DO YOU SPEAK CHAMPAGNE
"Champagne has its own vocabulary that you would need to master to speak about Champagne like a true specialist. "
Champagne has its own codes and vocabulary which is very specific compared to still wine. Here is the meaning of the words or notions that you would need to master to speak about Champagne like a true specialist.
- ABOUT CHAMPAGNE-
Champagne AOC and AOP
“Champagne only comes from Champagne”
As for most French wine regions, Champagne AOC, or "Appellation d'Origine Controlé", is a strict guideline that outlines all the rules the winegrowers and winemakers must follow in order to produce Champagne. So Champagne is only from France and specifically from a specific area in Champagne region where the winemakers will follow Champagne AOC guidelines. The AOC system was replaced in 2012 by the AOP (Appellation d'Origine Protégée) system; one letter changed but the same principles remain.
Grapes & Grape varieties
Champagne is made mostly from 3 grape varieties: Pinot Noir, considered as the “Gold” of Champagne, Chardonnay, known as the “Silver” of Champagne, and Pinot Meunier the “Bronze” of Champagne. However, according to Champagne AOC/AOP rules, four other grape varieties are permitted, mostly for historical reasons, as they are rare in current usage (Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot blanc and Pinot gris).
Terroir & Cru
In Champagne, vineyards are distinguished according to the quality of their terroir and classified under “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” for the most outstanding ones.
Terroir is a French word referring to combined factors - such as climate, soil, slop, water supply… - that affect a vineyard and have an important impact on the quality and taste of the grapes grown on it. Along wine history, winemakers and wine lovers realized that different terroirs would bring wines of different quality and complexity.
In Champagne, vineyards are distinguished according to the quality of their terroir and classified under “Grand Cru” and “Premier Cru” for the most outstanding ones. Only 17 villages out of over 300 are classified as Grands Crus and 42 as Premiers Crus.
Armand de Brignac grapes are mostly coming from Grands Crus and Premiers Crus vineyards. However, Emilien Boutillat, the winemaker is more focused ensuring that the grapes are from the highest quality instead of their origin. Indeed, the Cru system dates from mid-20th century and with climate change and the differences in each vintage, relying only on the Cru classification is not guarantee for quality.
-ABOUT CHAMPAGNE MAKING-
The process for Champagne is initially very similar to still wine. Grapes are harvested then pressed in a pressoir to extract the juice. Due to the fragility of the grapes in Champagne, pressing is very light and slow. As a result, the juice does not come into significant contact with the skins and no color is imparted. The first portion of press is called “First press juice” and delivers the best taste profile with high freshness, vibrant fruit character, soft texture and balanced acidity.
Only including the “first press juice” in order to produce the very best champagnes possible is a winemaking signature of Armand de Brignac. This is what brings its outstanding freshness, length and elegance.
This is one of the most critical steps and it has has been raised to a true art form in Champagne. The classic Champagne style blends different grapes varieties, from various vineyards and on several harvests (also named Multi- vintage). This is a highly skilled task, combining as many as 70 different base wines (which change in character each year) into a consistent “house style” cuvée.
In Champagne, reserve wines are still wines made from previous vintages. They are blended with current vintage to bring richness, fullness and complexity to final Assemblage. These aged wines have the effect of making Champagne easier to drink.
Fermentation & Second fermentation
Fermentation is the natural process of transforming sugar naturally present inside fruit juices (or other liquids) into alcohol and Carbon Dioxide. The Champagne method is undergoing two fermentations. The second fermentation, which is the secret of Champagne making, is happening inside the bottle. As the CO2 is released, it is trapped inside the bottle and integrates into the wine, creating the sparkling.
Dosage & Liqueur d’Expedition
After second fermentation, sediments created inside the bottle are removed through the process of Disgorgement. The bottle is then topped off to its previous fill level with a “liqueur d’expedition” - which is still wine from Champagne with small amount of sugar. Dosage is required to balance the high acidity of Champagne. Sugar content will define style of Champagne.
Champagne Armand de Brignac is bringing a unique dosage, which comprises the finest base wine of the harvest, aged for one year in new French Oak. This winemaking touch, named “Touch of the Angels” by the Cattier family, provides subtle complexity to the finished cuvées.
-ABOUT STYLE OF CHAMPAGNES-
Cuvée refers a type of wine. Different cuvées can come from different grape varieties or different terroirs or show different sugar content… Hence there are specific terms to describe the different types of Champagnes.
“Several factors influence the style of Champagne: grape varieties, vintage and sugar content.”
Sugar content divides Champagnes into: Extra Brut (less than 6 grams of sugar per liter), Brut (6 -12 g/l), Extra Sec (12 – 20 g/l), Sec (17 – 35 g/l), Demi-Sec (35 – 50 g/l) Doux (>50g/l) . Brut are the most common Champagnes.
Vintage/ Non Vintage/Multi vintage
Vintage refers the year of the harvest of the wine, which will classifies Champagnes into 3 categories: non-vintage Champagnes – which are blend of more than one year of harvest – and vintage Champagnes - which are made only from one specific harvest and only in the best years. Armand de Brignac folds into another category which is not officially recognized by Champagne AOP but which is followed by many adepts of Champagne, the Multi-Vintage. Winemakers are blending a selection of the best vintages to bring more complexity but at the same time remaining on the strict quality selection of the best year of harvest.
In each bottle of Champagne Armand de Brignac, there is a blend of a trio of vintages. For instance, Armand de Brignac Gold Brut current release is assembling the three outstanding vintages 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Some specific cuvées are linked with the grape variety used. Blanc de Blancs (which means White from White in French) is made exclusively from white grapes like Chardonnay. And Blanc de Noirs (meaning White from Black) is made from red grapes like Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.
Choice of Champagne would be influence greatly by the cuvée style. You can read here more about Champagne and Food pairing.