What is Champagne?
Opinions vary extensively when it comes to this most classic of sparkling wines that only by taking the time to understand the way it is made and its history, can a real appreciation of ‘what is Champagne’ be fully understood.
“The Wine of the Devil”
It was back in the 17th century when a French monk called ‘Dom Perignon,’ was trying to eradicate the bubbles being produced in the wine he was making and discovered it was due to a secondary fermentation taking place within the wine in the sealed bottle. However this natural process was causing many bottles to explode in the cellars, wreaking complete havoc and resulting in much of his other stock being destroyed. So because of this, he called it ’The Devils Wine’.
“The English Connection“
Although Dom Perignon was thought to have invented the ‘Champagne Method’ at this time, the credit actually goes to Christopher Merret, an English chemist living in Gloucestershire. It has long been established that he was writing papers about the discovery of ‘secondary fermentation in wine and cider’ 6 years before Dom Perignon began to experiment with wine making at the Abbey of Haut Villiers in France, some 30 years before the first bottle of French sparkling Champagne was produced and 70 years before the first Champagne House was created. So it was actually ‘the English who invented Champagne‘.
The Champagne Grapes - ‘A touch of Class’
However, one discovery that can be accredited to Dom Perignon was that he realised when blending wines from a selection of grape varieties grown in different villages, it created a wine with more depth and character.
Three main grape varieties have remained to this day and form the backbone of all the Champagne styles created, also representing part of the quality controlled ‘Appellation Controlee’ [AC] system in the Champagne production process.
There are two black varieties, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier with only one white, this being the classic Chardonnay.
Note: Champagne remains the only ‘AC’ wine production region in France that does not have to show this on the label, as the term Champagne is deemed sufficient to establish its originality and quality]
The Champagne method of production called ‘Methode Champenoise,’ has now been re-named ‘Methode Traditionelle‘. This system is used everywhere in the world, including the UK where now some of the best sparkling wine is made, but only the one from the Champagne region in France is allowed to be called ‘Champagne‘.
So with its history; the grape varieties; the Champagne method of production along with the chalk soil and climate of France’s most northerly vineyard - this forms the recipe for what is known as ‘the finest sparkling wine in the world’.
Grande Marque or Grand Cru?
These two terms are regularly used but often confused when Champagne is discussed and as there are so many producers creating their own styles or ‘brands’ of Champagne, it is important to understand what they mean. In fact there are 264 Champagne Houses, 45 co-operatives with their own label and over 5,000 growers - so what is the difference?
Grands and Premiers Crus are the classifications given to the vineyards on a quality rated basis. This system is called ‘Echelle des Crus’. The villages that receive a maximum ‘Echelle’ of 100% are classified as Grands Crus and those of 90 - 99% are rated as Premiers Crus. Any villages of a lower quality are all rated at 80%. There are 17 villages with Grand Crus status and 43 villages of Premiers Crus. Champagnes enjoying this level of quality will display either of these terms on the label.
A Grand Marque literally means ‘A Great or Famous Brand’ and this fame may come from the quality and volume created. However in this case quality alone is not sufficient, as the name of the ‘Champagne House’ must also be ‘well enough known’ to warrant belonging to this exclusive collection of producers.
The original ‘academy of the finest‘, ‘Le Syndicat du Commerce des Vins’ was established in 1882 to uphold the name of Champagne and at this time consisted of 64 members. By 1997 and after much infighting throughout time, the most elite houses totalled only 24 and the ‘Club des Grandes Marques’ now became firmly established.
There are 7 levels of sweetness established in Champagne production and recognised the world over, from ‘Extra Brut’ through to the sweetest ‘Doux’. But the most common type of Champagne style and representing the largest volume is ‘Brut [Dry] Non Vintage‘.
So we will start here with what a typical example should represent. Brut Champagnes are blended each year with wine from the previous year [vin de tirage] so as to maintain the individual character of each individual Champagne House, in other words their ‘signature’. This of course remains a closely guarded secret from within!
On The Eye - Brut Champagne with a higher proportion of Chardonnay is straw gold, sometimes tinged with brilliant green highlights. Wines made with a greater percentage of black grapes will have the appearance of white gold with occasionally hints of pink
On the Nose - The bouquet, enhanced by the carbon dioxide, will seem more profound. If the higher proportion is Chardonnay then floral, citrus and toast aromas will dominate, if it is the black grapes that provide the greater percentage, the aromas will be more of fruit.
Other fragrances include butter; brioche; lemon; citronella; quince; apple; peach; pear; violet; blossom; hawthorn; hyacinth and honey. Also blackcurrant can be typical in rose Champagne.
On the Palate - If the wines with a base of chardonnay are ‘refined ’ then those of Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are more ‘assertive’. This is a good guide when tasting Champagne as flavours can be very subtle in their difference, with the more flower blossom created by the white Chardonnay to the fuller fruit flavours of the black Pinots.
Rose - Pink Champagnes at their best have an exhilarating strawberry or peach flavour therefore ideal for summer celebrations. Most are made from red wine being added, but some are created from a short maturation on the skins of the black grapes, as is Laurent Perrier Rose.
From the well balanced easy drinking style of Moet et Chandon [the largest producer by far] to the more elaborate and complex Bollinger; from the subtle and softer flavours of Pol Roger [The frequent choice of Royalty] to the firm structure of Veuve Cliquot [Champagne’s most famous widow was Dame Nicole-Barbe Cliquot-Ponsardin -see our future presentation on ‘The History and Houses of Champagne‘] all have their own distinctive personality, but it is also very important to remember that many of the smaller producers of the lesser known brands have achieved the great quality standards associated with the big names, sometimes even better!
Matching Champagne with Food
Champagne has the only reputation for a wine to be enjoyed before, during and after a meal and with all styles of cuisine, such is its versatility. The ‘Champenois’ have many dishes they are famous for with some being very simple to prepare and always made from their local produce.
‘Madame Pompom‘, who for seventeen years was in charge of entertaining at the ‘House of Louis Roderer’ in Ay, created delicious and satisfying meals for many different types of occasion. One regular favourite was ‘Potee Champenoise’ - A ‘hot pot’ of pork and sweet heart cabbage with a host of fresh vegetables, including turnips, celery, onions, haricot beans and leeks, all enhanced with fresh thyme and parsley. [We will present this recipe for you in a forthcoming feature!]
But if you keep in mind that ‘Champagne goes with all’ then you won’t find it difficult to enjoy your chosen favourite at any occasion.
One of my most memorable Champagne and food experiences? - Champagne with Fish and Chips - try it yourself and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!!
Alan Hunter AIWS,