10 Things you would love to know about Champagne

What to know about Champagne

By Renate Engelbrecht

Wednesday, Apr 10

It’s almost time for the annual Johannesburg Cap Classique, Champagne & Bubbles Festival. With that in mind, here are a few things you might not have known about Champagne. Things that differentiates it from other wines like Cap Classique (which is produced in the same method to Champagne, but in South Africa).

When can you actually call it Champagne?

It’s only those who make their wines within a specific northeastern region of France who are allowed to call their products Champagne. But, it’s also not just the geographical boundaries that define the wine. The region also enforces strict appellation laws. Grape-growing and winemaking practices are closely controlled here, affecting things like the grape varieties used, vineyard and press yields, and the method by which the wine gains its bubbles.

What you would love to know about Champagne

Method Champenoise

With Champagne, secondary fermentation – the process which adds the bubbles to the wine – must take place in the bottle. Method Champenoise or méthode traditionnelle is the traditional process requiring that winemakers start fermentation after they add a mixture of yeast, wine and sugar (called liqueur de tirage) to the still base wine. This then releases carbon dioxide, which turns a wine into a bubbly. At the end of the fermentation process, yeasts die and become lees, remaining in contact with the wine until it is later removed by the winemaker.

Only seven grape varieties can make Champagne

Winemakers can use seven varieties of grapes in their Champagne blends. It includes five white grapes (Chardonnay, Petite Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Fromenteau), as well as two red grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier). The most common blends of Champagne would be a combination of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, but there are other combinations too. Wines that are made with white grapes only, are referred to as blanc de blancs, while less-common blanc de noirs are made exclusively from red grapes.

What does NV stand for?

NV refers to Non-vintage Champgnes and it is the most common and affordable style of Champagne. Producers use grapes and grape must from various vintages to create a specific flavour profile (often referred to as house style). This process helps the winemaker to maintain consistency throughout the years. In contrast, Vintage Champagnes are made from just one harvest’s grapes and appear only in the best years, selected by the Champagne house’s chef de cave (also known as cellar master).

Cap Classique and Champagne

Why does Champagne smell like bread?

Many Champagnes have the distinctive smell of bread on the nose and that is mainly because of the wine’s contact with lees. This adds texture, richness and complexity to the wine, as well as yeasty aromas and flavours. The earlier mentioned appellation laws dictate how long Champagne has to stay in contact with lees, with non-vintage bottles remaining on lees for a minimum of twelve months, and vintage Champagnes requiring a minimum of three years on lees. Many Champagnes age for much longer, though, with an average of two to three years for non-vintage wines and four to ten years for vintage Champagne.

The vital ingredient to Champagne

Sugar is vital in Champagne production and can be added up to three times in the winemaking process. The first addition assists in raising the alcohol level during the primary fermentation if grapes don’t achieve enough ripeness in the vineyard. The next addition starts the secondary fermentation, which adds the bubbles. The third time sugar is added is called the dosage and that will determine the sweetness of the Champagne. Champagnes’ sweetness range from bone-dry brut nature (containing less than 3g/l of residual sugar) to sweet doux (containing upwards of 50g/l).

Pressure for precious wine

Champagne is generally bottles with a pressure of five to six atmospheres. That equals about double the pressure in your car’s tires! There are a few tips to releasing the cork safely without losing precious wine… After removing the bottle’s foil and wire cage, keep a thumb firmly pressed on top of the cork. Then, slowly twist the base of the bottle. The cork will loosen gradually until it’s finally released with a soft hiss or a small pop. If the cork or your hand has moisture from bottle condensation, use a clean, dry cloth to help keep a steady grip. You can also avoid buildup of extra pressure by chilling the bottle.

Alternatively, go bid and sabrage the bottle – a great way to impress your guests! The process is not as dangerous as it seems, but it does involve a glass and a sharp knife, so I would suggest you practice before you attempt it in front of a crowd.


Seal your Champagne

When you’re not serving an already opened Champagne any longer, keep it sealed and cool to prolong its effervescence. You will need a high-quality Champagne stopper if you’d like to keep the refrigerated Champagne’s bubbles for three to five days.

The perfect pair

If there are two things that make the perfect pair, it’s Champagne and food. Champagne is a lovely wine to have with food, working well with capapés, as well as meal pairings. The high acidity cuts through rich foods, while its savoury, yeasty character balances sweetness. It also provides a crisp finish to any meal. Furthermore, it’s also a great wine to do high-low pairings with, complementing dishes like fried chicken and pizza equally well.

Champagne vs Cap Classique

Which glass should you use for Champagne?

I love a traditional Champagne flute. It’s tall and skinny and it preserves the bubbles wonderfully. But, it’s by no means the only glass to use for Champagne. A good-quality white wine glass works just as well, assisting in pronouncing the Champagne’s intense aromas. In fact, many industry professionals prefer the latter for exactly that reason. Alternatively, the tulip glass is tall, but wide-bodied, and a happy medium.

If you’re a lover of all things bubbly, be sure to pop in at this year’s Johannesburg Cap Classique, Champagne and Bubbles Festival. Read more about the event here.


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