What’s your Champagne Style?
While there is but one way of making Champagne, not all Champagnes are made the same. Champagne is a blend of three essential ingredients: grape varieties, vineyards and vintages. In combination, they can create a particular Champagne style.
The reason for blending is Champagne’s marginal climate. There is considerable weather variation every year, similar to our experience in the UK; frost, rain and cold temperatures bring a high risk of diabolical harvests, potentially ruinous for any winegrower. Before modern science, technology and global warming, blending was a way to hedge your bets. In turn, this also created consistency; in quality, in quantity, and prices. Champagne made a virtue out of necessity and gradually differences emerged in Champagne style.
Indeed, if it hadn’t initially been for the proximity of a large home market in Paris and the discovery of how to add bubbles, then the Champagne region might not even exist today. There are much easier and cheaper places to make quality wine. Champagne became the most renowned wine brand in existence, and as it did so, various styles were created. If you like Champagne then there is much to explore. If you don’t, then that may be because you just haven’t found your Champagne style. Yet.
Making Champagne is a long and expensive process involving many stages. Each step gives the winegrower plenty of opportunities to produce recognisable differences.
First, 99.98% of modern Champagne can only be made from three permitted grape varieties, white Chardonnay and the black Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. These have proven to be those best suited to the climate and thin chalk soils after many centuries of winegrowing. There are tiny remnants of other grape varieties left, but new plantings of those were banned long ago. Each type of grape has different strengths and play different roles. If Champagne is a human body, then Chardonnay is like the skin while Pinot Noir forms the muscles and Pinot Meunier the bones.
Moreover, these grapes are usually sourced from various villages located all over the sub-regions of Champagne. Each one has an official quality rating. For example, if you see Grand Cru on the label, it means that only grapes from the top-rated villages have been used, implying higher quality and price. The winemaker can, therefore, play with grapes from different places, growers and quality levels. Each is vinified separately, creating many different base wines to blend into a Champagne style of choice.
Then, Champagne is usually a blend of years, creating the so-called non-vintage (NV) style. Each year a stock of still base wines are kept back in reserve to add to the harvests from future years. This process smooths out the peaks and troughs of vintage variation. For a small winegrower, this might be restricted to a blend of the current year and the previous one or two years. For a large Champagne house there may be many older wines included in the mix in various percentages, as a multi-vintage, subtly ensuring that the bottle you open always meets the desired quality and flavour profile of the House style. The House style is a recipe – meddle with it at your peril!
NV Champagne is the essential wine of any Champagne House – it accounts for 80% of sales and so defines the individual House Champagne style. As such, it is arguably the Champagne style that depends on blending skills the most. Even though they may not be the finest examples made in the range, they are the most visible. Their quality can vary from indifferent to magical. For example, Krug Grand Cuvée uses up to ten different vintages in the blend (and that is why Krug refer to it as a Multi-vintage). Good NV’s will continue to improve and develop in the bottle over a few more years but most never get the chance. Put a few NV bottles away if you can, you’ll taste the improvement even after just a few months.
The vast majority of Champagne made today is in the Brut (dry) style, which is the most popular and versatile. Deciding on the dryness of the final wine is at the last stage of the production process, where a measured dose of sugar is used to balance the acidity. Most Brut wines still require a dosage, as anyone that has ever tried the acidic base wines will attest! Extend to create wines of different sweetnesses.
There are small amounts made of gently sweet wines such as demi-sec. Often known as Rich, demi-sec is the now the sweetest style made commercially. The sugary Doux, once beloved of Russian Tsars, no longer exists. Today sweeter fizz is often viewed unfairly, as synonymous with inferior quality, but there is a small market with just a few high-quality examples on offer, for example, Pol Roger Rich and Roederer Carte Blanche.
A mention too for a recent and fashionable innovation, that of Brut Zéro, a.k.a. Brut sauvage, ultra-brut, sans sucre or non-dosage. Here, no sugar is added at all, leaving the wines bone dry and austere, particularly when young. These can be brilliant with food but approach them more cautiously to drink as an apéritif.
Champagne’s acidity is in itself a major stylistic factor. The base wines come from grapes which are barely ripe compared to other wine regions. They are high in sharp malic acid and low in sugar. During the Champagne process, this malic acid can transform naturally into the softer lactic acid. Preventing this makes wine with a tart but fresh acidity. Allowing it creates much softer, broader and creamier wines. The difference between the razor focus of Lanson and the satin softness of Pol Roger is startling yet both are excellent.
Fermentation and maturation of a proportion of the base wines in wood before blending can also be used to make stylistic differences. Bollinger is probably the most famous example where this is practised, imparting creaminess and complexity.
Vintage Champagne is by tradition only declared by a House in great years, meaning those three or four years per decade when harvest conditions are exceptional and a rigorous selection of the best grapes will make a superior wine. Hence, it only accounts for around 10% of the Champagne produced.
However, some Houses declare vintages more often. It is possible to make great wine from some particular sites even in poor years if the grape selection is strict enough. In a Vintage wine, every drop must be from the stated year. The base wines must be higher in alcohol than NV and the law requires considerably more minimum ageing. NV has fifteen months minimum ageing while vintage is three years minimum. The longer the wine is aged, the longer it sits on the lees in the bottle. As it ages, the yeasty flavours and aromas get picked up, often described as baked bread, toast or brioche.
As demand has risen for Vintage Champagne, there is a commercial temptation to make this style every year, so the reputation of the House is paramount in this respect. Salon, a specialist House, makes only vintage wines and only in the very best years.
The great wines from the most exceptional vintages can be incredibly long-lived. While they can be drunk on release, their real glory will only be revealed if they have at least another 5-10 years to mature. With power and complexity, they are always best drunk with food. Recent exceptional years where vintages were widely declared include 2008, 2002, 1996 and a great trio of 1990, 1989 and 1988. 2012 and 2013 are predicted to be great years. Nevertheless, great examples from other years are available, depending on the House.
Blanc de Blancs is a distinct style meaning “white of whites.” This wine will be 100% Chardonnay and has the greatest ageing potential of any Champagne. Often light and fresh when young (which makes an excellent apéritif style) with bottle age they develop secondary flavours of honey and nuts and fill out into elegant wines of great character. They may be NV or Vintage.
Wines labelled Blanc de Noirs are the opposite, being white wines being made solely from black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Traditionally this was not a term much seen on the label until Bollinger made it fashionable. As the colour is in the grape skins rather than the juice, early separation creates a white wine. Full-fruited and weighty, they come alive with food, such as white meats. There are some excellent examples, especially from the southernmost part of the region.
The popularity of Rosé has fluctuated ever since Veuve Cliquot made the first one in 1777. Rosé accounts for around 10% of the market. Pink fizz is always popular in times of prosperity and is an essential part of the range. Unlike all other rosé wine made in Europe, it is usually created by blending red and white base wines. This method gives consistent control over the colour, ranging from onion skin through salmon to dark pink. The other way to achieve pinkness is by brief skin contact with the black grapes, then bleeding the juice off, known as saignée. Consistent colour is harder to achieve with this method. Rosé ranges from delicate and nuanced to muscular and powerful. Others are frivolous froth. Most are best drunk young while the colour and red berry fruit flavours remain intact. However, there are some serious examples.
What then, of the Prestige Cuvées? These are the no-expense-spared wines. The famous ones include Cristal (Roederer), Dom Pérignon (Möet), Belle Époque (Perrier-Jouët), Vieille Vignes Françaises (Bollinger), Clos des Goisses (Philipponnat), S (Salon), Clos de Mesnil (Krug) and Le Clos Saint Hilaire (Billecart-Salmon).
These are the ultimate luxury Champagnes, designed to reflect the very best quality a Champagne House can attain – the Haute Couture of the wine world. All are in different Champagne styles. They might be vintage, they might be a single-vineyard and they might be a blend, but all push the envelope and all are expensive. Are they worth it? The top ones undoubtedly are, as long as they have the required long bottle age. If you open one, get dressed up and make it a very special occasion.
Champagne isn’t just one drink – the winegrower can play with an amazing palette to create a Champagne style that can take many forms.
The Champenois frequently say Chacun à son gôut, which means, to each his (or her) own taste.
What’s your Champagne style?