No country is more famous for wine than France, and no French wine is as famous as Champagne. It’s the stuff of celebrations, coronations and christenings, but while everyone knows its name, few realize that it is a made under stricter legal and quality controls than any other wine on earth.
As a result, there is literally no such thing as a bad or even mediocre champagne – entry level bottles are truly fine wines, and the gamut runs from good to great. But while the vast majority of Champagne consumed outside of France is non-vintage and a fairly standard blend of three grapes, Chardonnay Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, there is a lot more variety within the category than most people realize. Less than 300 Champagne labels reach the United States, but in France several thousand are available.
The versatility of Champagne is well illustrated by the famous quote of Madame Lily Bollinger, scion of one of the greatest champagne houses, which, though humorous, is also accurate: “I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.”
What Makes Champagne Special?
Grapes for sparkling wine grow best in the Champagne region, thanks to the its unique terroir. It is the world’s northernmost prestigious vineyard region, much wetter and colder than others, with 200 days of rain a year. Without the layer of limestone and chalk it would be too wet, and at times in summer, too dry. The chalk is mostly composed of ancient marine shells from the microorganisms that lived here when the region was under the ocean eons ago, and absorbs incredible amounts of water relative to rock or soil, preventing an excess of groundwater and then acting as reservoir to feed the vines during dry spells.
According to French law, for wine to be called Champagne, 100% of the grapes used must be grown in designated AOC vineyards within the Champagne-Ardennes region. Very precise rules dictate how these grapes can be grown, the maximum yield to avoid diluting the fruit quality, and even how vines are pruned. All grapes used for Champagne must be picked by hand.
The picked grapes are first fermented into still wines. These are blended in a complex process called assemblage, and some champagnes include hundreds of different still wines – Moet’s “entry level” Brut Imperial contains more than one hundred. The blend is put into bottles with yeast and sugar, then placed in cellars to age. As the yeast eats the sugar it converts it to carbon dioxide, making bubbles. Smaller bubbles are a sign of higher quality. For the last 6-7 weeks of aging, the bottles are stored on an angle, cap down, and turned regularly (“riddled”) so solid sediment from the spent yeast collects in the neck. After aging, the necks of the bottles are flash frozen, turning the sediment into a solid icy plug. The bottles are then opened and pressure ejects the solid plug, leaving only wine behind. This process is called “disgorgement.” The bottles are then re-corked and ready for sale.
Four Different Styles
There are four main styles, of which the best known is “standard” Champagne, which includes some of the world’s best. Seven grape varietals are allowed, though in practice four are quite obscure, and most use a blend of the three primary grapes. Less common is blanc de blanc, Champagne made only with white grapes, almost exclusively Chardonnay. This is lighter in body and perfect as an aperitif without food. Ayala is the largest house that focuses on this style, and the only major producer whose signature label is a blanc de blanc.
An even less common style is blanc de noirs, made only from red grapes, deep golden in color, full bodied, serving the same culinary purpose as red wines, a good accompaniment to food, even heartier meat dishes. By far the most famous example is Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Francais, or “VVF” as its fans know it. The world’s rarest and most collectible champagne, it is produced entirely from pinot noir in two small grand cru rated vineyards within the walls of the Bollinger Estate, among the very few in Europe not historically damaged by the phylloxera plague, which eventually resulted in disease-resistant American vines being grafted onto grapes all over the continent. This makes it the only original, purely French pinot noir-based champagne in existence. But it has a hefty price tag (around $400) as it is made only about three times a decade, in a quantity of about 2,000 bottles each time.
The fourth category, and the most misunderstood of all, is rose. Because of the one-time popularity of cheap American rose sparklers, “pink” champagnes often carry a negative and cheap connotation, which could not be farther from the truth. Many experts consider them the greatest of champagnes, and in every case, the rose version of a label is considerably dearer than its non-pink sibling. It can be made two ways, by leaving the skins of the red grapes in at the beginning of the production process, or by including red still wines in the blend before secondary fermentation.
Vintage and Non-Vintage
Beyond the four styles, there are several further distinctions. The major difference is between vintage and non-vintage. Non-vintage is a blend of various years, and accounts for nearly 90% of all champagne (it is readily identifiable by the absence of a year on the label or the letters NV – it never actually says non-vintage). These by law must be aged at least 15 months, though most producers double the minimum and go 2-3 years. Champagne makers prefer the loftier term “multi-vintage,” the notion being that through blending, a particular house’s style can be consistently replicated and remain the same over time. For instance, the world’s bestselling champagne, Moet & Chandon Imperial (aka White Star), tastes the same as it did a decade ago.
To further confuse matters, non-vintage champagnes come in half a dozen varying degrees of dryness and are labeled accordingly from driest to sweetest: ultra-brut, brut, extra sec, sec, demi-sec and doux. Brut is the most common, though sweeter champagnes have been enjoying a recent comeback, and demi-sec is the fastest growing subcategory. Sweeter wines go better with spicy food like Thai or Indian, as well as desserts.
Vintage champagnes (with a year on label) are made only in exceptional harvest years, typically once every two to three seasons. These can contain only wines from the year on the label, and must be aged at least three years, though 5-7 years is typical. More expensive than NV, they are distinctive and different every vintage.
Finally, there are the greatest of all champagnes, the prestige cuvees. A tradition rather than legal definition, these are the namesake wines that carry the reputation of the house that makes them. The best-known examples are Moet’s Dom Perignon and Louis Roederer’s Cristal. By tradition, producers use their very best grapes and age them much longer. They are typically made less frequently than regular vintage champagnes, only in the very best years. There are several thousand champagne producers, but only a handful make a well-known prestige cuvee, including Palmes d’Or (Nicolas Feuillatte), La Grand Annee (Bollinger), Sir Winston Churchill (Pol Roger), Fleur de Champagne (Perrier Jouet), Grand Siècle Alexandra Rosé (Laurent Perrier), Comtes de Champagne (Taittinger), and La Grande Dame (Veuve Clicquot). Perhaps the most boutique of the renowned houses, Krug, famously makes nothing but prestige cuvee – there is no “ordinary” Krug. Most major champagnes, be they non-vintage, vintage or prestige cuvees, are made in both regular and pricier rose versions. Cheers!
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