Although good or better sparkling wines are produced around the world and have earned a place at your table, champagne is the very best of the bunch. It’s got a whole range of intense aromas and flavours ranging from apple, lemon and peach fruit (with a dash of raspberry in rosé versions), minerals and telltale autolysed yeast. It manages full ripeness and creamy richness in the mouth held aloft on wings of crisp acidity. It lingers on the palate for a very long time. Champagne is not just refreshing fizz. It’s real wine, to be savoured and reflected upon.
There are several reasons why champagne is so good. The Champagne region (starting about 50 km east of Paris) is located on the 49th parallel, making it a (thermally) cool place to grow grapes. Full ripeness is hard to achieve in some years, but acidity is rarely cooked out of the fruit by warm weather as it can be in more southerly regions of production. That acidity is responsible for champagne’s freshness which in some specimens can be frankly bracing. Because most champagne is blended from wines grown in various subregions and in different years, fuller and older reserve wines can pack in such ripeness as is necessary for good balance with those acids. The stock of reserve wines in Champagne amounts to 1.6 billion bottles, a five year supply. Blenders won’t be running out of these wines any time soon.
The chalk soils of Champagne also contribute to the quality of the region’s wine. The soils, a kind of light loose limestone, are made up of fossilized animals which lived in the ancient ocean that covered the area. It’s porous enough to allow rainwater to drain from the surface of the vineyards without flooding the vines, but it also holds water deeper down where it can be reached by deep roots in times of drought. The chalk may also enhance the flavours of the grapes which grow on it.
Champagne acquires its particular character from its vinification and aging. However, the grape varietals used to produce the wine contribute their own tastes and textures to the final product. The three types most commonly used are pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Pinot noir, the grape of the velvety red wines of Burgundy, is planted on 38% of the region’s vineyards. It provides the body, flesh and grip, the structural backbone essential to champagne’s blends, and the occasional raspberry nuance. Pinot noir juice is racked off its black skins before it acquires their colour to produce a white wine. (Still red pinot noir is added to white champagnes to create most rosés. Others get the pink in by leaving the juice on the skins for a longer period, the saignee method.)
Chardonnay covers 30% of Champagne’s vignoble. Its wines are leaner than their Burgundian counterparts. Sometimes difficult to enjoy in youth, chardonnay in champagne becomes exciting and snappy while remaining fine and delicate. Its colour is paler than that of champagnes with black grapes in the blend. Paradoxically, this white among the reds confers the greatest ability to age. Chardonnay in blends and blanc de blanc champagnes have gained popularity over the years. Wines like Salon, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne and Krug Clos de Mesnil now command superstar ratings (and prices).
Four other white grape varieties are permitted in champagne but are rarely used: pinot blanc, pinot gris, meslier and arbanne. (You can seriously impress your wine friends by naming them.)
Pinot meunier, planted on 32% of Champagne’s acreage, had a bad reputation until recently. It wasn’t meunier’s fault. So little of the stuff is grown around the world that the folks who grew it in Champagne didn’t know what it needed to shine: different handling around harvest and in the winery. Today, champagne houses acknowledge and take full advantage of meunier’s richness, elegance, telltale toasted bread notes and a hint of red berry fruit in champagnes.
The “méthode Champenois” by which champagne is made plays a central role in the quality and character of the wine. The original sparkling wines were created accidentally when the yeasts performing alcoholic fermentation became dormant when the temperature grew cool enough in autumn and came back to life the following spring. At that time they could resume fermenting the sugar remaining in the wine, generating alcohol and CO2 gas. The gas would form bubbles when the bottle was opened but caused bottles to explode with alarming frequency.
The champagne method, made possible by sturdy English bottles in the late 18th century, involved carrying out a deliberate second fermentation of the base wine in the bottle. This is achieved by adding yeast and sugar to the still wine and capping it tightly to keep the gas in.
The champagne method does more than add the bubbles. It leaves behind the cadavers of the yeast cells from the second fermentation. These deceased yeasts are dissolved by their own enzymes in a process known as autolysis. Long aging of the wine on the yeast components (lees aging) ensures that champagne is well endowed with its sweet yeasty decadent flavours and aromas. Autolyzed yeast also deters oxidation in champagne as it ages. The bottles are gently shaken and gradually moved from the horizontal to the vertical (cap down). When the time is right—eighteen months or decades later—the neck of the bottle is immersed in freezing saline. The cap is removed and the potentially turbid solids accumulated on it are blown out in a winey ice plug. Some sugar is added (the dosage), as little as 2 g/l for brut wines to over 20 g/l in extra dry or “riche” styles. The bottle is then corked and laid down for a while (18 months or more is best) while it settles down and its components marry. Et voilà, le champagne!
The organization of the wine industry in Champagne has led to great improvements in the wines, their sustainability, and environmental impact. The Comité Champagne, the latest name for the region’s wine advisory and regulatory body, is managing the status and evolution of champagne. It also serves to maintain harmony between the 20,455 harvest-declaring growers who own 90% of Champagne’s vineyard area (holding less than 2 Ha on average) and the champagne houses responsible for 2/3 of the region’s total production and 90% of its exports.
Most people are familiar with big champagne houses like Moet et Chandon, Mumm, Roederer, Taittinger, Laurent-Perrier and Heidsieck. Each offers a range of styles from multi-vintage blends to blancs de blancs, blancs de noirs, wines of a single vintage, and single vineyard bottlings. In Canada, prices begin around $45 and rise well into three figures for grand marque champagnes like Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal, and La Grande Dame. Many growers have begun producing and marketing their own champagnes, some of which are extremely exciting. The holiday season is the perfect time to celebrate with something more than a modest new world bubbly. Life is short. Drink champagne!
[In early November I traveled in Champagne as an international member of the Circle of Wine Writers. We were hosted by the Comité Champagne. Over the next while I’ll be publishing profiles of eight interesting and individual houses.]