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Champagne "Come quickly ! I'm tasting stars!"

These words uttered by Dom Pierre Perignon, the French Benedictine Monk upon tasting his newly created champagne marked the beginning of the modern history of Champagne.  Though discovered accidentally years earlier when still wine from Chardonnay was shipped abroad and found to be once again fermenting and fizzing when warmer weather arrived, the first conscious efforts to replicate this sparkling wine were attributed to Frere Jean Oudart and Dom Pierre Perignon.

Since the late 1600's Champagne has become the most prestigious celebratory wine in the world.  Champagne has been present at the coronation of Kings, launching of ships around the world, and even in most every James Bond movie.
Champagne has only one appellation, a refreshing change from the complexity of many of France's wine regions – Champagne AOC.  There is a village rating system that attempts to assign quality with Grand Crus at the top, followed by Premier Cru and “everyone else” but since blending of grapes from different years and vineyards is the norm, this classification is not common.  However some of the most expensive champagnes will have this designation – names like Dom Perignon, and Louis Roederer Cristal.
Winemaking properties in Champagne are not Domains, or Chateaux, but rather Houses and there are over three hundred in the region.

The Wines of Champagne

Champagne is the wine of the region.  The region produces nearly 15% of all sparkling wine – 25 million cases per year. Champagne is a blend of three grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.   Champagne is produced in a variety of styles, but fortunately, put a few words in your vocabulary and you will be able to navigate most any Champagne label.

Non-Vintage – Because blending is so common with Champagne, non-vintage (NV) meaning the grapes are not all from a single year, is the most common type of Champagne and usually the least expensive.
Vintage – Champagne produced using grapes all from the same year.
Blanc de Blancs – Champagne made entirely from white grapes, in this case 100% Chardonnay.
Blanc de Noirs – Champagne made entirely from red grapes, in this case Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Residual Sugar – This is a measure of the amount of sugar remaining in the Champagne.  There are five generally used categories

• Extra Brut – 0 - .6% residual sugar driest (bear in mind that the average human cannot detect sugar levels less than 0.5%)

• Brut – 0-1.5% residual sugar - the most popular Champagne

• Extra Dry 1.2 – 2.0% residual sugar

• Sec – 1.7 – 3.5% residual sugar

• Demi-Sec 3.3 – 5.0% residual sugar

• Doux – more than 5% residual sugar - rare

Tete de cuvee – Best of the best winery designation, it does not have any formal definition but usually reflects the wine made from the first pressings and is a vintage wine.

Rose – Pink Champagne blended to include red grape skin contact.

Growing Grapes in Champagne

The Champagne is one of the coldest most northerly wine growing regions in France.  The grapes grown are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.  The harsh winters (snow is common) and cool summers provide a growing season that is barely long enough to allow the grapes to ripen.  The result is grapes with high levels of acidity and the addition of sugar to produce Champagne is common.
Helping with the short growing season are the soils of Kimmeridgian clay, a white dense, chalky soil (think white cliffs of Dover) that helps retain heat and water.

Fast Facts

Champagne is the wine of luxury and celebration around the world
Champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier
The driest Champagne is Extra Brut, the sweetest, Doux
And, if you want a great piece of trivia, according to The Wine Institute, there are 44 million bubbles in a bottle of champagne – have fun counting.

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