Champagne is a wine-producing region in the far north of France, near Paris, where the signature sparkling white wine is produced. Though the term is sometimes used as a generic description of sparkling white wines in the style of the wines of Champagne, this is an incorrect usage, and the term sparkling white should be used instead. To produce the bubbles in this wine, a technique referred to as the methode traditionnelle or traditional method is used. In this method, the base wine which will become Champagne is bottled with a small amount of yeast and sugar to trigger a second stage of fermentation in the wine. This fermentation gives off some gas within the bottle, which acts as carbonation.
Since this process leaves a bit of sediment in the bottle, and Champagne is traditionally a clear wine, the sediment is shaken into the neck of the bottle, frozen, and removed in a lump. This extra bit is then replaced with a bit of wine, and often some sugar — collectively known as the dosage. Champagne is made drier by not adding sugar during this process, in which case it is labeled extra Brut.
Champagne is produced as a blend between the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes. The amount of each of these grapes differs from shipper to shipper, and some wines — such as blanc de blancs or blanc de noir — use only Chardonnay grapes or only Pinot Noir grapes. There are three primary levels of quality within any given Champagne shipper. Non-vintage uses grapes blended from a number of years, vintage uses all grapes from one specific year, and prestige cuvée uses all grapes from one specific year, from the first pressing, and has aged for a longer period of time. Not every year produces either vintage or prestige varieties, though recently about one-in-three years have done so.
Champagne is designed be drunk upon purchase, and in nearly all cases is not meant to be collectible. A non-vintage variety will begin losing quality within only three or four years, while prestige may last up to 15 years without degrading. This wine is normally drunk from either a flute or tulip glass, both of which are skinny and tall. This shape allows the scents of the wine to reach their full potential, and helps the bubbles last for longer than in flatter, larger-bowled glasses.
The bubbles offer a wonderful opportunity to evaluate the wine by sight. A good Champagne should have the tiniest bubbles possible, and they should last for longer than seems possible. Sparkling wines from other parts of the world — especially those which artificially add carbonation or use tank methods to create bubbling — have much larger bubbles, and the wine will go flat much more quickly than true varieties.
Champagne can range in texture and style greatly, depending on the mix of grapes used, the dosage, and the shipper who produced it. There are extremely light Champagnes, such as those produced by Lanson, and those which are as full as one could wish for, most notably those of Krug and Bollinger. There are over 100 different producers in France, and each produces its own unique style of wine, ensuring that for nearly any occasion or dish, there is an ideal match.