It is the drink of the angels – the preferred alcoholic beverage of rap stars, Formula One racers and big-winning casino high rollers.
Champagne, made in the cool north-eastern French region of the same name, is a beverage synonymous with style – and celebration.
Australians are now the sixth-biggest consumers of Champagne in the world – and import figures keep rising year after year.
The latest figures show that Australia imported 6,524 220 bottles in 2014 – an increase of 8.3% on the previous 12 months and ranking Australia behind only the UK, United States, Germany, Japan and Belgium in terms of bubbly love.
In total over 305 million bottles of Champagne were produced last year, a remarkable performance in such a competitive market. Italy is going gang busters with prosecco, Spain sells a lot of cava and Australia is now producing some world-class sparkling wines, mainly from Tasmania.
Australian consumers, however, are happy to pay for quality and the caché of Champagne.
So what exactly is Champagne, and what makes it different?
For a start, Champagne wines are exclusively produced from grapes grown, harvested and made into wine within the Champagne region.
There are no fewer than 15,800 winegrowers and 300 Champagne houses (Maisons de Champagne) across the Marne, Aube, Haute-Marne, Aisne and Seine-et-Marne regions, made exclusively from three grapes: pinot noir 38%, pinot meunier 32% and chardonnay 30%.
More than 70% of Champagne is produced by the houses (including the big names like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Bollinger, Laurent-Perrier, Piper-Heidsieck, Pommery, Lanson and Taittinger) and around 30% by boutique grower/producers and co-operatives.
There are several strict rules surrounding any wine sold as Champagne; all are produced by natural secondary yeast fermentation in the bottle, a winemaking process known as ‘Méthode Champenoise’.
The rules prescribe everything from how vines may be pruned, limited grape yields per hectare and how long bottles must be stored before shipment (a minimum of 15 months).
While many drinkers use the term champagne as a generic term for sparkling wine, that is wrong: Champagne can only come from Champagne. As a general rule the cooler the region the higher the quality, so even chilly England now has a growing sparkling wine industry.
There are many styles of Champagne. Blanc de Noirs indicates a sparkling wine made purely from pinot noir, while Blanc de Blancs signifies a wine made from chardonnay. RD, means recently disgorged, and presumably fresher, while there are many different levels of sweetness.
Extra Brut on a label indicates less than 6 grams of residual sugar per litre, brut less than 12 grams, extra dry between 12 and 17 grams, sec between 17 and 32 grams, demi-sec between 32 and 50 grams and doux over 50 grams.
The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was invented by Benedictine monks in the south of France in 1531. Champagne dates back to the 1660s and the style was refined by a monk called Dom Perignon, whose name lives on today.
In the 19th century Champagne was far sweeter than it is today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouet decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage prior to exporting it to London. Hence the designation Brut Champagne, the modern style, was born.
The vast majority of Champagnes are non-vintage wines, blends of fruit from several years, while vintage wines are made only in great years and usually in small quantities.
“Australians are becoming much more knowledgeable about Champagne – and Champagne grows in popularity every year,” says Elisabeth Drysdale of the Champagne Bureau in Sydney.