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Champagne: come quickly, I am drinking the stars!

champagne-sign

Champagne was one of the top wine producers in the world long before the advent of the unique méthode champenoise used to produce the bubbly wine now known throughout the world. In the 16th century there existed an ongoing struggle between Champagne and Burgundy for domination of the wine world's top honors. Pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier were all widely planted in this era, and Champagne's focus was on still red wines to compete with Burgundy.

That all changed with the ascension of sparkling wines in the region's production. Contrary to popular belief, Champagne was not invented by Dom Perignon, although he did pioneer many advances in wine production in the region (primarily having to do with still wines, however). But through a number of advances in the méthode champenoise, allowing a more controlled and safe secondary fermentation to occur in the bottle, and an amazing public relations push, this region transformed into being known for only one style of wine – and to become arguably the most famous name in wine.

 

champagneKings and queens enjoyed Champagne from the 17th century on, but it wasn't until the 19th century that the sparkling wine truly came into its own. Beginning in the 1850s, Champagne became associated with royalty, festivities, and the upper class. Luxurious parties always had the best Champagne flown in from France, and no celebration was complete without a bit of bubbly. That attitude has not changed in the intervening century and a half, and Champagne is still regarded as the classiest of wines – the perfect gift and the perfect wine with which to toast a special occasion.

There are just over 100 different producers in Champagne, using grapes from nearly 20,000 small-scale growers. Perhaps the most difficult part for most consumers in understanding Champagne is understanding what the various terms on the labels mean.

Most Champagne produced is Non-Vintage (NV), which means that juice from multiple years may be used in producing the wine. Most NV Champagne still uses the bulk of their grapes from one year, but they add in juice from another year to create a more consistent flavor that allows consumers to experience roughly the same wine from year to year, regardless of conditions. Vintage-specific Champagne is generally higher-priced, and depending on the quality of the vintage may be highly sought after. Most Champagne is made from a blend of the three major grapes grown in the region – pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay – but some Champagne is produced exclusively from chardonnay (blanc de blanc), and some is produced exclusively from pinot noir and pinot meunier (blanc de noirs). Rosé Champagne (pink in color) is also produced – most commonly by adding some still pinot noir juice, but in some rare (and more expensive) cases by actually allowing the grapes to sit on their skins (saigneé). Higher-end Champagne houses also generally produce a top-shelf version of their wine, which is designated as Prestige Cuvée. Finally, Champagne is distinguished by its sugar content – Brut Zéro or Brut Natural is the driest, Extra Brut is next, and Brut is sweetest.