We Brits guzzle more Champagne than any other country, and most of it is non-vintage. Giles Fallowfield talks us through the huge variety on offer
The British love affair with Champagne is an enduring one. We have long been the largest market for it outside France and
since the new millennium our annual consumption of fizz has shot up by a massive 15 million bottles to close on
35 million. In the huge US market, the second most important for Champagne producers, they only manage to get through around 20 million bottles a year, although the trend is upward there too.
Not only do we consume more Champagne than other countries, but we also like a wider variety of styles. We easily outdrink any other country as far as pink-hued fizz goes: more than 2.3 million bottles were cracked open here in 2004, and rosé Champagne sales continue to grow faster than any other style.
The British market is also one of the top three for vintage Champagne, the connoisseur’s tipple. If Champagne producers want to test a new style of bubbly – be it a wood-aged cuvée or a single-vineyard wine – they often try it here first as they view consumers on this side of the Channel as their most sophisticated audience.
As a consequence, the British have access to the largest range of Champagne you can find anywhere outside the region, although to find a decent quantity of wines produced by small individual growers, you really have to head off to Champagne itself – a journey well worth making as the best examples represent terrific value for money. But here in the UK we still have access to the wines of more individual houses, large and small, than anywhere else in the world. And there are a great many to sample.
We import 18 international brands plus the wines from 110 smaller houses and merchants. On top of that, 20 cooperatives export their Champagne to the UK, as well as nearly 150 individual
grower-producers. When you consider that any one of these companies might have at least six different styles of Champagne in their range – vintage, blanc de blancs, rosé, prestige cuvée, not to
mention sweeter lines such as sec and demi-sec – that’s a bewildering choice of
fizz to sample.
The vast majority of it, however, is non-vintage Champagne – wine that is a blend of several different harvests – as this accounts for well over 90 per cent of production. In 2004, out of total Champagne exports of around 115 million bottles, less than 7 per cent was vintage (wine wholly from a single harvest).
However, there is considerable variation between the styles of non-vintage Champagnes that different houses produce because of the way they make up their blends. While most houses mix together the three main grape varieties that are planted in the Champagne appellation – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – the proportion of each will vary. Some non-vintage wines are wholly made from Chardonnay (blanc de blancs) or from black grapes (blanc de noirs).
RULES OF THE GAME
The appellation covers an area of around 33,000 hectares and contains many different terroirs, so the exact origin of the grapes, the winemaking techniques employed and how long wines are aged before release will also have an influence on the taste of the wine. While the laws governing production only stipulate that non-vintage Champagne must be aged for at least 15 months from the January following the harvest before it is sold, most decent producers age their wines for at least three years before it goes on sale.
Most of the big houses selling large volumes of Champagne try to produce a non-vintage style that is recognisable year after year. The winemaker’s skill is in managing to produce a consistent style despite the weather variation of each harvest, which results in different acidity and sugar levels in the crop. In any case, Champagne vineyards are located at the northern limit (east of Paris) of where grapes might reasonably be expected to ripen each year.
If there is a relatively poor-quality crop with low sugar levels, producers tend to increase the amount of reserve wine (from previous harvests) they put in their final blend, as they did with the non-vintage Champagnes based on the 2001 harvest.
Because there are so many influences on the flavour of any given Champagne, it is hard to make useful generalisations about styles. However, each of the three main grape varieties have distinct characteristics: Pinot Meunier lends a certain fresh fruitiness to a blend, adds aroma and is likely to help make the wine mature and soften more quickly; Chardonnay gives elegance and refreshing acidity that can lift a wine; Pinot Noir brings roundness, strength and body.
If you are looking for a lighter, more elegant style – something that works well as an aperitif or for drinking on its own – Champagne with a decent amount of Chardonnay may fit the bill. Laurent-Perrier’s Brut NV, which has about 45 per cent Chardonnay in the blend, would be a good choice, and Perrier Jouët’s Grand Brut NV, although typically only a quarter Chardonnay, is also made in an elegant, aperitif-friendly style.
For something altogether crisper and fresher, try a blanc de blancs style, which is made entirely from Chardonnay, such as Ruinart’s NV Blanc de Blancs or Billecart-Salmon’s. Delamotte, a less well-known house owned by Laurent-Perrier, also makes a good non-vintage blanc de blancs that is often served in wine bars in the City.
Taittinger’s Brut Réserve NV also has a high proportion of Chardonnay in the blend (40 per cent), which produces a lively, fairly lean, citrusy style. But Taittinger has recently introduced a high-quality 50:50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend called Prélude Grands Crus that gets longer cellar ageing of four years before it is released. For those who like a softer, richer, more developed style, this is a non-vintage wine to hunt out.
The biggest-selling non-vintage Champagne by a mile is Moët’s Brut Imperial, made in a soft, easy-drinking style that’s at its best when served in a magnum (slower development means greater finesse). However, quality can be variable because production is very large.
Although it is a more strongly Pinot Noir-based blend than most we’ve described, Louis Roederer’s Brut Premier has a big streak of refreshing acidity. This gives it the elegance to work well as an aperitif, although high-quality raw materials and skilled winemaking give it much more depth and complexity. In some ways it bridges the gap between aperitif fizz and the fuller, richer flavours of Charles Heidsieck, Pol Roger and Bollinger.
STYLES OF CHAMPAGNE
While it is true that most non-vintage Champagnes are suitable for the pre-dinner aperitif slot, it is the lighter, Chardonnay-based blends that tend to work best:
Laurent-Perrier Brut NV
Chardonnay 45 per cent, Pinot Noir 40 per cent, Pinot Meunier 15 per cent, with between 10 and 30 per cent reserve wine added. Aged for at least three years prior to release.
Soft and moreish, a delicate style with no harsh edges.
Perrier Jouet Grand Brut NV
Chardonnay 25 per cent, Pinot Noir 35 per cent, Pinot Meunier 40 per cent, plus between 15
and 18 per cent reserve wine. Two years’ minimum ageing before release.
A light, elegant style, this develops more quickly partly because of the higher percentage of Pinot Meunier in the blend.
Louis Roederer Brut Premier NV
Pinot Noir 56 per cent, Chardonnay 34 per cent, Pinot Meunier 10 per cent, plus 8-12 per cent of reserve wine, aged
for a minimum of three and a half years.
Although this works well as a classy aperitif, it is an altogether more elegant, complex style with great finesse
and structure and thus able to accompany food. The older reserve wines used in the blend are kept in oak. Immediately after release some may find it slightly austere but with cellaring (two to three years), it softens and develops more complexity.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial NV
Pinot Noir 30-40 per cent, Pinot Meunier 30-40 per cent, Chardonnay 20-30 per cent, around 25 per cent reserve wine, aged for a minimum of two years before release.
A Pinot-dominated Champagne with black grapes making up at least 70 per cent of the blend. Better in
a magnum, although that’s true of all Champagne.
Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Brut NV
Pinot Noir 55 per cent, Chardonnay 30 per cent, Pinot Meunier 15 per cent, 25-40 per cent of reserve wine, aged for a minimum of two and a half years before release.
The style is lighter than you might expect from a Pinot-dominated blend.
RICHER, MORE FOOD-FRIENDLY STYLES
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve mis en cave 2001
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier 75 per cent between them, Chardonnay 25 per cent, about 40 per cent reserve wine, aged for a minimum of three years but usually quite a bit longer.
A non-vintage Champagne that bears the year it was put in the cellars to age at Charles Heidsieck, the current blend is based on the 2000 harvest. A delightfully complex style with bags of finesse, it is initially fresh, shows a soft, rich mid-palate and a long finish. A wine to convert Champagne sceptics.
Pol Roger Reserve Brut NV
Equal proportions of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, 20-30 per cent reserve wine, aged for a minimum of three years.
The current available blend is based on the high-quality 2000 harvest and thus offers the extra maturity that Pol Roger fans like. It’s a soft but powerful and attractively rich blend that has developed ripe, bready aromas.
Bollinger Special Cuvee NV
Pinot Noir 60 per cent, Chardonnay 25 per cent, Pinot Meunier 15 per cent, 5-10 per cent reserve wine, aged for a minimum of three years on its lees and another three months in the cellar before shipping.
At about £32, it is the most expensive widely available non-vintage cuvée but you get something special for
your money. Its weighty, complex Pinot-dominated blend is more easily recognisable as a result of its developed yeasty aromas than any other mainstream non-vintage Champagne. A wine with a big personality, it has elegance as well.