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The British are drinking more Champagne than ever and there’s never been a wider choice of styles to try. Giles Fallowfield kicks off our Champagne special with an overview of what’s hot in the world of the most famous sparkling wine
Champagne is the wine world’s biggest success story of the past 15 years: total sales from France’s most northerly vineyards have risen consistently every year since the early 1990s. What’s more, the UK can reasonably claim to be the biggest influence behind this growth. We are drinking more Champagne than ever and we don’t even seem to need the excuse of a special occasion to crack open a bottle.
While worldwide sales of Champagne have risen by an impressive 20 per cent over the past decade, consumption in the UK has increased by a staggering 65 per cent in the same period. We popped the corks of nearly 37m bottles in 2006, making us the biggest Champagne market outside France and putting us some 13.5m bottles ahead of our nearest rival, the USA.
So significant is Champagne’s success that, while the vignerons of Bordeaux contemplate digging up vast tracts of vineyard as they struggle to compete against New World producers, the Champenois are considering expanding their appellation in an effort to keep up with worldwide demand.
So what is the secret behind Champagne’s growth? It is partly the result of an increase in consumers’ disposable income. It is also because British supermarkets are selling discounted Champagne, which has brought the sparkling wine within the reach of most pockets.
Greater affordability has undoubtedly been good news for Champagne drinkers, but the even better news is that increased consumption has been encouraged by the improving quality of what’s in the bottle. That can be put down to advances in both viticulture and winemaking – plus the beneficial effect of global warming.
‘Evidence of the effect of global warming is more notable in Champagne than in any other French vineyard region,’ says Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, head winemaker at Louis Roederer, one of the most respected houses in Champagne.
The reason for this, he explains, is that Champagne lies at the cool northern extreme of where grapes can consistently be ripened year after year. It is a marginal climate for wine production and the effect of even a 1°C increase in the average temperature is therefore much more obvious in Champagne than in, say, Bordeaux.
Lecaillon, who also oversees Roederer’s vineyards in Bordeaux, Alsace, Portugal’s Douro Valley and northern California, views this warming up as a positive influence on Champagne. It may even end the need for chaptalisation – the adding of a little sugar to increase alcohol levels during the first fermentation, a practice that is still widespread in the cooler vintages of Champagne.
There are no immediate worries that warmer growing seasons will significantly reduce the high levels of acidity in Champagne’s grapes. This is a necessary characteristic of the wines because it helps preserve freshness while they age. It is particularly important for vintage Champagne, which is usually kept in the deep chalk cellars of Reims and Epernay for up to 10 years before it is released.
But the changing climate is having a significant influence on the styles of Champagne that are being made today, and it is enabling producers to increase the volumes of cuvées they make beyond the standard brut non-vintage.
Richer, riper and more vinous wines are increasingly made today that work better when matched with a broad range of foods than they do as an aperitif.
But global warming isn’t the only reason that producers are diversifying. The big Champagne houses are struggling to buy enough grapes to increase production of their non-vintage brands to meet rising demand, and the cost of those grapes is rising.
Focusing attention on more premium styles of Champagne, such as rosé, vintage and other more experimental cuvées, makes good financial sense – these bottles can be sold for more, at a time when houses need to improve their returns.
This is good news for anyone with an interest in wine, as the focus on quality production is leading to some exciting new Champagnes.
About 80 per cent of all Champagne sold is classified as brut non-vintage – which means it is pretty dry and made from a blend of two or more harvests. The reason for blending together different harvests is that producers can make Champagne to a consistently good quality, year in year out, and poor harvests can be improved by adding wine kept from better years.
While no one is suggesting that blending will become less important in Champagne, it is certainly true that climate change is resulting in better harvests that make it easier to produce vintage fizz and other styles. Single vineyard wines, for example, don’t rely on blending together lots of grapes sourced from different vineyards in the appellation to build complexity.
Another effect of the warmer growing season is that rosé production has clearly benefited. Nearly all pink Champagne is made by blending a little red wine with some white. This red wine is made from Champagne’s black grapes – Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – but to produce decent quality red wine you have to get the grapes pretty ripe. With the warmer summers of recent years, that has become easier, so pink Champagne has greatly improved in quality.
What’s more, the softer, fruitier styles now being made are more appealing to consumers, some of whom may previously have been put off drinking Champagne because of its high acidity.
As a result, despite the higher prices charged for rosé, consumers can’t buy enough pink fizz, particularly in the UK, where in 2006 sales rose by 20 per cent for the sixth consecutive year. Frédéric Cuménal, chief executive officer of Moët & Chandon, which produces more pink Champagne than all the other houses put together, predicts that growth will continue at the same pace.
Another, rarer style of Champagne has benefited from the riper fruit of warmer summers: brut nature, also known as zero dosage. This is the driest of all Champagne styles, containing 2g of sugar per litre or less, compared with the 10-12g in most brut styles.
Without extra ageing, these wines have tended to be too austere for most peoples’ palates but the added richness from riper fruit makes them more approachable. More examples are emerging from individual growers and a handful of Champagne houses that challenge this conventional wisdom.
Until recently, Laurent-Perrier was the only house of any size to be making such a style, with its Ultra Brut, but over the past 18 months Ayala, part of the Bollinger group, has launched both a white and a rosé version.
Another famous house, for which the UK is the biggest market, will follow suit shortly.
An even more experimental style comes from Jacquesson, which has been pushing the boundaries of winemaking practice in Champagne since the mid-1990s.
One of its single vineyard wines, Dizy Corne Bautray 2000, is mono cépage (made with just one grape), in this case Chardonnay. It is also made from old vines (this vineyard was planted in 1960), vinified in wood rather than stainless steel and, to top it all, is zero dosage. Short of using any of the old grape varieties, such as Arbane and Petit Meslier, this single wine encompasses just about every experimental trend you could hope to find in Champagne.
Smaller producers such as Jacquesson are as important to the appellation as the market leader, Moët & Chandon. In Moët’s single-vineyard, single-varietal wines, launched six years ago, it proved that even the largest producer is capable of inspired innovation.
As long as the Champenois continually strive to improve the quality to keep Champagne ahead of the best sparkling wines from other countries, drinking it will not fade from fashion. Indeed, this most glamorous of appellations will continue to show the way forward to other French vineyards.
Non-vintage Champagne is a blend of two or more harvests. In almost every other wine-producing region of the world, the term ‘non-vintage’ on a label would have negative connotations, but that is
not so with Champagne. Most Champagne is a blend of harvests, a combination of grapes – principally Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay – and a judicious mix of different crus. Each of the 318
villages in Champagne is quality-rated under the system known as the Echelle des Crus – literally ‘ladder of growths’ – and is given a classification between 100 per cent
and 80 per cent (the lowest rating).
Why is Champagne so expensive? Well, quite apart from the added labour costs involved in producing sparkling wine, there’s the cost of the grapes. Most of the big houses have to buy in grapes from the thousands of small growers who own about 90 per cent of Champagne vineyards. The best grapes in Champagne cost more than €5 a kilo and you need 1.2kg of grapes to make a 75cl bottle, or 1.5kg if the wine is made purely from the first pressing, as the best are. To put that in perspective, the cheapest Champagne grapes cost more than €4.35 a kilo, while their Bordeaux equivalents are well under €1 per kilo.
Brut nature or zero dosage: residual sugar 0-2g per litre
Extra Brut: 0-6g per litre
Brut: 0-15g per litre
Extra Dry: 12-20g per litre
Sec: 17-35g per litre
Demi-sec: 33-50g per litre
Doux: 50g-plus per litre
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2007