The Brut-al Truth about Champagne

DSCF3885When you think of champagne, what comes to mind?  A white wine, dry to lightly sweet, with lovely lines of bubbles rising from the bottom of your glass?  Despite its extended history, champagne as we enjoy it now is a relatively new phenomenon.

So pour yourself a glass of your favorite champagne, sit back, and let me tell you a story.

Starting nearly 2000 years ago in the region that is now known as Champagne, grapevines planted by the Romans provided wines both red and white in hue.  These were basically still wines, although some had a bit of unintentional and uncontrolled sparkle, due to secondary fermentation. You can find their descendants today in the coteaux champenois, which are still red and white wines.  Wines made from the chalky soil of the Côte des Blancs were especially prone to having those pesky bubbles. (A brief refresher: the colder climate in Champagne means a later harvest, so the yeast doesn’t always complete its task before going dormant over the winter, then wakes up again in springtime, making bubbles which are trapped in the bottle.)

It wasn’t until the mid-1600’s that Champagne started to come into its own, both the region and its wines.  Given as a gift to Louis XIV upon his coronation in Reims, the Sun King became a big fan of these wines. They were enjoyed by his courtiers and many others throughout France, and soon abroad as well.  The English created bottles strong enough to withstand the pressure of the fizz without exploding (commonly around 6 atmospheres), allowing easier transport.

DSCF5406

wax over string on a modern champagne cork

wax over string on a modern champagne cork

Corks were tied onto the bottles with string (now wire muselet), and vins mousseux – sparkling wines – became more and more popular, especially among the party crowd (hmm, some things haven’t changed!).  As winemakers and cellarmasters learned more of the “whys” and “hows” of the champagne-making process, they were better able to control and predict how the wines would turn out.

wire muselets

wire muselets

 

Contrary to any tall tales you may have heard, the monk Dom Pérignon did not “invent” champagne, and he never said, “I have tasted the stars!”  At least, not in English.

The Final Resting Place of Dom Pérignon in Hautvillers

The Final Resting Place of Dom Pérignon in Hautvillers

However, as a smart and inventive cellarmaster, he is credited with a few important innovations, including the making of a clear white wine from red grapes.  This means that prior to the late 1600’s, all champagnes made with Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes would have been more or less rosé in color.  So “pink champagne” isn’t a new phenomenon, either!  My world is topsy-turvy!

In the 1700’s the champagne trade grew, both inside and outside France, although primarily their still wines.  In time, like a trail of bubbles in a glass, the sparkling wines began to gain followers and notoriety, and from the 1800’s they began to dominate the markets.

"Stained Glass" in the Taittinger Cellars

“Stained Glass” in the Taittinger Cellars

Let’s look at the styles of champagne available now, what they are and how they got their names.  Here are the levels, from driest to sweetest, shown in grams per liter:

Brut Nature/Sauvage (non-dosage) – 0 to 3g/L

Extra Brut – 0 to 6g/L

Brut – less than 12g/L

Extra Dry – 12 to 17g/L

Dry/Sec – 17 to 32g/L

Demi-Sec (half-dry) – 32 to 50g/L

Doux – more than 50g/L

If you’ve had your morning coffee, you probably noticed that there is some overlap between extra brut and brut nature.  It’s important to note that there can be some wiggle room here, as much as 3g/L higher or lower than listed above, and the producer can still use the same designation on the label. Brut nature or brut sauvage indicate that no sugar has been added, and you will sometimes see “no dosage” or “non-dosé” on the front or back label.  However, the champagne might not be bone-dry as one would expect, as there can still be a bit of natural residual sugar in the wine, especially in champagnes made from the harvests of warmer years (heat = maturity = more natural sugar in the grapes).

Why is BRUT drier than DRY?  When champagne first gained renown among the royalty over two hundred years ago, the preferred style was much sweeter than we might choose now (maybe something like wine coolers).  In the mid-1800’s, the British led the demand for drier champagnes, and although still very sweet to our modern palates, “dry” champagnes gained a foothold.  As tastes gradually changed from doux (sweet) to sec (dry by contrast), new levels had to be named.  What’s drier than dry? Extra dry!  And what comes next?  Brut (et tu, Brute?), which would have seemed pretty brutal to Louis XIV, then extra brut, and finally that most savage of creatures, the champagne without any added sugar at all.

Brut is the most common and best known designation, yet it can vary widely in sweetness.  The big houses often keep their biggest selling cuvée at 10-14g/L, targeting the mass market which prefers a sweeter brut champagne.  By contrast, many of the independent champagne producers are pushing the edge, diminishing the level of dosage in their wines and gaining a following among aficionados.

There may still be controversy in some corners of the globe, but we are very clearly seeing the effects of global warming on the maturity of the grapes in Champagne.  The natural sugar levels found in the grapes during the time of the French kings was much lower than it is today, even in our cooler years.  Thus the acidity level was higher, and in order to make a palatable drink, and one which could be sold without extended aging, more sugar had to be added.  Add to that the natural human inclination towards sweetness (nicely explained in Michael Pollan’s fascinating book “The Botany of Desire”), and you have the 17th century version of Coke™, about as far from brut sauvage as you can get!

Now it’s your turn!  Have you tried a brut nature non-dosage champagne?  Did you like it?  Would you pair it with food or drink it on its own?

 

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