Champagne, also known as bubbly, champers, fizz, and sparkling wine, is an effervescent wine originating in France’s ancient Champagne region, approximately 160 kilometers or 100 miles northeast of Paris. Although Champagne is not new to the party scene — monks have made it since the 17th century — it is today’s most popular party drink. And as a fun fact, the famous Dom Pérignon Champagne from Moët & Chandon was named after a Benedictine monk who was instrumental in improving production methods and quality control of this most famous beverage.
So if you’re welcoming your charter guests on board, just passed a challenging exam, or are welcoming in the New Year, you will more often than not have a glass of Champagne in your hand. Moreover, I would also go so far as to say that Champagne is France’s answer to influencing human gaiety — a social elixir and icebreaker of sorts, it gets people mixing in the happiest way possible.
All Champagne is sparkling wine, but not all sparkling wine is Champagne — sparkling wines such as prosecco, Lambrusco, Cava, and Sekt are similar to Champagne but are made by using significantly different methods. So for this article, we will go old school and examine the traditional methods behind the making of the celebrated Champagne.
Making this delectable happy drink is quite an intricate process— the méthode champenoise is exclusive to the Champagne region of France. And in 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) appreciated the Champagne region’s traditional wine-making skills and awarded several locations with the prestigious heritage site title.
Like all wine-making, Champagne begins with harvesting the grapes by hand once the optimal ripeness and balance between acidity and sugar levels have been reached. In Champagne, all producers must harvest by hand to not bruise or destroy the grape in the harvesting process.
The grapes used to make Champagne are usually Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes. The Chardonnay grape results in a finely balanced Blanc Champagne. And the Pinot grapes add layers to the fruitiness and acidity levels. Blending the characteristics of the three grapes is quite a skill and results in a finely bubbled, elegant Champagne, but the complex process is a detail that many Champagne makers find hard to reveal.
“Champagne is one of the elegant extras in life.” – Charles Dickens
After the grapes have been sorted by hand, they go into a basket-shaped pneumatic press. This process presses the juice from the grapes instead of crushing the grapes, allowing the producers to extract the juice from the black and white grapes while adhering to the strict quantity allowance controlled by Champagne appellation laws.
From there, the juice is placed into large vats where the best portion is separated. This vin de cuvée is reserved for the premium Champagne range. Once in the vats, the sediment will settle and be removed before the first fermentation, or triage, which occurs like any other white wine. This process will happen naturally with the help of a little yeast and sugar. From there, the wine is blended and bottled.
Unlike other sparkling wine where the second fermentation process occurs in the tank (via the more affordable tank method), Champagne adopts the traditional method, whereby the second fermentation process happens in the bottles, which is far more labor-intensive. This creates alcohol and carbon dioxide in the wine. Once the bottles are capped, the carbon dioxide has nowhere to go and is absorbed into the wine, causing it to go fizzy.
Next is the aging process. For example, Champagne requires a minimum of 15 months of aging before it can be sold on the open market and 36 months for vintage Champagne.
But what Champage should you purchase? This is, of course, a nonsensical question as it’s impossible to answer as taste is subjective. But as a superyacht steward/ess, in addition to the pre-selected charter guest supplies, you must have a decent Champagne on board for those just-in-case moments, so I recommend having ample amounts of the following: Veuve Clicquot Brut Yellow Label, which is very affordable, always popular with the charter guests, and easy to drink; Taittinger Brut Champagne, which has a higher quantity of chardonnay and pairs nicely with oysters; and Cristal Brut Champagne, should the boss want to treat their guests.
Champagne, like other wines, has an optimal temperature for storing and serving. As discussed last month, wine doesn’t like to be moved about, does not like direct sunlight, and likes to be served at an optimal temperature. So, as a steward/ess, you may have control over the lighting element, but you can forget about storing it in a calm, still place unless you’re on the hard for a refit project.
The best advice I can offer is to store it as best you can out of direct sunlight and in a dark place, like a cupboard or under the beds. Keeping the Champagne in the fridge is not the best idea, as this can destroy the flavor, so always chill the Champagne directly before serving — for approximately three hours in the refrigerator or 30 minutes in an ice bucket to the ideal temperature of 50°F to 53.6°F or 10°C to 12°C. That way, you will not mask the flavors and aromas with an over-chilled Champagne. The next step is to simply serve your guests.
This article was originally published in the June 2023 issue of Dockwalk.