The Making of ... Fine Champagne
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It's only champagne if it comes from Champagne. At least, that's how Europeans see it. In France and the rest of the European Union, it's illegal to sell any wine labeled as champagne unless it comes from the region northeast of Paris that has been producing the stuff since the 17th century. The U.S. and most other countries have no such laws. Still, non-European wine makers often bow to Old World tradition, marketing their bubbly simply as sparkling wine made by the méthode champenoise or méthode traditionnelle.
Certainly no one takes champagne-making more seriously than the French. Government regulations, in effect since 1927, spell out every step of the process. For starters, grapes used in champagne can be grown only on specified plots in the Champagne region, where the chalky soil is ideal for growing pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinot meunier grapes—the only varieties permitted for use in champagne. Oh, and the grapes must be picked only by hand.
Other regulations—and there are many—determine the quantity that can be harvested, how much juice can be squeezed from a given amount of grapes, how the juice is fermented, and how long the champagne must be aged before it is offered for sale. The regulations even specify that the word "champagne" must appear on the cork as well as the label.
While champagne-making methods haven't changed much over the past century, ownership of some leading champagne houses has. The global No. 1 producer nowadays is LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the Paris-based luxury-goods giant. It has assembled a portfolio of brands including Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, and Moët & Chandon. Drinks group Pernod Ricard, also based in Paris, recently picked up the Mumm and Perrier-Jouet champagne brands in a bid to increase its market share.
What champagne lovers care most about, though, is finding the perfect bubbly for that special occasion. How to begin? One important aspect is sweetness. The principal categories of champagne, from driest to sweetest, are: Extra Brut, Brut, Extra-Dry, Dry or Sec, Demi-Sec, and Doux. But connoisseurs also consider other factors, including the champagne's age and color, and what blend of grapes it contains. While most champagnes are blended from several years' harvests, during exceptional years producers set aside part of the harvest to create champagnes from a single vintage, or millésimé.
Click here for a slide show on making Veuve Clicquot.