Champagne Houses will release their non-vintage Champagnes after a minimum of 3 years and the vintage Champagnes often after 5 or more years on lees.