Nine things to know about Champagne ahead of the festival

The Champagne & Bubbles Festival in Sandton is your chance to taste some of the finest French bubbles

18 April 2024 - 13:31 By Staff Reporter
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A festival to celebrate fabulous bubbly.
A festival to celebrate fabulous bubbly.
Image: Supplied

In celebration of the upcoming Champagne & Bubbles Festival in May here are nine things you should know about Champagne that are sure to make you a bubbly connoisseur:

  1. Only wines made within a specific northeastern French region can use the labelling term Champagne. 
  2. When making Champagne, secondary fermentation — the process that adds bubbles to wine — must take place in the bottle. Known as the method champenoise or méthode traditionnelle, the process requires that winemakers start fermentation after they add a mixture of yeast, wine and sugar, called liqueur de tirage, to the still base wine. The process releases carbon dioxide, making the wine bubbly. When fermentation ends, yeasts die and become lees, remaining in contact with the wine until they’re later removed by the winemaker.
  3. Champagne winemakers can use seven varieties of grapes in their blends. The list includes five white grapes — Chardonnay, Petite Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Fromenteau as well as two red grapes — Pinot noir and Pinot Meunier. 
  4. Nonvintage (NV) Champagnes are the most common (and affordable) style of the wine. Producers use grapes and grape must from multiple vintages to create a specific flavour profile, or “house style”. Vintage Champagnes contain grapes from just one harvest. 
  5. Appellation laws dictate the duration of time Champagne stays in contact with lees. Nonvintage bottles must remain for a minimum of 12 months, and vintage Champagne requires three years. In practice, most Champagnes age for much longer, with an average of two to three years for nonvintage wines and four to 10 years for vintage Champagne.
  6. The average bottle of Champagne is bottled with a pressure of five to six atmospheres, about double the pressure in car tyres. A few key tips can help release the cork safely without losing precious wine. After removing the bottle’s foil and wire cage, keep a thumb firmly pressed on top of the cork, and slowly twist the base of the bottle. The cork will loosen gradually until it’s finally released, emitting a soft hiss or faint pop. Use a clean, dry dishcloth to help keep a steady grip. Chilling the bottle also helps avoid any build-up of extra pressure. 
  7. When not serving Champagne, keep the open bottle sealed to prolong its effervescence. A high-quality Champagne stopper is essential for this and a well-sealed, refrigerated bottle of wine will keep its bubbles for three to five days.
  8. Champagne pairs well with food. It’s delicious with canapés as an aperitif, and surprisingly versatile when it comes to meal pairing. The wine’s high acidity cuts through rich foods and its savoury, yeasty character balances sweetness. A crisp, refreshing finish leaves the palate feeling clean. Champagne can also provide an excellent high-low pairing, as it works particularly well with dishes such as fried chicken and pizza.
  9. The Champagne flute is the traditional glass. Its tall, skinny form preserves the sparkling wine’s bubbles, but it is by no means the only glass for serving Champagne. A quality white wine glass helps pronounce Champagne’s intense aromas and is preferred by many industry professionals for that reason. The tulip is a tall, but wide-bodied, happy medium.

* The Johannesburg Cap Classique, Champagne & Bubbles Festival takes place at the Inanda Polo Club in Sandton on Friday May 17 from 6pm to 8pm and on Saturday May 18 from 11am to 4pm. 

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