What makes Champagne great – what makes a great Champagne?
I often get asked what makes a great Bordeaux, so, on a trip to Champagne, with UK Champagne Ambassador 2010 and Champagne specialist Laura Clay, it was my turn to ask the questions. On a lightning trip, Laura shared some amazing places and wines. It would have been longer were it not for the French train strike – but I suppose it’s good to leave thirsty……
Any great wine depends on an intimate mix of terroir and climate, the skill of the wine maker, the will and rigour to select fruit and the nerve to wait and hope for the perfect balance of ripeness and acidity. We looked at all of this.
The vineyards of Champagne are dominated by rolling limestone hillsides, or more precisely chalk. Visiting the huge underground cellars you can feel this terroir – the damp sticky consistency of the chalk subsoil is there right behind the rows and rows of champagne bottles stocked in the acres of underground cellars.
An important skill that Bordeaux and Champagne wine makers both need is blending. There are single varietal wines in both the regions, more famously in Champagne with Blanc de Blancs from Chardonnay, but blending remains key. Here they have Meunier (apparently nobody here says Pinot Meunier), Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to ‘play’ with. These are planted in 320 villages (‘Crus’) over 35 000 ha of vines divided into 280 000 different plots. Each plot is part of a mosaic of unique combinations of climate, soil and topography giving another layer of complexity to the notion of varietal blending as these plots are picked and vinified separately.
Then there is the blend of vintages for Non Vintage Champagne (NV) with the use of reserve wines. The notion of vintage is different in Champagne; around 70% of production is non-vintage, varying from year to year. Any house or producer can declare a vintage if they consider their wines up to par that year. If it is declared vintage, all the wine in the blend must come from that vintage. Non-vintage will be a blend from different years.
And then there is a whole other set of decisions to be made around the secondary fermentation, or prise de mousse, in the bottle. The time spent sur lattes, on the lees, during the second fermentation; this must be at least 15 months for NV and a minimum of three years for vintage. But the winemaker can choose to age for longer before disgorgement making the wine richer and more complex. The style of the liqueur de dosage – added to the bottle after disgorgement – also dictates the style of the Champagne, whether it be Brut, as most are, or anywhere between Zero Dosage to Demi-Sec. There is even a Doux (sweet) style of champagne.
There are choices for the first fermentation too; to undergo malolactic or not and the containers the wine is fermented in. With more and more experimentation at every level of the process, I don’t think there has been a more exciting time to discover the wonderful complexity that is Champagne – even on my short trip; I was wowed by the diversity.
How to navigate this diversity? If you thought ‘La Place de Bordeaux’ system of châteaux, brokers and negociants is complicated take a long look at the Champagne system. Some, but not all houses (Maisons), own vines and some, but not all, growers make their own champagne – choosing to sell some or all of their grapes to the houses. 15 800 growers hold 90% of the vines but the 320 houses sell 70% of the 300 M bottles produced (on average) each year, the remaining third is sold by independent growers and co-ops.
This raises the question of ‘What makes an expensive Champagne?’ Champagne may be smaller in size than Bordeaux but it is up there as far as value is concerned. 4.9 Billion euros turnover for 300 million bottles (Bordeaux turns over 4 Billion Euros for about 600 million bottles)
Perceived value is important. Quality is, of course, part of value but so is market history and consistency. They are very good at marketing in Champagne, brand identity is strong and the notion of consistency of style is of particular importance to the champagne houses and Grand Marques. Their objective is to create a house style that remains the same wherever and whenever you buy it across the globe, especially for the houses that have a large production and international reach. Buying from the many grape growers across the region, from the different terroirs and crus, offers a large palette from which they can blend to ensure this consistency and it’s no mean feat.
They are all pursuing quality but each champagne house seems to have a different approach or philosophy behind the method and the desire to communicate their difference. This might explain why there are so many champagne houses, and why each champagne house attaches such importance to their house style.
What style of champagne are you looking for? This may change with occasion, as an aperitif or to accompany a meal (more of which later), to celebrate a special occasion, a gift? Quality can be technically defined, but style and preference is such a personal choice. Not sure of your preferred style? Taste as much Champagne as you can, from as many producers and houses as you can – purely in the interests of research, you understand! In this spirit here’s some of the conclusions from my recent visit to three houses where I saw three different points of view and a huge variety of styles
Straight off the TGV, AR Lenoble in Damery was our first stop. It is the perfect place to start your Champagne style discovery; their range of wines is both stunning and eclectic. AR Lenoble is 100% family owned and 100% independent and has been since the very beginning, a rare thing in Champagne. They own 18 hectares of vineyards mainly in the Grand Cru village of Chouilly for Chardonnay, in the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil for Pinot Noir, and also in the village of Damery in the Marne Valley where their cellars are.
Twenty years ago sister-and-brother Anne and Antoine Malassagne, great-grandchildren of the founder, took over, and they have quietly innovated in the vines, the cellars and the marketing ever since.
Biodiversity and ecological responsibility are buzzwords throughout the wine industry and Champagne is no exception. AR Lenoble was the second House in Champagne to be awarded the “Haute Valeur Environnementale” certification in 2007 (nearly organic). You can see their efforts in the vineyard; encouraging biodiversity through natural habitat with hedgerows, orchards, embankments, trees, low stone walls, and ploughing and grassing between the vines, which also has the advantage of limiting yields. Less is more.
Innovation can be a back to the future moment; the two fresh pairs of eyes took their time to re assess the process from field to bottle and instead of throwing out everything from the past they incorporated the best practices. For example, pressing is still done in three traditional and beautiful Coquard presses.
The plot-by-plot wine-making takes place in a range of different vessels, some in small 225 litre barrels, others in 5000-litre vats or in stainless steel or enamel-lined tanks. The choice depends on the plot and the vintage, as does the decision to undertake malolactic fermentation, or not.
A peculiarity of AR Lenoble is the attention paid to the ageing of their reserve wines. In 1993, when they took over, the brother and sister team decided to start conserving their reserve wines in 225-litre barrels, using the principle of the perpetual reserve, topping up with each harvest. This is more familiar perhaps as the term Solera used in Sherry. The 5,000-litre casks allow for slower ageing than in barrels, bringing extra freshness to the wines. There are now two reserve wines: one uniquely from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly and the other that is based on Chardonnay from Chouilly blended with Pinot Noir from the Premier Cru village of Bisseuil. They are both aged in a mix of cuves, fûts and foudres, topped up each year with new wines.
In 2010, innovating again, they took a portion of this ‘reserve perpetuelle’ and placed it in magnums under natural cork. Thus allowing the signature aromatic richness to develop whilst preserving freshness by limiting the oxygen exchange. Freshness is important and Antoine believes it will become even more so with climate change. He sees each harvest coming in with lower acidity levels than they used to have, so the reserve wines now need to add freshness as well as complexity and richness.
The timing for our first ever visit to the house was perfect, they had just released the first non-vintage wines containing these reserve wines aged in the magnums.
Antoine Malassagne made the decision to use these unique reserve wines into his blend following the 2014 harvest. The reserve wine from the Magnums was blended with parts of the ‘reserve perpetuelle’. This was in turn blended, with 60% wines from the 2014 harvest (total reserve wine of 40%). This final blend was then bottled and aged on their lees for three years in their 18th-century chalk cellars in Damery.
Got that? It took me a while; check out the diagram below – it might help. Still not sure – taste them – all will be come clear. The AR Lenoble Intense “mag14” and AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “mag14” are now available with the Mag 14 logo clearly visible on the bottle. Jancis Robinson called it unignorable, in a recent article on her site, rating the AR Lenoble Grand Cru Blancs de Blancs Chouilly « mag 14 » NV up there with Louis Roederer Cristal Vintage 2008 and Dom Pérignon Vintage 2008.
We will have to return to Damery for the first edition of AR Lenoble Brut Nature Dosage Zéro “mag14” in 2019 and then again in 2020 for the first edition of AR Lenoble Rosé Terroirs Chouilly-Bisseuil “mag14”. Not a hardship.
We were also treated to an amazing tasting of their range. I was stunned by just how diverse the wines were. The showstopper? Hard to choose, Laura loved the Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Chouilly “Mag14” but Les Aventures probably got my vote. Normally I’m a ‘Blanc de noirs’ girl but this 100% Chardonnay, from the Grand Cru Village of Chouilly, was quite extraordinary. A blend of the excellent 2002 and 2006 vintages, it takes its name from the tiny (less than 1/2 ha) plot where the grapes are grown – but it really is an adventure in the glass, if you can find it, try it!
I don’t come to Champagne as often as I would like but when I have been I have been lucky enough to visit Maison Deutz on several occasions. I love their Champagne; part of this love affair was born from the ‘esprit’ of the house. Despite being part of the Roederer Group since 1983, Deutz has kept its family atmosphere. It is rightly proud of its heritage, clearly seen in the beautifully preserved family home in Ay, next to the historic cellars which run for 3kms under chalk vine covered hills.
The Deutz Brut Classic – is just that – a classic, I love the fact that it is made from one third of each of the varietals, spends three years on the lees (sur lattes) and is never disappointing. Diversity in style across different champagnes may be a part of the joy of discovering Champagne but for a brand the notion of consistency is so very important. Deutz owns 42 hectares of vines out of the 245 hectares they source the wine from – giving them the flexibility across the vintages they need for this consistency.
Another reason why Deutz has remained such a firm favourite is their generous hospitably. The Deutz family home must be an inspiration to work in, it was certainly an inspirational place to taste their wines and enjoy them with lunch.
Embarrassingly, I had forgotten quite what great food wine champagne is. There is no doubt it is a great aperitif wine, a wonderful after dinner drink and, of course, a celebratory tipple. But a lunch in the spectacular dining room of Deutz put me back on track.
If you have never had the opportunity to have a meal matched uniquely to champagne, I highly recommend the experience. Champagne styles are diverse, tasting several champagnes side by side, from the same, or from different houses, illustrates this, but a meal served with different champagnes highlights these differences even more and shows just what a versatile wine champagne is.
Deutz have just released a special edition of the NV Rosé that is perfect for summer drinking. This is a blend of the 90% Pinot Noir Grands Crus from the Montagne de Reims with 10% Chardonnay blended with about 8% of red wine made by the cellar master from old vines on the hill of Aÿ. The wine is then aged for three years on its lees. With rosé the appreciation always starts with the colour, with this special edition in particular, thanks to the label and box decorated with pink Japanese Cherry Blossom. It’s a perfect aperitif but try it with salmon, creamy cheese or any red berry dessert – you won’t be disappointed.
I finished with the big guns, a visit to Ruinart, part of the large LVMH wine and spirits portfolio. The oldest of the Champagne Houses, Ruinart was created in 1729, and is right in the centre of Reims. The cathedral like Crayeres cellars, a Unesco heritage site since 2015, are amazing. See the video here
The visit was organised by Laura for the AWE (Association of Wine Educators) so the champagne geeks were out in force and Ruinart rose elegantly to the occasion thanks to Caroline Fiot, the winemaker, who shone as much as her champagne. Caroline was a perfect example of the dynamism of the new generation of wine makers in Champagne, her competence in explaining to an audience thirsty (excuse the pun) for technical details blew us away and put us in our place once or twice!
She treated us to a technical tasting of their signature Blanc de Blancs, two non-vintages: one from magnum, and the Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs vintage 2006. Blanc de Blancs is really their signature, with the aromatic freshness Chardonnay coming from about 80% 1er Cru grapes.
The three wines could have been so similar, being all 100% Chardonnay – but no. The NV in bottle was based on 2015 wine with reserve wines from 13 & 14 and the magnum NV was based on 2014 base wine with 12 & 13 reserve wines. The Dom Ruinart 2006 100% Grand Cru vineyards, spends nine years on the lees before being disgorged in March 2016 (the disgorgement date is mentioned on the label). This is the 24th vintage of this wine, the first was produced in 1959, Dom Ruinart is always and only vintage.
The notion of freshness was discussed at great length, the same challenge of the ripeness of the grapes raised by Antoine Malassagne at A R Lenoble. The response here is to reduce the percentage of reserve wine in a bid to maintain that all-important freshness, especially as their still wines systematically undergo malolactic fermentation. They choose not to use oak for ageing the reserve wine and use a pneumatic press for the harvest again to maintain that signature freshness. Same problem, different solutions – fascinating.
If you want to learn more about champagne, you should, of course, visit – if you can’t, you can learn more at the interactive wine school, Champagne Campus, created by the Champagne Wine Bureau or ask Laura Clay, Chairman of the AWE, to organise a tutored tasting, she’ll be happy to demonstrate that famous diversity and you may even find your answer to ‘What makes a great Champagne?’
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