When it comes to champagne, it is safe to say that people generally know that it is made out of grapes. However, do you know that not all grapes are qualified to be processed into champagne? They can be made into sparkling wine but not champagne grapes as only specific grapes can turn into champagne.
Also, just to be clear, there are two types of champagne grapes. The term “champagne grapes” can mean the type of grapes used to make champagne and it is also a super-sweet and extra small table grape meant for eating. In this article, we are talking about the grapes that turn into champagne after fermentation.
Types of champagne grapes
There are three main types of grape varieties. They are called the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier. Sound familiar? That is because it accounts for 99.7 percent of the champagne grapes. There are, of course, less popular ones that can be found to make champagne such as the Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Arbanne and petit Meslier varieties but these are not as popular and are few.
Each of these grapes add a certain quality to the champagne. Depending on the soil and climate, different grapes will thrive better.
Besides the three main types of grapes, the minor grape varieties cannot be replanted and are of little consequence.
The reason why most champagnes are blends of pinot noir, chardonnay and meunier is because each grape has different strengths to contribute to the final champagne blend.
Let’s take a look at our three main varieties of grapes in more detail.
1. Pinot Noir
This is the most widespread grape variety when it comes to champagne. About 38% of all grapes grown in Champagne vineyards, a northeastern region in France are from the pinot noir variety.
Location wise, it dominates in the regions of Reims Mountain, the Aube and the Côte des Bar.
Pinot Noir adds to the champagne body, structure and a complex flavour to it. This is a red grape.
Types of champagne that are made from a 100% pinot noir grapes are Blanc de noirs.
To taste champagne made from pinot noir, you can try the ColletEspritCoutur, although it has a blend of pinot noir and our next grape, chardonnay!
Some random facts about this variety of grapes are that it is highest in sugar among the three varieties and have the thickest skins!
Chardonnay covers roughly 30% of the Champagne wine region. It is usually harvested from the Côte des blancs
Chardonnay adds to the champagne a certain freshness, elegance and finesse and is known for its floral aroma. It is considered a white grape.
For champagne that will be kept a long time, chardonnay is the best champagne grape to use. Often, due to chardonnay adding the delicate finish to a champagne, it is used in the most prestigious of champagnes.
Many champagne producers love to blend the Blanc de blancs champagne which is made from chardonnay grapes.
One popular champagne made entirely from chardonnay grapes is the Suenen Blanc De Blanc.
The remaining percentage of grapes in the Champagne wine region is made out of meunier grapes.
To grow, meunier grapes tend to bud later in the spring. This means that it stands the cold slightly better and can grow in areas where pinot noir and chardonnay cannot. Areas such as the Marne River Valley is where this grape can grow where the other two cannot.
However, one disadvantage of meunier grapes is that it tends to age more quickly after going through the manufacturing process.
This is a red variety and is related to pinot noir. Some call it a cousin of pinot noir.
Many producers think that this variety is not as fine as the other two which means meunier is not often used in the more prestigious champagnes. However, it is widely used in non-vintage blends where it is valuable to soften or round out other wines.
Meunier grapes add fruitiness and floral aromas to the champagne.
What grapes are not allowed in champagne?
Legally, only the grapes that are grown and produced in the Champagne region of France can be called champagne.
The Romans were actually the first to plant vineyards in this area of northeastern France.
Although sparkling wines are just as delicious as champagne, if the grapes are not from Champagne, they technically cannot be called champagne.
How are the grapes harvested?
Every harvest of grapes is different. The dependency on the weather, soil and simply luck, plays a big part in the quality of grapes harvested.
These grapes that will eventually be used to make champagne, differ in terms of grape ripeness, potential alcohol level and acidity. Therefore, picking the right moment to harvest grapes is essential to get great champagne!
The process of harvesting grapes goes like this:-
- Ripening observation
Twice a week as the grapes start to change colour and ripen, samples are taken from the different plots throughout the Champagne area.
These samples are then checked for different things such as the rate of colour change, weight, estimated sugar level and acidity content. The grapes are also checked for grey rot.
The data is then conveyed to the Comité Champagne and all the relevant technical officers. This allows them to attend a pre-harvest meeting with a clear idea of when picking and harvesting should start.
- Grape pulp extraction
Champagne is produced from the grape berry pulp. This pulp contains organoleptic compounds and elements required for the bubbles effect and this pulp alone can deliver the desired clear and pale juice.
Three quarters of all champagne are made from black grapes. Pulp extraction is to avoid colouring or staining the musts when pressing the black grapes.
Therefore, harvesters have to manually pick and select whole, undamaged clusters of grapes. These grapes must remain that way up till the pressing.
- Harvesting by hand
In order to ensure that the grapes remain whole and undamaged, manually picking grapes is a must.
Pickers usually work really hard for three-weeks. After that, the grapes will be past their best and the grapes will reach their peak of ripeness at the same time.
Harvesting by hand involves many people and employees such as pickers, porters, loaders, drivers, forklift operators and press operators.
These are the basic necessities before sending off the grapes to be turned into our favourite exclusive sparkling wine.
How is champagne made?
There are a few steps when it comes to making champagne. Of course, the champagne grapes are involved and can only be picked from the Champagne region of France.
Step 1: Selecting the cuveé
The cuveé is the base wine for making champagne. It can also be from the variety of grapes as stated above.
Step 2: Assemblage.
This is the French art of blending white wines to create the base for champagne. To get really good champagne, this step is crucial.
Step 3: Tirage (second fermentation)
Sugar, yeast and other yeast nutrients are added. The whole concoction is called a tirage.
This is stored in a thick glass bottle and sealed then placed in a cool cellar of 55 to 60°F. The tirage is allowed to slowly ferment.
Step 4: Aging
Yeast cells will die as the fermentation proceeds. Once all fermentation process is complete, the champagne will still continue to age in the cool cellar for several more years.
During this period of time, also called aging, the yeast cells will split open and spill into the solution. This is why champagne has yeasty flavours in it.
Step 5: Riddling
The dead yeast cells are removed after the aging process is completed. This process is known as riddling or in France as “Le Remuage”.
To go through this process, the bottle of champagne is placed upside down in a holder at a degree of 75 degrees.
Everyday, the bottle is turned one eighth of a turn while it is kept upside down. This will force the dead yeast cells to the neck of the bottle where it can be removed.
Step 6: Disgorging
The bottle of champagne is kept upside down and the next is frozen in an ice-salt bath.
When the bottle cap is removed, pressure in the bottle from carbon dioxide gas forces the plug of frozen wine (containing dead yeast cells) out of the bottle.
What is left behind is clear champagne.
Step 7: Adding the dosage
Any extra ingredients such as white wine, brandy or sugar is added to the bottle to adjust the sweetness level of the champagne.
Step 8: Corking
The bottle of champagne is corked to secure the high internal pressure of carbon dioxide and is ready to be served!
Making champagne is a very complicated process. That is probably why it costs more than your usual sparkling wine. From the selection of grapes to the picking and harvesting and the process of actually making the champagne, it involves many people and several steps. Appreciate the champagne you drink as many hands were used in order to bring the bottle to you!