What is it that makes Champagne so special? Why do the chalky soils on the slopes of the undulating, wind-blown plateau some 75 miles east of Paris produce sparkling wine which, at its best, has no equal elsewhere in the world? Wines that are capable of long, slow ageing and only reveal their full expression after many months of maturing in the deep, cool cellars of producers in Reims, Epernay and the 300 or so small villages dotted around the surrounding countryside.
Cool climate is the key. Vineyards in the most marginal regions tend to produce the most exciting wines. And Champagne is France’s most northerly, established vineyard, located only just to the south of the 50th parallel. So far north it is only possible to ripen grapes sufficiently to make good table wine occasionally, but the perfect place for making a base wine to turn into fizz.
Why? Because high acidity, a vital ingredient in Champagne’s long ageing process, is naturally preserved by the slow ripening process at this northerly latitude. And it’s because of this natural
high acidity that it’s possible to keep the best vintage Champagne for several decades without
it losing its freshness.
Champagne is not just the result of a marginal climate however, it’s also a magical combination of cool climate, chalky soils and three centuries of human endeavour that enables something unique to emerge in the bottle.
The marginal climate helps explain why nine out of 10 bottles produced today are unvintaged, or to be more precise, a blend of two or more different harvests. Originally, Champagne was all made from a single harvest or ‘vintage’, but like today, vintage quality was extremely variable. As the demand for Champagne grew, by blending different harvests together, merchants were able to make a larger volume of a more consistent quality.
Most Champagne is a blend of the three main grape varieties planted in the region – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The five main production regions in Champagne are all strongly associated with one of these: the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar with Pinot Noir; Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne and in the frost-prone Vallée de la Marne – the hardier Pinot Meunier.
For the major houses, this blend of grape varieties is sourced from a range of different terroirs across the appellation, which stretches more than 90 miles from north to south.
How it’s made
Champagne can only be made from grapes grown in the 33,000 hectares of vineyard within the defined appellation. Once picked, the grapes are pressed and the juice undergoes a first fermentation, usually in giant stainless-steel tanks (although it can be done in oak casks, too). The resulting base wines are then blended together. At this stage, the product is a thin, rather acid, table wine. Not something you would really choose to drink.
To produce the second fermentation – which puts the dissolved carbon dioxide into the wine to produce the fizz – a mixture of yeast, yeast nutrients and sugar (called liqueur d’expédition) is added and this liquid is bottled under a crown cap. Once the second fermentation is complete, the bottles are transferred to pallets for remuage, a process in which the bottles are slowly turned and shaken to loosen the now dead yeast cells, which gradually collect in the neck of the inverted bottle.
After remuage, the Champagne may then undergo more ageing sur point upside down on the sediment that has collected just inside the crown cap, giving the wine more complexity.
The bottles are then topped up with Champagne and the liqueur d’expédition added – the amount of sugar this contains will depend on the style or sweetness of Champagne required – and the cork is rammed in.
Most non-vintage brut Champagne is a blend of the three main grapes varieties. But you’ll notice that it doesn’t usually say ‘Pinot Noir’, ‘Pinot Meunier’ or ‘Chardonnay’ on the label, as this is not a legal requirement.
Blanc de blancs: literally, white wine made from white grapes; if this is labelled on the bottle, it means the Champagne is made from 100% Chardonnay and is likely to be a fresher, often lighter style, showing citrus flavours and aromas – good served as an aperitif. However, vintage blanc de blancs, like those produced by Deutz or Louis Roederer from a single cru (village) like Avize or Mesnil-sur-Oger (see feature on page 206), could be aged for many years, allowing it to become increasingly rich, complex and buttery over time.
Blanc de noirs: white wine made from the black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier – it could be one or the other, or a blend of the two in any proportion. It’s likely to be fuller, rounder, softer in the mouth and weightier than a Chardonnay-based Champagne. Drappier and Veuve Devaux produce notable examples of this style.
Prestige cuvées: no real meaning in terms of style, although wines so described are likely to be the most expensive in any producer’s range. This segment of the market is effectively defined by three wines: Dom Pérignon, Louis Roederer’s Cristal and Krug. Other good examples are: Perrier Jouët’s Belle Epoque, Laurent-Perrier’s Grand Siècle, Deutz Cuvée William Deutz and Charles Heidsieck’s Blanc des Millenaires (see feature on page 210).
Within these general ‘styles’ of Champagne any of the wines may be vintage, that is, solely produced from the grapes grown in one particular year (the year of the harvest will appear on the label), or non vintage – a blend of grapes from several different harvests.