Star of festivities and major events in France and in the world, champagne is a sparkling wine of excellence. For centuries, its bubbles fascinated and intrigued the masses.
Speciality of the Champagne-Ardenne region (part of the vineyard stretches to Ile-de-France and Picardy), especially in the Marne department (which includes 67% of the 34 000 hectares of vineyards that make up the AOC), champagne can be white or rosé.
To obtain the latter, red and white wine from the Champagne region are mixed together. This practice is allowed only for champagne and reveals one of the major aspects of the elaboration of this wine: assemblage is omnipresent.
Assemblage is a technique that involves mixing wines from different grape varieties and different wine estate. Widespread in the French wine world, assemblage is almost a religion for Champagne growers. It is near Epernay (Marne) that the technique was developed by the Benedictine monk Dom Perignon (1639-1715), who is also behind the cork used to seal bottles of the precious sparkling liquid.
It is in Champagne that the assemblage is the most elaborate and complex. While the assemblage of still wines only affects grapes and vineyards, champagne houses will add a third element: the vintage. The multiple combinations of varieties (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay), vineyards and vintages (implying that the vast majority of bottles is not vintage) allows champagne houses to produce annually a quality champagne more or less equal to that of the previous vintage.
Champagne being a sparkling wine, the question of the origin of bubbles is often questioned. After assemblage, the champagne, which is yet a still wine, will experience a second fermentation in the bottle this time (the first taking place in tank after harvest pressing).
This is when the wine acquires its effervescence: once tirage or bottling is done, a liquor called “de tirage”, is added, which contains sugar and yeast that will provoque the ‘mousse’. Other steps will follow, which are part of the process generally referred to as ‘Méthode Champenoise’: ageing on lees, riddling (to raise the deposit established by the secondary fermentation towards the neck), disgorging (removal of deposit), dosage (adding sugar to sweeten the champagne), capping, ageing and cladding (to put the cap and label). The champagne is now ready to be enjoyed.
Some famous champagne houses include: Anselme Selosse , Bollinger , Dom Perignon , Jacquesson, Krug , Ruinart , Salon , Taittinger .
English wine producers are taking advantage of global warming which hits the chalky soil of the south of the island to produce more sparkling white wines. The Queen herself produces it! Produced by the same method as in Champagne … the potential of these English bubbles is real and some investors, notably the French, have understood this.
If the vines is centuries old in England, the Albion cold mists have long slowed the ripening of the grapes. Yet the situation is changing, due to global warming. Since a handful of English winemakers revived the viticulture in the 50s, the vineyard grows each year (+ 24% between 2008 and 2010). Today, there have been 1 200 hectares of small vineyards, located mainly in the south, a few kilometres from the coast, in Kent, Sussex and Dorset. There, the soil of chalk and limestone Kimmeridgian are similar to some soils of Champagne and Chablis. No fewer than 600 clones were studied to adapt the forty varieties allowed on British soil: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Bacchus are the main varieties for these sparkling wines.
In the cellar, the same method is applied as in Champagne; however here English producers call it the ‘Merret method’ named after Christopher Merret who apparently made sparkling wine some… thirty years before Dom Perignon. Unlike Champagne Houses, English Houses do not have a singular style issue from the assemblage of several years. Almost all wines are vintage. The rotation in the cellar is therefore fast. Bottles are on sale twenty-fourth months after harvest and out of stock a few months later. English Houses price their wines on the same level as the Champagne Houses.
With 380 wine estates and 2.2 million bottles produced, England remains a small player next to Champagne (310 million bottles). The land attracts nethertheless some investors. Among them, Steven Spurrier, British wine expert, in the Bride Valley (South-Ouest), or Christian Seely director of Axa Millesimes, from his Hampshire vineyard. Queen Elisabeth II has also planted 16 700 plants of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier in the park of Windsor Castle.
From Kent to Sussex through Dorset some Estate of English bubbles are notable:
Biddenden vineyards; Bluebell Vineyard Estates; Breaky Bottom; Camel Valley; Chapel Down; Hush Heath Estate; Meopham Valley Vineyard; Nyetimber; Plumpton Estate; Ridgeview Wine Estate; South Ridge; The Bolney Estate; Warden Abbey;