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Confused about which Champagne is right for you? It’s time to get your fizz facts straight with a handy checklist from Sarah Jane Evans MW
You have to hand it to the Champenois. First they make wines that are frankly light in alcohol and acidic (sometimes tooth enamel-strippingly so), but then by smart winemaking and careful ageing, they transform them into precious liquids for which the world is willing to pay eye-wateringly high prices. In a remarkable feat of marketing, they have made the unpromising rural backwater of Champagne into a region that is globally famous for its luxury and romance.
It could all so easily be a giant confidence trick – a triumph of sensational packaging and seductive advertising. Fortunately, it’s not. The best Champagnes are sensational wines, an astonishing blend of freshness, richness, elegant bubbles and a dancing acidity. Champagne is the social wine; a wine for sharing, not for solitary contemplation. Yet for all its frivolity, the simple word Champagne shrouds a complex story. It is definitely worth spending a little time (and more than a little money) in ‘research’ (in other words, sampling and tasting widely) to identify your personal favourites. This Champagne Spotter’s Checklist covers the key areas to consider when out enjoying your research: the Grapes, the Blending, NV vs Vintage, Brut vs Sec, Defining Differences, and the Producers.
Let’s kick off with the grapes. There are just three grape varieties: Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (both red). From these, producers can make either rosé wines or white ones. The red grapes can also be used to make white wines. The process is called saignée, where the clear liquid from the flesh of the grapes is ‘bled’ off before the dark colour from the skins appears. The result is ‘Blanc de Noirs’, which has a richer, fruitier style. Rosé wines are mainly made by blending a little red wine into the white (for example Billecart-Salmon, Bollinger, Krug). Champagne that’s made only from Chardonnay is known as ‘Blanc de Blancs’ (for example Henriot, Ruinart and Taittinger’s prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne).
Blending is key to Champagne. If the illustrious 17th-century monk Dom Pérignon was famous for anything it was for blending. (The system for creating bubbles, by the way, is credited to the Englishman, Christopher Merret.) The stars in Champagne are those who make the blends and see to it that the ‘house style’ remains the same year-in, year-out, using wines from many different vineyards, together with judicious amounts of still wines saved from previous years. NV (non-vintage) in any other part of the world means cheap wine, but not in Champagne. Top quality NVs include Pol Roger, Jacquesson, Gosset Grande Reserve, Roederer Cristal and Krug Grande Cuvée. While it’s true that NV can be the best there is (and the quality of Krug GC proves that rule), Champagne does also make vintage wines. These are not released in every year and can be great wines, destined for long cellaring.
‘The stars in Champagne are those who make the blends and see to it that the ‘house style’ remains the same
Next in the Spotter’s Checklist comes level of sweetness. To understand this, it’s necessary to explain that Champagne grapes are initially fermented to produce a dry, rather acid wine. A second fermentation is then induced in each bottle by adding yeast and sugar. (It’s the yeast flavours that add the toasty, brioche character to the finished wine, and the CO2 trapped from the fermentation that creates the delicious rush of bubbles.)
The bottles are left to age, then before re-corking, are topped up with ‘dosage’ wine which may have been sweetened to make the Champagne more charming and hide the acid. ‘Brut’ may seem dry to taste, but actually it may contain up to 15g/litre of sugar. ‘Demi-Sec’/‘Rich’ has 35-50g/litre. The bone-dry ‘Ultra Brut’/‘Brut Sauvage’ has no dosage at all. To be palatable, this demands top-quality grapes: Ayala and Laurent-Perrier offer good examples.
Champagne houses each have their quirks and defining differences. Some focus on the fact that their grapes are fermented in oak barrels, giving extra depth (for example Krug and Bollinger). Others avoid a process during fermentation called the ‘malolactic’ (Lanson and Salon) – preferring to keep the firm citrus acidity of the wines, rather than allowing it to change to a softer, appley freshness. They believe that this also makes the wines more long-lasting. A recent fashion is for ‘recently disgorged’ wines: those that have only recently been released from the cellar and have a vibrant appeal (such as Bollinger RD). Wines that are made from grapes from a single vineyard are another speciality (for example Krug makes a wine from a delightful single vineyard, Clos du Mesnil).
Most of the producers mentioned above are Grande Marques, long-established brands. It’s important to remember that Champagne is nothing if not diverse. There’s plenty to enchant in the smaller estates and the individual growers (eg Egly-Ouriet, Gimonnet, Jacques Selosse).
So now that you have your Checklist it’s time to start tasting – and let your palate decide which fizz is right for you.
'A recent fashion is for wines that have only recently been released from the cellar, which have a vibrant
Lobster, crab, smoked salmon: let’s be honest, the bling of Champagne suggests equally glam foods. But there’s a reason it works particularly well with shellfish and smoked salmon – it’s the richness of the
foods. Champagne’s crisp, crunchy acidity acts like a squeeze of lemon on shellfish and smoked salmon,
contrasting with and soothing the richness. Both the richness of rosé and the intensity of vintage and ultra-brut styles go well with seafood. Shellfish is not the only option: Rémi Krug likes his
Grande Cuvée with pig’s trotters; and mature, vintage Champagne is an interesting choice with game as well as
with hard cheese. Don’t forget texture: the bubbles of Champagne flourish with the crunch of something crispy
in the food. Demi-sec has become unfashionable because of its sweetness, though it’s a perfectly good aperitif. It comes into its own with crème brûlée, or at tea time with fruit tart or scones –
it’s far more appealing than a clashing glass of brut.
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009