With a deft twist, our tour guide, Raphael, teased the cork from the neck of the bottle. With a soft POP it released, to a smattering of applause.
‘And that,’ he announced. ‘Is how you open a Champagne bottle.’
The trick, he explained, is to remove the foil and untwist the metal cage (usually six turns, sometimes seven), but leave it in place to allow you to better grip the cork. Holding the the top still, you tilt the bottle and gently twist it. The pressure of the gas inside will help to push the cork free, resulting in that satisfying sound recognised all over the world.
I’ve drunk my fair share of champagne overthe years (more than I should have, but not as much as I’ve wanted to), but until visiting Reims (home to many of the most famous Champagne houses – including Taittinger, Veuve Cliquot, Ruinart and Pommery) I had been quite oblivious to how that pale gold liquid actually reached my flute.
What to do in Champagne:
I flew into Paris Charles de Gaulle, then got on the high speed train; 45 minutes later I was in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region.
Once the city where French kings were crowned, today Reims is a friendly tourist destination with a bustling cafe centre. But it’s underground where the magic lies, and I joined France Intense’s EPERNAY PICTURESQUE Champagne Day Tour to discover the city’s subterreanean secrets.
Criss-crossed under the streets are hundreds of kilometres of tunnels. Originally excavated for chalk, in the 1700’s Champagne producers realised they were perfect for storing and maturing their precious wine.
During World War I, when Reims was besieged by bombs, residents took shelter in these same chambers for weeks and months on end – even setting up underground schools and shops.
Making Champagne is an incredibly precise and particular process; such is the prestige and history of France’s most famous drink, there are strict laws governing exactly how it is made.
The first, and most well-known, requirement is that only wines produced entirely in the region may label themselves as Champagne. This iconic sparkling wine uses a blend of three grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (although Dom Perignon uses just chardonnay and pinot noir, and blanc de blancs use entirely chardonnay grapes).
Each house has its own unique blend – called a cuvee – and it’s this exact balance that gives each champagne its own distinct taste. This selection is overseen by the ‘chef de cave’ the cellar master.
It was Dom Petrus (Pierre) Perignon who first insisted on only using the very best grapes from the most superior growers (known today as Premier cru vineyards). He was the first sparkling wine maker to taste the whole grapes first, to ensure the perfect blend. He also pioneered the practice of gently pressing the pinot noir grapes to releasetheir juice, but not the red colour of their skins, ensuring his Champagne retained its clear, golden hue.
This masterful blending and dedication to quality allowed him to elevate his Champagne beyond those of its rivals, with finer bubbles and a softer, smoother taste. Word spread quickly of his premium sparkling wine, and soon ‘Dom Perignon’ was gracing the dining tables of Kings and Queens.
The process of creating Champagne has changed very little over the centuries – more recently due to the regulatory demands of the industry. Vineyards are not allowed to be irrigated, so vines are forced to push their roots deep into the earth to find moisture. This allows them to access the rich minerals in the soil, which enhances the flavour of the grapes.
After carefully selecting, tasting and deciding on the blend the grapes are sent to be pressed. Taking from the lessons learned by Dom Perignon, the fruit is squeezed slowly and gently – just enough to release the juice, but not the colour of the red pinot noir and pinot meunier varieties.
The juice is stored in steel vats, where the first stage of fermentation occurs naturally. However, the resulting carbon dioxide is released, leaving a still wine. It’s not until yeast is added, and a second round of fermentation is encouraged, that the famous bubbles are created and, this time, contained.
Next, the liquid is left to mature: this is the bottles are delivered to their chalky underground home. They’re stacked into neat piles – sometimes dozens deep – in the gloomy tunnels, lit by a soft golden bulbs that prevents the precious contents from deteriorating.
It’s the chemical reaction that occurs when the yeast eats the sugar that creates the flavour of Champagne – the longer you leave the resulting sediment, the finer the bubbles and more delicately but complex the final taste. Prestige Champagnes are so smooth they literally melt away in your mouth, leaving none of the slightly ‘sticky’ aftertaste of non-vintages.
Regulations insist even the most basic sparkling wine must be matured for at least 15 months to earn the name Champagne, but many houses opt for longer. The process is referred to as being ‘on the lees’, which is the length of time the live yeast is left in the bottle before being removed.
At Moët & Chandon the minimum for their non-vintage Imperial blend is around two years, while their prestige wine, Dom Perignon, is around 12 years. At Taittinger, the minimum is three years, while their Comtes de Champagne blanc de blancs is aged between 8 and 10 years.
That’s a long time to wait for a single bottle to be ready to drink; which is why the cellar masters understandably cringe at the tradition of Champagne spraying.
Once the wine has properly matured the sediment needs to be removed – a process called disgorgement. The bottles are transferred to riddling racks, which hold the bottle at an angle to encourage the heavier particles to settle near the neck.
Then each bottle is hand-turned – one half-turn to the right, then one quarter-turn to the left – to slowly tease the sediment towards the cork. The upside-down bottle is dipped into a -25 degree liquid that freezes the residue. The pressure inside the bottle is such that as soon as you remove the cork, the sediment ice block simply shoots out.
From here, the bottles are re-corked, cleaned and labelled.
Contrary to what some people believe, the bulk of Champagne does not continue to improve over time. In fact, the non-vintage versions are timed to be perfect for drinking almost as soon as they go on sale. Vintage blends can be kept a bit longer, but it’s only the prestige bottles that continue to mature and improve.
As a rule of thumb so long as you’ve stored it correctly (on its side, in cool, dark temperatures) you can keep a bottle for the same length of time it has spent ‘on the lees’. So your Taittinger non-reserve can be kept for up to three years, while your Comtes de Champagne will reach its peak in a further 10 years, if you can resist popping it for another decade.
Some exceptional wines – like a particularly good vintage of Dom Perignon – will last even longer.
But unless you’re buying for an investment, do you really want to wait? In Reims and the surrounding villages it’s common for people to drink Champagne every day, as we might enjoy a beer or a glass of white wine.
So what are you waiting for? Start popping those corks – tchin tchin!
I joined the France Intense’s EPERNAY PICTURESQUE Champagne Day Tour (€187) which included a full day exploring the vineyards, the home of Dom Perignon in Hautevillers, the Moët & Chandon cellars, plus lunch and champagne tasting at two different venues.
For more assistance and advice on what to do in Champagne, contact the REIMS TOURISM OFFICE.
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