Pleasure / May 2019

The Oenophile: Mapping Champagne

Christie’s International Director of Wine, Tim Triptree MW, this month focuses on the finer points of fizz.

With the summer (hopefully!) on its way, thoughts turn to what to drink when the weather heats up. Something crisp and refreshing and ideally well-chilled. Champagne will be high on this list of summer drinks. Champagne should be served cold, between 8-10 degrees and has lovely bright floral and citrus aromatics with mouthwatering lemon, lime, and red fruits flavours with high levels of refreshing zesty acidity.

Champagne is one of the most northerly wine regions in Europe, located northeast of Paris and therefore the climate is cooler and the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes (there are seven permitted varieties in Champagne; including the lesser-known Petit Meslier, Arbane, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc, but the vast majority are made from the classic three grapes) do not gain as much sugars compared to warmer climates and retain high levels of acidity. In fact, the harvested grapes in Champagne typically only have enough sugars that, once fermented, make a base wine of about 10 or 11 degrees’ alcohol. The second fermentation, which gives the wines their fizz and finished alcohol level around 12.5% ABV, is created by adding extra sugars and yeasts (called liqueur de tirage) to the still base wines before reclosing and allowing the slow fermentation in bottle (called prise de mousse) and ageing on the lees (which gives the Champagnes the characteristic brioche, toast and fresh baked bread aromatics – termed autolytic character). This high level of acidity means Champagne is vibrant, refreshing and ideal for warmer weather. Traditionally, in order to balance the high acidity, sugars (called liqueur d'expédition) were then again added at the disgorgement process when the dead yeast cells are removed from the bottle so the wines are clear and bright. This is called dosage.

Champagnes are available in different levels of sweetness from bone dry with no added sugars (no dosage which are called Brut Zero or Brut Nature and must be naturally less than 3 grams per litre (g/l) of residual sugars). The next level is Extra Brut, which has less than 6 grams added followed by Brut with less than 12 grams. There are also other lesser known and harder to find styles called Extra Dry (12-17 g/l) and Sec (17-32 g/l), Demi-sec: 32-50 g/l, while the sweetest is Doux with more than 50 g/l. My preferred style is Extra Brut, but I also enjoy Zero dosage which is a particularly good match with sushi and sashimi, and Brut (dosage levels for Brut have reduced over recent years).

Tags

Contributor

Tim Triptree MW