Sparkling wine comes in many styles - white, pink, red, dry, sweet, light or rich - however one style stands out above all others - Champagne. We are now mature enough to know that Champagne only comes from that special region two hours northeast of Paris as defined by the Appellation Controllee system which is in effect a government guarantee of both the wine's origin and quality.
Winemaking is also proscribed by the Methode Traditionelle (Traditional Method) also used by other quality sparkling winemakers around the world. In Champagne only three varieties are allowed: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. If made from Chardonnay exclusively it is known as Blanc de Blancs which creates more austere, linear styles. The majority of Champagne made is non-vintage (NV) ie. from several different vintages to create a consistent product from year to year, commonly known as the 'house style'. The best years in terms of fruit quality may be declared 'vintage' by the governing body (CIVC). Not every year is a 'vintage' year so each 'Vintage Champagne' will have unique and distinctive characters. The critical stage in Champagne production is the assemblage when the various components which go to make up the cuvee (blend) are assembled prior to secondaryfermentation in capped bottles when yeast and a small amount of sugar are added to the blend. This generates carbon dioxide which infuses itself through the wine.
After secondary fermentation the wine is left on the dead yeast cells (lees) for an extended period of time - by law a minimum of 18 months for NV and 3 years for vintage, often much longer. Over a period of time the lees start to break down imparting distinctive characters (known as yeast autolysis) into the Champagne. At the same time binding of the CO2 into the wine means finer and finer bubbles (mousse) are generated. Finally the lees are removed by riddling (remuage) and disgorgement with a little liqueur added for balance (dosage) before the cork is inserted. Given the time and labour which goes into each bottle produced is it any wonder that Champagne is one of the world's truly great and most complex wines.