Champagne is know the world over for its production of delightful and expensive sparkling wines so often earmarked for special occasions and exuberant celebration.

The name whose derivation is from the Latin Campania (meaning countryside), is a special wine from a very special place. The region lies about 100 kilometres northeast of France’s capital city, Paris. Most Champagne is associated with three major towns within the region: Epernay, Rheims and Ay. For the casual visitor, the area is reminiscent of the South Downs in England and was indeed, before the English Channel became the waterway it now is, a connected land mass forming an enormous ‘saucer’ of chalky soil.

Chalk in concert with the chilly climate of northern France, combine to provide ideal growing condition’s for the region’s trio of grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.

All grape varieties have white flesh when peeled and it is only the Rosé styles of Champagne that require the skins of the area’s two red grapes to remain in contact with the fermenting wine. This delightful pinky hue is known as extract.

Surprisingly, for a principally white wine, over two thirds of the grape content is often red. Chardonnay offers a structure to the wine, Pinot Noir the fulsome body and Pinot Meunier the rich, ripe fruit that we detect in so many Champagnes. So, careful blending is at the heart of Champagne viniculture similar in many ways to Port and Sherry, and judicious mixing of grape varieties and a measure of older wine from storage tanks, ensures a consistent style of wine that can overcome the worst and best of fickle harvests, year in, year out. It is this process, including fractional blending, that provides most of the brand leaders with wines that are labelled N.V. or non-vintage.

There are of course exceptions, many favoured by the devotees of the wine, wherein a Champagne named Blanc des Blancs is white wine from white grapes, in particular the Chardonnay grape originating in Burgundy. Conversely, Blanc de Noir is white Champagne made from one or both of the black grapes, Pinot Noir and its early maturing cousin, Pinot Meunier.

More expensive blends of Champagne will combine two or more varieties built exclusively from grapes harvested in a single year and will offer the word vintage on the label.

Other points on the label are Grand Cru and Premier Cru. Both carry a caché but rarely a guarantee of quality. From the most expensive vineyards, of some registered 17 at the last count, come the Grand Crus. Following on and including three or four dozen villages, we find Premier Cru wines which will cost a little less. Unlike other parts of France there are no vigorous production methods included on these two classifications, but for the enthusiast seeking individual wines this may well be the best place to start.

The ‘houses’ or brands we see most commonly on the supermarket shelves tend to have arrangements with local, individual, farmers or co-operative groups. Grapes or fermented still wines are bought in from surrounding villages and pieced together each harvest to offer a consistent blended taste through the years. Once you have got used to such wines be it Moët and Chandon, Bollinger or the myriad of branded wines you can be assured of a continuity of house style throughout your drinking life. Sadly so many co-operative dominated, common denominator-generated wines can prove a little boring over time and clearly lack the expression and seasonality some of us require, think poly-tunnel strawberries and you’ll get the picture.

During the last census nearly 20,000 smallholders provided 90% of the fruit for such wines. Those smallholders can charge the highest price for their grapes, more than any other region or country in the world.

Another revelation, to any unwary drinker is the ‘green’ unripe nature of the wine in its still form. The northerly latitude leaves little room to manoeuvre and the harvest of grapes with high levels of acidity is usual. Such acidity in Sparkling wine though is the key to the Champagne’s taste as it provides refreshment to the final product.

The next procedure which defines sparkling wine is known as secondary fermentation. To the crisp, often tart still wine, additional yeast and sugar are now added. Re-bottled in the iconic dark, thick glass to absorb the ensuing pressure, not dissimilar to a car tyre, fermentation occurs once more. Carbon dioxide is created and dissolved in the wine and the alcohol level generally rises.

Bottles are now upturned as all the additional by-products are encouraged to slip down to the traditional wired cork. Bottles are turned or ‘riddled’ to encourage this process, tirage in French.

The dead yeast cells accumulate, upside down, against the cork and the now fizzy wine is left in contact with the ‘lees’. Depending on the time a winemaker leaves their wines in contact defines the final taste of the Champagne. This remarkable little chemical miracle gives us the biscuity, toasted brioche tastes so evident in most quality Champagnes. Thereafter this plug of yeast and sediment is removed and the final wired cork and glamorous label are installed.

So well practised and now used the world over this entire process is called Méthode Traditionelle. However, it must be added that the residents of the region are fiercely jealous of their name and although Méthode Traditionelle is allowed on many sparkling wines, only the wine from Champagne is allowed its famous nomenclature. Apart from the traditional method, now exported to almost every wine making country in the world, a crude method is often used in order to avoid the substantial cost involved in traditionelle. Known widely in the trade as the bicycle pump method, but more formerly as carbonation, this involves pumping carbon dioxide into the vats of wine and bottling the result under pressure in order to contain the volatile gas. It is the same method used by fizzy drink manufacturers but does tend to give an aggressive, less delicate ’mousse

With both methods available to any wine-maker it is not surprising that areas of France, outside of Champagne, and later most other countries have engaged in producing a local sparkling wine. In many parts of France this fizzy style is prefixed by the word Crémant, which is something of a catch-all phrase but can provide superb wines in many cases.

Often a Crémant will exert less pressure and therefore less bubbles in the wine up to 3 atmospheres rather than Champagnes’ 6. But certain regions can be justly proud of their sparkling produce. In Burgundy we find Crémant de Bourgogne, from Alsace a delicate, sparkler under the term Crémant d’Alsace. Along the Loire Valley where Chenin is one of the principal grape varieties. Crémant de Loire finds much favour. In the South, Languedoc offers a Crémant de Limoux made from an ancient grape called Mauzac often blended with Chenin and Chardonnay.

Even in the Rhone Valley a delicate, often dry sparkler, known as Clairette de Die (pronounced dee) does not seem to have penetrated the English consciousness with much success yet but it will often outpace many of the imported Asti’s from Northern Italy.

Further afield tremendous strides have been made in Spain, around Catalonia, within the increasingly popular Cava, a blend of indigenous grapes such as Parellada, Xarello and Macabeo. Look out for vintage Cava’s as they will often give cheaper Champagnes a distinct run for their money.

In Northern Italy, near the canalised city of Venice we discover their fashionable mid-morning fizz known as Prosecco. Named after its grape variety, Prosecco is made in two styles, Frizzante a gently semi-sparkling style and Spumante usually involving the Traditionelle method with a heavier bottle and wired cork.

From the New World a raft of stunning sparkling wines emanate from Australia New Zealand and South Africa with many wineries creating joint-ventures with noble Champagne houses in France. New Zealand’s most famous winery, Cloudy Bay has produced stunning results with their Pelorous brand which often commands prices not dissimilar to Champagne’s lesser offerings.

In Australia fine examples arrive from the Yarra, Clare and Barossa Valleys and with their typical can-do attitude we are now discovering that even the dense, peppery red grape, Syrah, can be made to fizz although best served chilled in my experience.

Finally I add the first health and safety warning to any article I have written. Opticians and eye doctors in Champagne commonly treat injuries from rocketing corks, misdirected by the ignorant or unwary.

A simple rule of thumb is to remove the wire ‘cage’ whilst keeping one’s thumb firmly over the metal casing atop the cork.

Whilst pointing the bottle away from you and any of your guests, grip the cork and the bottle firmly with each hand and twist the bottle only to gently release the closure, tipping also captures the pressurised air further along the bottle and creates a lesser ‘pop’. This noise, so often cited as a maiden’s sigh should not be either loud or explosive, we leave that to racing drivers!