Champagne Guide: Everything You Need To Know
A glass of fizz, a bottle of bubbles, a magnum of champers – whatever you call it, or however you drink it, everyone associates champagne with celebrations, toasts and special occasions.
But behind the glamour of the premieres and parties, the French bubbly stuff is a very interesting drink with a rich history. As part of a series of wine guides, this blog post answers all the questions about champagne you might have. It’s here to help you pick the perfect bottle for an upcoming celebration or as a gift for that friend who knows their fizz.
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France using what’s known as ‘the traditional method’. It’s produced under the European Union rules of the appellation that demands specific vineyard practices, grapes and grape-pressing, there has been this level of protection since the late 1800s and it was even reaffirmed in the Treaty of Versailles.
Brut champagne, or dry champagne, is the most popular style. It’s usually paler and less sweet due to its low dosage of sugar. However, demi-sec, also known as half-dry or semi-sweet champagne, is growing in popularity.
Champagne has been associated with royalty, royal society and the aristocracy since the 17th century which has led to its enduring popularity amongst the rich and famous in Europe, the United States and beyond. It has never been more accessible however and we can now all enjoy a glass of champagne on special occasions – top tip: our wine team often have amazing offers on our most popular bottles
Another notable contribution to the invention of sparkling wine is that of Christopher Merret, the English physician and scientist, who was the first to document the addition of sugar in the production of sparkling wine.
How to store champagne
Bottles of champagne can age for a number of years after production. If you’re keeping your bottle for a bit of time here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- Keep the bottles away from bright light.
- If possible, store your bottle in a cool place where the temperature is relatively constant.
Who invented champagne?
Like all good cultural icons, champagne has a cracking origin story. Champagne is said to be invented by the Benedictine monk, Dom Pérignon. When adding sugar to a wine to initiate a second fermentation to keep the bubbles, it is said that when he tasted the newly sparkling wine for the first time he said, “Come quickly, for I am tasting the stars.”
Alas, it’s not true and there are recorded uses of this method up to eight years before the famous monk tried it – maybe even in England (but best not mention that in France). Dom Pérignon did, however, contribute much to the development of champagne production in Champagne and his legacy lives on to this day.
How is champagne made?
There are nine key stages in the production of champagne: the harvest, the first fermentation, the assemblage, the second fermentation, the ageing, the riddling, the disgorging, the dosage, and finally, the corking.
1. The harvest
The grapes (seven varieties are permitted, although most vintages just use chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) used in production are picked by hand between August and October, the harvest time depends on how ripe the grapes are. To ensure high standards are met, the wine producers are not allowed to pick the grapes with a machine. Once the best grapes, red and white grapes are used but the colour remains in the skins, have been handpicked, they are carefully pressed, making sure the juice is clear white.
2. The first fermentation
The next step is the first fermentation. This is simply allowing the juice to ferment in a tank, or as some producers prefer, a barrel.
3. The assemblage
Assemblage simply means blending and this is the process of combining the white wines and reserve wines (wines held back from previous vintages for the production of non-vintage champagne) to create the all-important champagne base. This process usually starts in early spring, a full five months after the grape harvest.
4. The second fermentation
The ‘fermentation in a bottle stage’ is a key stage of the process of champagne-making as it’s when the bubbles are added. The wine is bottled, sealed with a cap and placed in a cool cellar where it will ferment slowly and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, which will then turn the still wine into sparkling wine.
5. The aging
The fermentation process lasts several months, however, the champagne continues to age in the cool cellar for several more years resulting in a toasty, yeasty character.
6. The riddling
Riddling is the removal of the dead yeast cells, this is achieved by turning the bottles upside down and turning them slightly every day until the cells float into the bottleneck.
7. The disgorging
This is the final stage of production. The bottle is kept upside down while the neck is frozen in an ice-salt bath resulting in the formation of a plug of frozen wine containing the dead yeast cells. Once the bottle cap is removed, the pressure of the carbon dioxide gas in the bottle forces the plug of frozen wine out, leaving behind clear champagne.
8. The dosage
The next stage of production is the dosage. This is when white wine, brandy and sugar, a mixture that differs by champagne house, is added to adjust the sweetness level of the wine and to top up the bottle. This procedure decides whether the champagne will be Brut Nature, Extra Brut, Brut, Extra Dry, Dry, Semi Dry or Doux.
9. The corking
Opening a bottle and hearing the pop is one of the best things about drinking champagne. And this is where the magic happens. The bottle is corked and the cork is wired down to create the high internal pressure of the carbon dioxide in the champagne.
Where is champagne made?
Under EU law, the name ‘champagne’ can only be used for sparkling wine made in the historical Champagne region in the northeast of France. Located just 100 miles outside Paris, the Champagne province is also split into five wine-producing districts: Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The principal grapes grown in the region include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
Is champagne vegan?
The majority of champagnes are vegan-friendly but always check as a small number use animal products in the final steps of production. To make things easier, you can filter to show only vegan champagnes on ocado.com
Head over to our Champagne aisle to shop the full range >