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Champagne house style is the ultimate in wine statements. It exists to differentiate one house from another, giving each house its all-important USP, and we wine drinkers a reason to choose one brand over another. Romantically, it’s a timeless statement about a Champagne producer’s past, present and future. Touchingly, it reflects the brand’s philosophy, vision and personality. But it’s also a pretty sensitive business.
This is because loyalty to a Champagne house (and therefore its house style) is so strong among wine drinkers – arguably stronger than with any other wine region – that any deviation from what is regarded as the usual house style would quickly lose a Champagne house legions of fans. Indeed, many Champagne drinkers stick to the same house throughout the course of their fizz-swigging lives. The importance of this consistency is what prompts Jérôme Philippon of Champagne Bollinger to remark: ‘Maintaining consistency from year to year is the essence of a good Champagne house.’
Typically, the house style statement is made with brut non-vintage (NV) wine, the Champagne that’s usually both the cheapest and the one in largest production. And although house style individuality is crucial, it’s also unavoidable in many cases, as the raw material (location of vineyards and the grape variety) of these Champagnes goes some way to deciding the final flavour.
Human intervention plays its part in house style, too, because most houses have to buy grapes to top up their own supply in order to satisfy demand. This gives winemakers the chance to cherry-pick their grapes – both in terms of style and flavour – based on their house style requirements, as François Domi, winemaker at Billecart-Salmon, illustrates: ‘We choose the crus [vineyards] that are best adapted for each grape. For example, Pinot Meunier from the commune of Leuvrigny gives chiselled finesse to the wine, while the commune of Damery gives the wine power.’
But it’s not just the vineyards that shape the house style. Serious tweaks are made in the winery, too. There is a legal minimum of 15 months for the process of ageing the wine on lees (yeast cell deposits, a by-product of alcoholic fermentation) for a brut NV, but there’s no legal maximum, which means a house can make its Champagne just as rich in yeasty flavours as it chooses.
Blending wines is also a critical procedure in shaping a Champagne’s house style, as brut NV wines are usually composed of many different wines from different years. The eponymous Krug, for example, isn’t afraid to include as many as 120 different wines to perfect the consistency of its Grande Cuvée wine year in year out. Sounds painstaking doesn’t it? Well it is. But blending Champagnes is how winemakers in this region demonstrate their true skill. It’s the winemakers’ experienced and finely tuned palates, combined with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the character of the wine from each little parcel of vineyard, that are key to creating a seamlessly similar brut NV year after year.
And so to the $64,000 question – whose Champagne tastes of what? Well, such is the range of variables available to winemakers to hone and perfect their house style that there’s a multitude of styles to be had. However, bearing in mind that Champagne comes from a relatively small region with strict production rules, it’s also inevitable that one house style can, and will, overlap with another to some degree. With this in mind, here are a few of the broader house style guidelines that certain Champagne houses have adopted.
Both vinifying wine in oak barrels and using a large proportion of Pinot Noir will boost the richness and structure of a Champagne. And although using oak barrels historically fell out of favour in Champagne last century, two very famous houses have consistently used them, and both have a reputation for richness of house style: Bollinger and Krug. With this structure in mind, not only would these Champagnes serve well as breakfast fizzes, but also with white meat and fish dishes with flavoursome sauces, for example those including morels or truffles.
Similarly, houses that heavily back Pinot Noir in their brut NV wines also have a reputation for richness, examples of these include Philipponnat, Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer. Some of the best food matches with these Champagnes are fish and chips and hard mature cheese.
TRY: Philipponnat Royale Réserve Brut NV, slurp.co.uk
This has vibrant red fruit and floral aromas. Firm, taut and refreshing on the palate, with yeasty richness and sour lime freshness.
Freshness and vigour are the calling card of some Champagne house styles. This characteristic can be achieved by using Chardonnay as the dominant grape and/or by using younger wines in the blend and/or by preventing the wine from undergoing malolactic fermentation, whereby the malic acid turns into the softer lactic acid, rendering the Champagne crisp rather than creamy.
Houses whose wines deliberately don’t undergo malolactic fermentation include Gosset and Lanson. Paul Beavis, managing director of Lanson UK, explains: ‘Unlike many other houses, we choose to avoid malolactic fermentation, giving Lanson that unique, fresh taste.’ Such wines are generally great appetite whetters, whereas youthful freshness is something that seems to be adopted by houses such as Canard-Duchêne and Pommery, whose Brut NV wines would also serve well as an aperitif with moreish nibbles on the side.
TRY: Gosset Grande Réserve, Berry Bros & Rudd
Lovely zippy freshness here, which is backed up by some seriously good toasty notes and yeasty flavours together with refreshing, super-crisp Granny Smith apple notes.
Elegance might seem like an ethereal and intangible description for a Champagne, but it’s a widely recognised one, and typically manifests itself in the form of balance – showing a pretty purity of fruit alongside power and depth of flavour. Houses noted for the elegance of their Champagnes include Dom Pérignon (which is always a vintage wine) and Billecart-Salmon, to name but two. Few fizzes go better with sushi when elegance is part of the house style.
TRY: Billecart-Salmon Brut Réserve NV, Roberson Wine
Showing remarkably good value for money, this has an excellent combination of bright fruit, a gentle, creamy elegance and attractive buttery brioche flavours.
Being a good all-rounder is another signature style. These Champagnes usually consist of a similar percentage of the three main grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) and look for approachability rather than being too dominant in one flavour (toast, spice, and so on).
On a comparatively small scale, the house of Alain Thienot pulls this style off well, while the ubiquitous Moët & Chandon puts its success with this style down to the sourcing of its grapes, as chief winemaker Benoît Gouez explains: ‘Moët & Chandon has the biggest estate in the Champagne region, and because we can multiply the chances to compensate for climate variations, this also allows for more precision, because being able to select from a wide range of grapes is essential to the consistency of Brut Impérial.’
TRY: Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV, Majestic
Broad and toasty, with a mellow baked-apple and pastry rounded character. Crisp acidity and generous, moreish malt-biscuit flavours.
This feature was published in the summer 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.