What’s your Champagne Style?
While there is but one way of making Champagne, not all Champagnes are the same. Champagne is a blend of three essential ingredients: grape varieties, vineyards and vintages. In combination, they can create a particular Champagne style. Champagne is a protected word, meaning it can only come from the Champagne region.
Most Champagne is a blend
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 different Champagne styles emerged.
Indeed, if it wasn’t for nearby Paris and the discovery of bubbles, then the Champagne region might not exist anymore. There are much easier and cheaper places to make quality wine. Champagne became the most renowned wine brand in existence. 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.
A blend of grapes
First, 99.98% of modern Champagne must use three permitted grape varieties. These are 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 the human body, then Chardonnay is the skin, Pinot Noir the muscles, and Pinot Meunier the bones. There are also a few remaining rare varities, and there’s an article telling their story here.
A blend of places
Moreover, these grapes are usually from various villages located all over the sub-regions of Champagne. Each one has an official quality rating. For example, Grand Cru 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.
A blend of years
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. They are kept to use with future harvests. This process smooths out the peaks and troughs of vintage variation. For a small winegrower, this might be 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. It ensures 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. That’s why Krug calls their NV a Multi-vintage. Good NV’s will continue to improve and develop in the bottle over a few more years. Sadly, 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. A 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!
That dosage technique can also 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 sweetest style made commercially. The sugary Doux, once beloved of Russian Tsars, no longer exists. Today some see sweet fizz as synonymous with inferior quality. But there is a small market with 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. Conversely, allowing it to happen 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 Champagnes are traditionally from great harvest years. That means three or four years per decade. Hence, it only accounts for around 10% of the Champagne produced.
However, some Houses declare vintages more often. It’s possible to make great wine even in poor years if the grape selection is strict. In a Vintage wine, every drop must be from the harvest 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 ages, the longer it sits on the lees in the bottle. As it does so, yeasty flavours and aromas develop. These often taste of baked bread, toast or brioche.
As demand increases for Vintage Champagne, there is a commercial temptation to make it every year. Hence 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 best wines from the most exceptional years develop for decades. While they can be drunk on release, their real glory is after at least another 5-10 years maturation. With power and complexity, they are always best with food.
Blanc de Blancs
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, with bottle age they develop secondary flavours of honey and nuts. They may be NV or Vintage.
Blanc de Noirs
Wines labelled Blanc de Noirs are the opposite. These are white wines solely from the black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. This style wasn’t much seen 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. 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’s usually from blending red and white base wines. This method gives consistent control over the colour, ranging from onion skin through salmon to dark pink. The alternative is saignée. This process allows brief skin contact with Pinot, before drawing the pink juice off. 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 young while the colour and red berry fruit flavours remain intact. However, there are some serious examples. Find out more about Rosé Champagne here.
What then, of the Prestige Cuvées? These are the no-expense-spared wines. The famous ones include Cristal 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. They reflect the very best quality a Champagne House can attain. They are 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. 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, dress up a bit and make it a very special occasion.
Champagne isn’t one drink
Champagne isn’t just one drink. The winegrower can play with an incredible palette to create a Champagne style that can take many forms.
The Champenois frequently say Chacun à son gôut, which means, to each their taste.
What’s your Champagne style?
How about a Champagne Course? Try this one.