Paul Howard looks at Champagne…
A glass or two of Champagne is the classic way of celebrating Christmas and New Year. But while there is but one method of making Champagne, not all Champagnes are made the same. This is because Champagne is a clever blend of three key ingredients; grape varieties, vineyards and vintages.
The reason for blending is Champagne’s marginal cool climate. There is considerable weather variation every year, similar to our experience in the UK; frost, rain and inclement temperatures bring a high incidence of diabolical harvests, potentially ruinous for any winegrower. Before modern science, technology and global warming, blending was a good way to hedge your bets. In turn this created consistency; in quality, in quantity and in market prices. Champagne made a virtue out of a necessity.
Indeed, if it hadn’t originally been for the proximity of a large home market in Paris and the discovery of how to add bubbles then the Champagne region might not exist today. There are many easier and cheaper places to make quality wine. Yet Champagne became the most glorious wine brand in existence, and as it did so, various styles were created. If you like Champagne then there is much to explore, if you don’t then that may be because you just haven’t found your style…yet.
To understand the differences in style it is worth considering how Champagne is made. This is not the place to go into technical detail, suffice to say that it is a long and expensive process involving many stages, which gives the winegrower plenty of opportunities to produce recognisable differences.
First, 99.98% of modern Champagne can only be made from three permitted grape varieties, white Chardonnay and the black Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These have proven over centuries to be those varieties best suited to the climate and thin chalk soils. There are tiny remnants of other grape varieties left, but new plantings of those have long since been banned. Each of these three varieties have different strengths and play different roles; it is sometimes said that if Champagne was a body then Chardonnay is the skin while Pinot Noir forms the muscles and Pinot Meunier the bones.
Moreover, these grapes are usually sourced from various villages located all over the sub-regions of Champagne. Each one has an official quality rating. For example, if you see Grand Cru on the label, it means that only grapes from the top rated villages have been used, implying higher quality and price. The winemaker can therefore play with grapes from different places and different growers at different quality levels. Each parcel can be vinified separately, creating many different base wines to blend with.
Then, Champagne is normally a blend of years, creating the so-called non-vintage (NV). Each year a stock of still base wines are kept back in reserve so that they can be blended with those from the next harvest. This is to smooth out the peaks and troughs of vintage variation. For a small winegrower this might be restricted to a blend of the current year and the previous one or two years. For a large Champagne house there may be many older wines included in the mix in various percentages, subtly ensuring that the bottle you open always meets the desired quality and flavour profile of the House style. The House style is created from a recipe – meddle with it at your peril!
NV Champagne is the essential wine of any Champagne House – it is responsible for 80% of sales and so defines the individual House style. As such it is arguably the style that depends upon blending skills the most. Consequently, most NV’s are the flagship wine, even if they may not be the finest examples made in the House range, they are the most visible. Their quality can range from indifferent to magical. For example, Krug Grand Cuvée uses up to ten different vintages in the blend and that is why Krug refer to it as a Multi-vintage rather than an NV. Good NV’s will continue to improve and develop in bottle over a few more years but unfortunately, most never get the chance. Put a few NV bottles away if you can, you’ll taste the difference even after just a few months.
The vast majority of Champagne made today is in the Brut (dry) style, which is the most popular and versatile. The dryness of the final wine is controlled at the last stage of the production process, where a measured dose of sugar is used to balance the wines acidity. Most Brut wines still require a dosage, as anyone that has ever tried the acidic base wines will attest! Take this a stage further and this is how wines of different sweetnesses are created.
There are small amounts made of gently sweet wines such as demi-sec. Often known as Rich, demi-sec is the sweetest style made commercially today. The very sweet doux, once beloved of Russian Tsars, no longer exists. Today sweeter fizz is often viewed unfairly as synonymous with inferior quality, but there is a small market with just a few high quality examples on offer.
A mention too for a recent and more fashionable innovation, that of Brut Zéro, a.k.a. brut sauvage, ultra-brut, sans sucre or non-dosage. Here, no sugar is added at all, leaving the wines bone dry and austere, particularly when young. These can be brilliant with food but approach them more cautiously to drink as an apéritif.
Champagne’s acidity is in itself a major stylistic factor. The base wines are made from grapes which would be considered as barely ripe in other regions and so are high in sharp malic acid and low in sugar. During the Champagne process, this malic acid can transform naturally into the softer lactic acid. Those where this is prevented will produce tart but fresh acidity, those where it is allowed will leave much softer, broader and creamier wines. The difference between the razor focus of Lanson and the easy softness of Pol Roger is startling yet both are excellent Champagnes. The House style can also be influenced by fermentation and maturation in wood of a proportion of the base wines before blending. Bollinger is probably the most famous example where this is practised, imparting creaminess and complexity.
Vintage Champagne is only declared by a House in great years, meaning those three or four years per decade when harvest conditions are exceptional and a rigorous selection of the best grapes will make a superior wine for the most special occasions. However, some Houses declare vintages more often, as it is possible to make great wine from some special sites even in poor years if grape selection is strict enough. Every drop must be from the stated year and the base wines must be higher in alcohol than NV and the law requires considerably more minimum aging (NV is fifteen months minimum while vintage is three years minimum) and most get far longer. This means that the wine sits on the lees longer, picking up more complex and powerful yeasty flavours and aromas, often described as baked bread, toast or brioche.
The great wines from the greatest vintages can be incredibly long-lived. While they can be drunk on release, their true glory will only be revealed if they have at least a decade to mature. With power and complexity they are always best drunk with food. Recent exceptional years where vintages were widely declared include 2004, 2002, 1996 and the glorious trio of 1990, 1989 and 1988. Great examples from other years are available, depending on the House.
Blanc de blancs is a specific style meaning “white of whites.” This wine will be 100% Chardonnay and have the greatest aging potential of any Champagne. Often light and fresh when young (which makes a great apéritif style) with bottle age they develop secondary flavours of honey and nuts and fill out into elegant wines of great character. They come in NV or vintage forms.
Wines labelled Blanc de noirs are the opposite, being white wines being made solely from black grapes, Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier. Traditionally this was not a term much seen on the label until Bollinger made it fashionable. As the colour is in the grape skins rather than the juice, early separation create a white wine. Full fruited, rich and weighty, they come alive with food, particularly white meats. There are some fine examples, especially from the southernmost part of the region.
The popularity of Rosé has fluctuated ever since the first example was made by Cliquot in 1777. Pink fizz is always popular in times of prosperity and is an essential part of the range. Unlike all other rosé made in Europe it is mostly created by blending red and white base wines. This method gives consistent control over the colour, ranging from onion skin through salmon to deep pink. The other way to achieve pinkness is by brief skin contact with the black grapes, then bleeding the juice off when the desired colour is achieved. This is hard to control and known as saignée. Rosé ranges from delicate and nuanced all the way to the muscular and powerful. Sometimes frivolous froth, most are best drunk young while the colour and red berry fruit flavours remain intact, but there are some seriously good examples.
What then, of the Prestige Cuvées? These are the no-expense spared wines, famously including the likes of Cristal (Roederer), Dom Pérignon (Möet), Belle Époque (Perrier-Jouët), Vieille Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Clos des Goisses (Philipponnat), S (Salon), Clos de Mesnil (Krug) and Le Clos Saint Hilaire (Billecart-Salmon). These and more besides are the ultimate luxury Champagnes, designed to reflect the very best quality a Champagne House can attain. All are stylistically different. They might be vintage, they might be single vineyard and they might be a blend, but all push the envelope and all are expensive. Are they worth it? The top ones undoubtedly are, as long as they are given the required long bottle age – so if you open one, get dressed up and make it a very special occasion.
Champagne isn’t just one drink – there is an amazing palette for the winegrower to play with. The Champenois frequently say “chacun à son gôut”, which means, to each his (or her) own taste. Why not discover yours this festive season?
Paul Howard is the publisher of www.winealchemy.com.