The name of champagne is limited not only to a defined area but to a process, through which every drop of wine must go before it can claim the name. That is what makes it unique.
It would be claiming too much to say that all champagne is better than any other sparkling wine. But good champagne has a combination of freshness, richness, delicacy and raciness, and a gently stimulating strength, which no other wine ever quite achieves.
What happens in the cellars of Champagne concerns us just as much as what happens in the vineyards. The champagne-making process has only just begun when the grapes are picked and pressed, in presses unique to the area that squeeze the juice very gently from four tons at a time.
The juice ferments lustily at first, but as it slows down the doors are thrown open to let in the autumnal chill. In the cold, fermentation stops. The wine spends a chilly winter, still with the potential of more fermentation latent in it.
So it used to be shipped. England in the 17th century was an eager customer for barrels of this delicate, rather sharp wine. The English bottled in on arrival, in bottles that were stronger that any known in France. It re-fermented in spring; the corks went pop and the beau monde fond that they had created a sparkling wine. Whether on not it was the English who did it first, premature bottling is vital to the process which changed Paris's favorite local wine into the prima donna of the world.
For the wine continued to ferment in the bottle and the gas given off by the fermentation dissolved in the wine. If the natural effect was encouraged by a little more sugar, a little more yeast, what had been a pretty but very light wine was found to improve immeasurably, gaining strength and character over a period of two years or more. Above all, the inexhaustible bubbles gave it a miraculous liveliness.
Dom Pérignon, cellar-master of the Abbey of Hautvillers at the end of the 17th century, is wrongly credited with the next round of developments: the cork tied down with string, stronger bottles (although still not strong enough; half the wine was lost through bottles bursting). In fact, Dom Pérignon took every precaution to avoid bubbles; the contribution that brought him such honor was the art of blending wines from different parts of the district to achieve the best possible flavor.
The chief difference between champagne brands lies in the making of cuvèe, as the blend is called. Everything depends on experience in assembling the young wines - and on how much the house is prepare to spend on raw materials. The reputation of an established house is based on its non-vintage wines, blended so that no difference is noticeable from year to year.
Disgorgement is the grand finale after many months and sometimes years of peaceful maturation on lees. Its purpose is to eliminate the deposit that has collected in the neck of the bottle as a result of the remuage process. The neck of the bottle is frozen first: a plug or murky ice shoots out when the bottle is opened, leaving perfectly clear wine behind.