Bubbling over

Champagne remains a perennial favourite for discerning drinkers

 

Only wines made within a specific north-eastern French region can use the labelling term ‘champagne’. Geographical boundaries aren’t the only thing that defines the wine, though; the region also enforces strict appellation laws.

Grape-growing and winemaking practices are closely controlled, affecting everything from the grape varieties used, to vineyard and press yields and the methods by which the wine gains its bubbles.

When making champagne, secondary fermentation, the process that adds bubbles to wine, must take place in the bottle. Known as the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle, the process requires that winemakers start fermentation after they add a mixture of yeast, wine and sugar, called liqueur de tirage, to the still base wine. The process releases carbon dioxide, making the wine bubbly. When fermentation ends, yeasts die and become lees, remaining in contact with the wine until they’re later removed by the winemaker.

Champagne winemakers can use seven varieties of grapes in their blends. The list includes five white grapes (chardonnay, petite arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc and fromenteau) as well as two red grapes (pinot noir and pinot meunier). Most commonly, champagne blends include a combination of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, though other examples abound. Wines made exclusively with white grapes are called blanc de blancs, and less common blanc de noirs contain only red grapes. Mix or match

Non-vintage (NV) champagnes are the most common (and affordable) style of the wine. Producers use grapes from multiple vintages to create a specific flavour profile. Vintage champagnes contain grapes from just one harvest. Like standard wine bottles, the vintage denotes the year of harvest. Vintage champagnes appear only in the best years, which are selected by the champagne house’s chef de cave, or cellar master.

The average bottle of champagne is bottled with a pressure of five to six atmospheres. That’s approximately double the pressure in your car’s tyres. After removing the bottle’s foil and wire cage, keep a thumb firmly pressed on top of the cork and slowly twist the base of the bottle. The cork will loosen gradually until it’s finally released, emitting a soft hiss or faint pop. If the cork or your hand contain moisture from bottle condensation, use a dishcloth to help keep a steady grip.

When not serving champagne, keep the open bottle sealed to prolong its effervescence. A high-quality champagne stopper is essential for this and a well-sealed, refrigerated bottle of wine will keep its bubbles for three to five days.

Champagne is delicious with canapés as an aperitif and surprisingly versatile when it comes to meal pairing. The wine’s high acidity cuts through rich foods and its savoury, yeasty character balances sweetness. A crisp, refreshing finish leaves the palate feeling clean. Champagne can also provide an excellent high-low pairing, as it works particularly well with dishes like fried chicken and pizza.

Text | Supplied Photography | SeventyFour

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