Happy Global Champagne Day 2013: Champagne basics

Today is Global Champagne Day 2013, so I thought we’d take a time out to talk a bit about one of my favorite things in the world: Champagne! More specifically, Champagne basics!

Not all that sparkles is Champagne, we all know this. There are sparkling wines and then there are Champagnes. Champagnes come exclusively from the Champagne region of France and a lot of work are being done by the French to keep everybody else from labeling anything else as Champagne. And with good reason, I might add.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of really good sparkling wines in this world. Both the French and the Germans have really stepped up their game, and even the Italians, the Portuguese and the South Africans are coming along nicely. But in terms of luxury, taste, finesse, complexity and price tag, nothing rivals the wines from the Champagne region of France. I’m not sure what it is exactly; if it’s the grapes, the soil, the climate, the production process or the producers. Most likely a mix of all of the above, actually. But there is something about Champagne. Something that just screams luxury, quality and uniqueness, and justifies the huge price tag that usually adorns a bottle of quality Champagne.

Cremant d'AlsaceNot all that bubbles is Champagne. But the best bubbles are! This Cremant may look the part and be wonderful and complex. But Champagne it is not. Sorry!

Champagne is a subject that’s dear to my heart. I love it, I geek out about it, I spend entirely too much money on in and I could probably talk about it for hours. As fascinating a product as Champagne may be, that probably would not be very amusing, though, so I’ll try to keep it short and offer you a quick overview of the world of Champagne and a few pointers on how to pick a bottle.

 

Champagne Basics: The Champagne-making process in one minute or less

The Champagne production process is a long and complicated one of which many a book has been written. It doesn’t however, need to take ages to explain the process. Very simply speaking, our beloved Champagne is produced in six simple steps:

  1. After picking, the grapes undergo an initial fermentation just like any wine.
  2. The finished still wine is then poured into bottles along with brewer’s yeast and rock sugar. The bottles are sealed  and stashed in the cellar for at least 1.5 years. This process helps further develop the taste and character of the wine and creates the bubbles.
  3. After a year and a half (or more) the bottle is slowly turned on it’s head, allowing the yeast to slowly fall to the neck of the bottle.
  4. The neck of the bottle is flash frozen and the cork removed quickly, causing the yeast to fly out the bottle.
  5. The bottle is then quickly topped up with a bit more wine to account for spillage plus a bit of syrup (dosage) to adjust the sweetness and ensure the end product stays bubbly.
  6. The bottle is re-corked and either left to cellar further or put up for sale

But hey, if it’s all that seemingly simple, what then gives the Champagne its unique taste and character? Well, it’s probably partially owing to the climate and the soils of the Champagne region coupled with centuries worth of know-how and expertise. And also, it’s owing to three select grapes that are the heart and soul of the Champagne region:

 

Champagne Basics: The grapes of Champagne

Pinot Noir – the power house: Pinot Noir is a black grape used to add structure and power to Champagnes. Common tasting notes include red berries, spice, pepper and, to some extend, gun powder. Most full-bodied Champagnes rely on a healthy dose of Pinot Noir at their spine.

Chardonnay – the acidic spine: Chardonnay can add a chiseled spine and racing acidity to any wine. Other than that, it is actually treasured for adding very little flavor of its own to the party. On the other hand, it’s exceptionally good at carrying the specific characteristics of the soil (the so-called terroir) on which it was grown into the finished wines as well as secondary notes from the winemaking and aging processes. White flowers, butter, limestone, minerals and racing acidity are sure signs of Chardonnay in your Champagne.

Pinot Meunier – the lesser grape: For years, Pinot Meunier was considered a lesser grape compared to its more noble sisters. Lately, though, producers have started favoring it again for the body and depth that it adds to the finished wine. It’s still rare, though, to see large quantities of Pinot Meunier in top-shelf Champagnes.

And what of the others? Champagne regulations actually allow for seven different grapes to be used in production. The other four (Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris) are mainly grown for historic reasons, though, covering a whopping 0,2 percent of the entire wine growing area. They are very rarely used in modern production.

 

The perfect Champagne blend?

So far so simple, right? The problem is that Champagnes are usually made as a more or less complicated blend of the grapes listed above and undoubtably it’s in the blending of Champagne that things start to get a little confusing.

No two Champagne producers do their blends in the same way and to make matters worse, for most of them, the exact proportions of the blend are a closely guarded secret. Add to that fact that most make several different kind of blends in very different price ranges, and you see why people start to get confused.

Champagne MaillyA Pinot-heavy blend from Champagne Mailly. Notice the dark color from the skins and the millions of bubbles caused by proper secondary fermentation.

It helps to know that most producers usually make a standard cuvée which is their entry level wine and business card so to speak, along with a Prestige Cuvée: a considerably more expensive bottling that is considered the best the house has to offer. And then, to make things interesting, on top of that, they may offer one or more of the archetype styles from the realm of Champagne listed below:

Blanc de Blancs – Considered the cleanest and crispest expression of Champagne, a Blanc de Blancs is a Champagne made exclusively from white grapes. Usually 100% Chardonnay is used, but (very) occasionally a bit of Pinot Blanc make it into the mix. Blanc de Blancs are extraordinarily crisp and elegant Champagnes with ripe acidity and a mineral backbone. Many prefer them for their clean cut crispness while others find them to lack structure and punch. Me? I think they’re absolutely sexy!

Blanc de Noirs – An abomination of nature, a Blanc de Noirs is a white wine made exclusively from black grapes, usually Pinot Noir. Making a white wine from a black grape is possible because most of the color and tannins of black grapes are in the skins and Blanc de Noirs are made with very little contact between the juice of the grapes and their skins. The result is a powerful and structured white wine, lacking the color and the tannins of the skins. Blanc de Noirs are the most bold and powerful expressions of Champagne.

Rosé – Also know as Pink Champagne, Rosé is a mix of white and black grapes and is made either by leaving the juices to macerate with the skins for a somewhat extended period, or by mixing a bit of still red wine into the finished sparking product. The latter method is surprisingly common because it produces consistent results. Over the last couple of years, Rosé Champagnes have become increasingly popular with skyrocketing prices to match. This is fine by me, it was never my cup of bubbles. Some call it seductive and crisp, I find it as somewhat of a lost middle way between two gorgeous extremes.

Usually, the best bet is to try the producer’s standard cuvée and move on from there. It’s usually the most affordable choice and the house’s showcase product. If you like it, you can always move on to more elaborate (and consequently more expensive) bottles from the same house.

Pol Roger corkEven Champagne corks can be a work of art

A note on sweetness: Another aspect that undoubtably adds to the perception that Champagne is a complicated product is that wines are often bottled at different levels of sweetness. The sweetness is printed on the bottle, ranging from Brut Nature (extra dry) to Doux (cloyingly sweet). A general rule of thumb here is that if you are having dessert, you should go with a Sec (sweet) or Demi-sec (sweeter). If you are using Champagne as an aperitif or with food go for Brut (dry). If no sweetness level is printed on the bottle, assume it to be dry.

Sweetness in Champagne explained: In all honesty, Champagne sweetness can be confusing and the fact that Brut is actually drier than Extra Dry and Demi-Sec sweeter than Sec has even my French-speaking friends confused. A quick, good, basic guide on the sweetness of Champagne is available here. Even more geeky info on the subject of Champagne sweetness is available here.

 

Non-vintage vs Vintage Champagne

Another trick Champagne producers have for confusing the standard consumer relates to the subject of vintages. In most regions around the world, a particular bottle of wine comes from a particular vintage and has that vintage written rather prominently on the bottle. In Champagne, well, they do things a little differently there.

Have a Champagne bottle in sight? Good, have a close look at it. Does it have a year printed on it? No, good, then you’re dealing with a non-vintage Champagne. Non-vintage makes up the greatest part of modern Champagne production and consists of a mix of Champagne from a particular year and so-called reserve wine which is a mix of wine from previous years of production. The purpose of this mixing is to create a wine that is uniform in quality and taste year after year which is actually a lot harder than it sounds.

Vintage ChampagneAn example of a bottle of vintage Champagne. At only 6 years old, this would still be considered young.

A bottle of vintage Champagne, on the other hand, consists 100% of wine from a single year of production and bears the year of the vintage proudly on the front of the bottle. While only produced in extraordinarily good years, vintage Champagne from the same company can vary greatly in taste and quality from one year to another. Vintage Champagnes age very well and have a nasty habit of becoming pricy collector’s objects over the years.

The differences between non-vintage and vintage Champagne are many, but here are a few important ones to bear in mind:

  • Non-vintage Champagnes are absolutely consistent in taste and quality
  • Vintage Champagnes are always of good quality, but both quality and taste range widely from year to year
  • Non-vintage Champagnes are produced in mass quantities year after year
  • Vintage Champagnes are produced in smaller quantities and only in good years
  • Non-vintage Champagnes are crafted to be consumed within a year or two of release
  • Vintage Champagnes are build for the long haul, some will continue to evolve for decades!

 

So? Which is better? Long story short, it depends on the mood, the occasion and personal preferences. A good non-vintage Champagne such as Pol Roger is a very good thing indeed and very enjoyable! However, a fine vintage, when consumed at the right point in time is incomparable to anything else. The problem is finding the right time. Good vintage Champagnes will live for decades and there’s really no way to tell when they peak. Other than to buy a case and have a taste every few years. A very enjoyable exercise in its own right, I might add.

If you’re new to the world of Champagne, go with a good non-vintage do a little research and have your wine guy or wine obsessed friend help you pick. There are literally hundreds of producers, some more reasonably priced than others, some not worth drinking at all.

A note on names: Some producers pour a lot of money into branding. Obviously, that money’s got to come from somewhere and with not many Russian billionaires around, that somewhere is usually the price of the finished bottle of Champagne. Steer clear of the likes of Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. While both decent wines, they’re priced much higher than they should be. If you’ve got a friendly geek around, steer towards some of the smaller producers, they offer the best value for money. Hands down. If you want big names: Pol Roger makes a phenomenal Brut non-vintage and both Bollinger and Tattinger are treasured by many.

If, on the other hand, you’ve really got something to celebrate, get a proper expert to help you pick the right vintage from the right producer for the right time and occasion. Don’t go out and get a bottle of 2004 Dom Perignon and down it now, you’ll be sadly disappointed. I hear the 1996 is drinking nicely right about now, though.

Dom Perignon 2002Don’t assume expensive is better. My Dom Perigno 2002 will drink well in another 10 years or so, and be even more ridiculously expensive. If I had it now, I’d probably be disappointed.

And first things last: Don’t expect this to be a cheap adventure. You can probably get bottles of Champagne as low as $20, but that’s not to say you should. Decent non-vintage bottles (unless you live in Champagne) start at around $35 and from there on the sky’s the limit. Expect to pay at least $50-100 for vintage Champagnes and $200 for the better ones in good years. Prestige Cuvées, usually, will be $150 and upwards. It’s a fun hobby, and an expensive hobby. We all have priorities in life.

Is it worth it? To me it is, I’d rather have one good bottle of Champagne than three mediocre bottles of Joe Average Wine.

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