An American in Champagne

A visit to France brings concepts learned here to life


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"Keep Calm and Drink Champagne," the poster in the store window advised.

I've seen that sign countless times here at home. But as I stood on the sidewalk in Champagne, France, gazing at it, I realized that it takes on an entirely different meaning.

Last month, my husband Shannon and I got the opportunity of a lifetime when Lorenzo Lizarralde — the owner and winemaker at Chateau Aeronautique in Jackson and also a commercial airline pilot — invited us to accompany him and two of his grape growers, Lisa and Bill Hendricks, on a whirlwind trip to the famed French wine region. The proposed trip was to begin on Easter Sunday, less than two weeks later.

I don't have a spontaneous bone in my body; I plan things weeks, months, years out. I detest flying so violently that a brief jaunt to Florida in January constituted my first flight in a decade. I had figured I could work my way up to flying to Europe in, oh, maybe 10 or 15 years?

But the prospect of sipping sparkling wine in the birthplace of bubbly with one of the most charismatic winemakers I know? The adventure was just too good to pass up.

It helped that, of all the classic wine regions in the world, I find Champagne the most fascinating by far. To me, there is nothing more delicious and refreshing than sparkling wine.

But it goes far deeper than taste. It's the gracefulness of a properly trained sommelier removing the cork with little more than a whisper. It's the beauty of pouring sparkling wine into a slender flute and watching the elegant stream of bubbles rise to the surface. It's the amount of complexity that goes into the process of creating it — the depth of tradition that surrounds it.

 

Behind the Bubbles

Around the world, multiple methods are used to produce a sparkling wine (which can only be legally called "Champagne" if it comes from the eponymous region in France).

Winemakers must first craft a still wine to use as a base. Then a secondary fermentation must occur to create the bubbles.

In the tank, or Charmat, method — often used for bulk wine where fruitiness is the focus — winemakers activate the secondary fermentation in a tank, then bottle the sparkling wine under pressure. Other winemakers use carbonation, similar to pop.

But the most prized production process — and the only one used in Champagne — is the traditional method, also known as méthode traditionnelle or méthode champenoise. Winemakers bottle the base wine, add a small amount of sugar and yeast called "liqueur de tirage," and close the bottle with a crown cap. The secondary fermentation occurs within the bottle, trapping the bubbles inside.

The bottles are left in “tirage" for varying periods, depending on the style. In Champagne, non-vintage wines are required to age at least 15 months. Vintage wines, produced only in exceptional years, must age at least 3 years. Many Champagne houses choose to exceed these regulations.

After aging, workers turn the bottles gently and slowly over time to move the dead yeast cells, generated by the secondary fermentation, down to the neck of the bottle. Called "riddling," this is done either by hand, using an A-frame pupitre or, more often these days, by an automated gyropalette.

The bottle neck is then frozen to trap the yeast in place. A machine removes the crown cap, and the plug of yeast cells is forcibly ejected by the pressure in the bottle, a practice called "disgorgement." "Dosage" is the grand finale: The bit of wine lost in disgorgement is replaced by a "liqueur d'expédition," a mixture of still wine and sugar, which determines the sweetness of the finished sparkling wine.

It's a process that's staggering in its complexity to a layperson, yet no one in Champagne bats an eyelash. It's just what they do.

In most classic Old World wine areas, only certain grapes are permitted for the wine to be labeled with the prestigious name of that region. In Champagne, pinot noir, pinot meunier, and chardonnay are the only grapes allowed.

Throughout the region, it's common to see wines labeled as "Blanc de Blancs," meaning a white wine produced from white grapes (chardonnay only), and "Blanc de Noirs," a white wine produced from black grapes (pinot noir and/or pinot meunier, which both have dark skins).

Many Champagne houses also produce a rosé, either by blending a bit of red wine into a white wine, or via the saignée method in which the juice is left in contact with dark grape skins for a brief period to impart a little extra color and body.

 

Going Underground

In the shadowy, mold-encrusted caves that wind beneath the wineries in Champagne, we saw these painstaking processes play out in varying stages.

At Champagne Bochet-Lemoine, we walked past walls stacked high with aging bottles — and the occasional empty slot where one of the bottles had exploded from pressure. At Champagne Goutorbe, we watched as bottle after bottle shuffled down a line, violently expelling dead yeast en route to dosage. At Champagne Geoffroy, Shannon marveled at the extent of mold on the walls, which the winemaker and owner, Jean-Baptiste, acknowledged proudly; it was a sign of prestige, an acknowledgment of age and tradition.

Most of our appointments were at smaller Champagne houses whose origin stories bore similarities. Many were grape-growing families who once sold their grapes to large houses, but eventually decided to go independent and make their own wine from their own vineyards. No matter their size, all seemed to have their own “caves” for aging and storing wine.

As a contrast, we also stopped at one large-scale Champagne house: the famed Veuve Clicquot, where we wandered through a mere slice of the company's 24 kilometers of underground "crayeres." Little carts rattled by nonstop, transporting bottles of Champagne en route, presumably, to tirage. In several areas, there were World War I-era inscriptions etched into the chalk walls. An elaborate, golden-lit stone staircase leading out of the crayeres listed the declared vintage years dating back decades on its steps.

One might think that the limited grapes and required traditional method of production would make the wines in Champagne too similar, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Across the region, each place we visited was a revelation in its own right.

 

Old World by Way of New World

Though it was my first visit to France, everywhere were familiar terms, concepts and practices I'd learned not only through general wine study, but also through memorable experiences here in Michigan.

When Shannon and I first began dating 14 years ago, he introduced me to L. Mawby Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, which exclusively produces sparkling wine. Mawby is where my deep affinity for bubbly began. Before that, my experience with effervescent wine had been limited to $10 bottles of Asti Spumante on New Year's Eve. At Mawby, I learned what "Blanc de Blancs" and "Blanc de Noirs" meant, tasted traditional and tank method bubbly side by side, saw a gyropalette in the midst of riddling and witnessed disgorgement in progress.

As I viewed these processes I'd first observed in Michigan play out in the place where they were invented, it occurred to me how fortunate we in Michigan are to have an up-and-coming wine region right in our own backyard. With a mere road trip, we can watch this incredible style of wines being made — and taste Champagne's influence here in a New World wine region. While all 50 states now produce wine of some sort, not all have the quantity, quality and diversity of Michigan. 

At a growing number of Michigan wineries, we can sip traditional-method sparkling wine, including (but not limited to) Black Star Farms, Tabor Hill, bigLITTLE, and 2 Lads. Traditional-method bubbly is on the horizon at more wineries including Hawthorne Vineyards, which has earmarked its recently planted Pinot Meunier for a future sparkler, and J. Trees, which is preparing to place a first round of wines into tirage.

But it goes further than just sparkling wine production. Here, we can sip Burgundian-style pinot noir and Bordeaux-style red blends and Alsatian-style pinot gris and German-style rieslings, all inspired by centuries of tradition overseas — but made in Michigan.

I dream of someday visiting so many other classic wine regions. Until then, I feel lucky to be able to experience the legacy of those regions close to home.

 

Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room locations in Shelby Township, Royal Oak, and (coming in Summer 2016) Auburn Hills. Contact her at cort@michiganbythebottle.com.

 

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