Le Point Rendez-vous en France: Everything You Need to Know About Champagne
By Jacques Dupont
Celebrations, birthdays, unforgettable evenings: champagne goes hand-in-hand with life’s most important moments. Choosing a bottle is a complex science, but favoring traditional brands is normallya pretty safe bet. One must take time to understand what lies behind a champagne’s richness,to be carried away by its subtlety… It’s best to start at the beginning, the letter A…
'A' is for assemblage. Unlike other wines that French winemakers tend to identify by a single region in terms of taste, in Champagne, one “assembles” or blends them. Of course, the wines produced are still identified by zones (Côtes des Blancs, Montagne de Reims, etc), by villages (Cuis, Bouzy, Cramant, etc) and often by plots of vines. But the goal is not to limit the grape varieties used, but to enrich by blending. It is not uncommon in the larger “houses” for a hundred wines from different sources to be combined to produce a cuvée. For an individual vineyard, it’s obviously easier, and the stamp of excellence can be sought through either the bringing-together of grapes from various plots, or otherwise exploiting a single local terroir. In any event, houses and individual vineyards follow the same process for the keyparts of their production: the assembly of “quiet” wines (before fermentation) of crops that span several years. The young wines bring freshness, while older, so-called “reserve”wines give roundness and bouquet. Here, vintage productions with a year written on the label, as one would typically find on most other vineyards’ wines, represent a small percentage (less than 10%) of total volumes.
'B' is for blanc de blancs. A blanc de blancs is a champagne made uniquely from Chardonnay grapes. By contrast, a blanc de noirs is made exclusively from black grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier).
'D' is for disgorgement. This is the last step before the wine is ready to go on sale. At the final stage of aging, when the producer decides his wine is ready, he will proceed with the “remuage,” or stirring. This, whether done manually, or mechanically, with a gyropalette, allows the deposit created by the yeast to move down to the neck of the bottle.Then, the bottle passes upside down in a bath that turns the deposit into ice. The bottle is uncorked, then this frozen deposit is removed – this is called the disgorgement process. The missing liquid is then replaced with the liqueur dosage – a mixture of wine and sugar cane– before the final corking. In recent years, some growers have been replacing the liqueur with sugar-rectified concentrate (grape juice concentrate), which has given excellent results. The final product needs to mature for at least three months to harmonize the taste of the wine. The different qualities of champagne are defined in terms of the sugar per liter added during the liqueur dosing.
- Brut nature or ultra brut: no addition
- Extra brut: 0-3 grams of sugar
- Brut: less than 12 grams
- Extra dry: 12-17 grams
- Sec: 17-32 grams
- Demi-sec: 32-50 grams
- Doux: more than 50 grams
'F' is for Fermentation. After blending, the wine is bottled, accompanied by a “liqueur de triage” (a mixture of sugar and wine) and a yeast. The latter will react with the sugar and induces carbonation. This “prise de mousse,” or fermentation, which lasts about two months, is followed by an aging process (15 months minimum, in total). The bottle is capped – some rare wines are sealed with a clip and a cork.
'G' is for Grape. Champagne is produced largely with black grapes, which are quickly pressed so that the juice (white) is not stained by the coloring pigment in the skin.
- Pinot Noir: Of the same origin as the great red wines of Burgundy. This grape offers fine red-fruit flavors and a very solid vinous taste. Only slightly moist soils with good exposure suit this rather fragile and late wine. It represents 38% of the area.
- Pinot Meunier: Matures quickly and is not afraid of less-sunny environs. The Meunier offers a supple, fruityexperience. While it has not always been popular, today,its great qualities are being rediscovered. It represents 34% of the area.
- Chardonnay: A white grape identical to the major Burgundies. Solid and productive, it produces a wine of incomparable refinement from limestone soils.Chardonnay represents 28% of the area. Some producers are now delivering forgotten varieties, such as Arbanneor the Petit Meslier.
'H' is for harvest. Grapes have to be harvested by hand to prevent their red skins staining the juice, which is white (Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are black and red grapes, Chardonnay is the only white).
'N' is for Nature. More and more houses and wineries now offer low-dosed (extra brut) or even un-dosed (nature) champagnes. For these, one tends to use slightly older wines, rounded by the aging process, than one would use for “normal” bruts.
'O' is for Opening. Always hold the cork and turn the bottle, it’s far easier than the other way round. (But above all, remember to point it towards a wall rather than people’s faces!)
'P' is for Prestige. Vintage or not, the prestige cuvée is composed of grapes from a selection of terroirs, and usually comes from the first pressing after removal of the very first juices to come out of the press. The most famous: Moët &Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Grand Siècle by Laurent-Perrier, Clicquot’s Grande Dame… All the major houses, and most independent winemakers, produce a prestige cuvée.
'R' is for Rosé. Often produced through the addition of red wines (from Champagne) – in fact, this is the only region where this method is permitted. Some producers prefer the practice used in other regions: a short maceration (soaking of the grapes) to extract sufficient coloring. This creates a full-bodied wine to be drunk with meals. The elegant rosé aperitif is usually derived from red-wine colored Chardonnay. Rosés can be vintage or not.
Franck Nicaise, Cellar master at Henri Abelé
“I was born in Reims. My family didn’t have vines, but I had a grandfather who was at Clicquot, and all my childhood friends came from vineyards. I wanted to work in the world of wine, and I chose to become an enologist. I did internships in big houses, of course – Clicquot and Mumm – with venerable cellar masters who knew how to instill their passion. I also had a stint working as an enologist in Alsace. I spent time with Humbrecht, Mann, Ostertag, Boxler, the greats. It was exciting, because they make all kinds of wines, from dry to late harvest, and they are very sharp people, with fascinating ideas about vinification, organic wines, viticulture, sugars… After that, I became an enologist consultant for the Montagne de Reims, and I also had Abelé as a client. In that role, I took part in the project to launch the future winery. In 2006, the group running the project [Freixenet, cava producer,proprietor since 1985] were looking for a cellar master who also worked on the supply side and, in my advisory role, I was in contact with the harvesters, handlers and winemakerswho make their own champagne, and who are not just grape suppliers. The management told me: ‘You take care of everything, from the purchase of grapes right through to the marketing.’ This was a great position, not at all the classic job. Abelé is a historic brand; it dates back to 1757, and is one of the three oldest champagnes.”
Hervé Jestin, Champagne Jestin
“I’ve been involved in organic production for the past 20 years, and I advise winemakers in Champagne and abroad – Italy, Spain, England and Russia – to follow the non-conventional path. The idea is to take clients all the way from the harvest to disgorgement – the final stage in the production process – organically. I use a whole series of processes that allow me to remain organic right to the end. Today, there is no sulfite used at any point in the process, even in bottling. I believe that if it is the right land, we do not need it. The idea is to bring a certain consciousness to the handling of the raw materials. The material is not inert; it works with its own rules and it needs to be in harmony with the milieu around it. We start with a very long a ging process, much of it in wooden barrels. Stainless steel does not create a harmonious milieu for wine. We realized, for example, that grapes picked in the morning were not the same as those collected in the afternoon – the lunar influence is much stronger at night, so grapes picked in the morning have a different fermentation. Today, we have a much greater knowledge of the subject. With biodynamically produced grapes, it’s much easier to make great wines, but this should be a starting point, not a finishing point.”
Floriane Eznack, Enologist at Jacquart
“I was born in Charente; my father was an armaments engineer. He then became a diplomat. Leaving our home in Angoulême,I went to the Lycée in London and then Brussels. When I was 17, my parents were in Turkey, while I was wondering what I wanted to do with my life. I decided: a vet, then a fighter pilot… I was devastated when I was turned down. My diplomat parents entertained a lot at home, and I realized that wine was a good subject to turn to – it encouraged contact and exchange. When we know how to talk about a wine, everything becomes animated! I found it amusing to hear all these people talk about wine in the same way they talked about geopolitics. When you are 17 years old, and all your friends want to go into finance or politics, you’re keen to stand out. Nobody around me wanted to be an artist. My parents told me: ‘Well, you need to make up your mind!’ So I went to study biochemistry at the Pierre and Marie Curie University. At the same time, I was preparing for fighter pilot selection, and when I was rejected, I said to myself: ‘OK, I'll be an enologist.’ There are many things I liked about the wine business: team work, a sense of awe and humility, and an element of mystery and things beyond your control. I was raised on Bordeaux wine, and I wasn’t really familiar with champagne, but it was the international wine par excellence, and I wanted to work abroad, see the world. That was the education my parents gave me.”
This house, founded in 1757, is one of the three oldest in Champagne. Bought in 1985 by the Freixenet group, the leading producer of cava, the Spanish sparkling wine, the house took its time to develop in size and name. At the time of the takeover, Abelé sold no more than 40,000 bottles under its own label, and sold mainly as sub-brands in supermarket outlets. “We were technically and commercially archaic,” admits Franck Nicaise, the cellar master. Freixenet wanted a house with history and wasn’t necessarily concerned with volume – “that, they alreadyhave with cava” – for the very high end of the market. But the wines, barring a few gems, such as the 1990, were not able mostly for their “advanced” or, less charitably, “tired” state. Hiring Franck Nicaise and establishing a new winery helped to bring on, from 2007 onwards, a raft of high-quality wines, and the Abelé brand has gone on to become synonymous with a much more refined quality. Do you know the ‘Sourire de Reims’ [Smile of Reims]? After World War I, Abelé was part of the Friends of the Cathedral of Reims association that brought together donors to reconstruct the cathedral. The house earned the right to use the image of the cathedral’s emblematic Smiling Angel statue on its bottles. Le Sourire de Reims comes in white and rosé.
- Sourire de Reims 2003 (60% Chardonnay, 40% PinotNoir): Fewer than 3,000 bottles produced. Aromas of wax and very ripe pinot. Spices, pear, mild taste, quince. Greedy, evolved but well-balanced. €86.
- Sourire de Reims 2007 (60% Chardonnay, 40%Pinot Noir): Mineral nose, fresh taste, lemony, flowery, long, persistent. €88.
- Blanc de Blancs (40 % Côte des Blancs, 10 %Sézannais, 10 % Montagne and the rest from thesouth of Epernay): Flowery, barley sugar, fat, full, straight, fresh, spicy, sappy, creamy. €39.
- Brut traditionnel (40% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir,20% Meunier. 2009 base completed with 30% ofreserve wines produced in equal parts during 2007and 2008): Discreet nose, flowery, sweet spices, more-ish taste, fresh, creamy. €27.
Jean-Pierre Mareigner will soon celebrate 30 years at this house. He is a “classic” cellar master of a dying breed, who spurred Gosset on to produce champagnes of greater purity and freshness.
- Célébris Extra brut 2002 vintage (52% Chardonnay,48% Pinot Noir): Released after the 2004 vintage. Barley sugar nose, preserved fruit, candy-shop, griotte cherry, full, tightly knit, muscular withfreshness. €116.
- Célébris Extrabrut rosé 2007 (59% Chardonnay,41% Pinot Noir): Creamy, spicy, red berry, griotte cherry, tightly knit taste, fresh, lively. A fine wine, elegant finish with a pleasant acidity that is more-ish. €122.
- Grand Millésime 2004 (55% Chardonnay, 45% PinotNoir): Fern nose, chalky after breathing. Lively taste, tight and fresh. Citrus, chalky, long, pretty full. Perfect balance that enhances the wine. €56.
- Grand Blanc de Blancs Base 2008 and 2007, 2006 “We are very much about Pinot Noir, but there isan almost daily demand for Chardonnay. I'm from the Montagne de Reims, and I had the idea of making an assemblage of Côte des Blancs with the structure of Trépail and Villers-Marmery from the Mountain.” Winey nose, grapefruit, lemon,round taste, good structure, elegant. €51.
This is the official brand of the Alliance group, which brings together three cooperatives: those of Château-Thierry (Covama) and Ay and Oger (Cogevi), and the Aube union of Bar-sur-Seine. Together, they account for 2,400 hectares and 1,800 winemakers. Each cooperative also has its own production and its own brand – Aube Union’s Veuve Devaux, for example. For a long time,while each of the co-ops made lovely wines, production at Jacquart wasn’t working well. There was an assemblage problem, unsuitable dosing and an overextended and illsuited production range. The new young management team – Laurent Reinteau, CEO, who came from Veuve Clicquot, and Floriane Eznack, enologist – do not dispute Jacquart’s problems during the ’80s, but want to wipe the slate clean and start over. “Here, everybody gets along well, everybody respects and appreciates each other and there is great potential. There is no historical baggage. Everybody is on board and motivated. This is a project everyone believes in,” says Eznack. “We have honed down the range – there used to be 18 vintages of all possible descriptions,” adds Reinteau. “We have tightened our Chardonnay base, which is the soul of the house. Our new, now-consistent range is firstly the Mosaïque, then a blanc de blancs made up of our best Chardonnays, and finally, the Alpha cuvée, a vintage, which replaces the old Nominée cuvée, which was not vintage. This is the beginning of an adventure.”
- Mosaïque rosé (2008 base, such as white Mosaïque, with an addition of 18% red Aÿ, Vertus,Neuville and Les Riceys): Light color, salmon pink, floral nose, liquorice, slightly buttery taste, tight, a little spicy note, with a tannic finish. €29.50.
- Blanc de blancs 2006 (100% Marne Chardonnays:Villers-Marmery, Trépail, Vaudemanges, Vertus;nothing but the premier crus): Sugary nose,aromatic – “We are looking for aromatic whites”– pineapple, chalk, lively taste, tight, a little spicy,chalky finish. €36.
- Mosaïque Brut (40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir,25% Meunier. 2008 base with reserve wines from2006, 2005, 2004): “The freshness is good, but to achieve a really rich smoothness, you need older wines. The Pinots add structure and bring out the refinement of the Chardonnays. We have about 60 cru standard wines, nothing less than the best cuvée first press.” Floral, fern, citrus, lively taste, tight, rather elegant, nice and fresh finish. €23.90.
After three years of work, the courtyard at Ruinart where lorries used to load up for deliveries, is unrecognizable. It has become an ornamental garden, laid out like a giant chessboard. Inside, architect Elliott Barnes has absorbed the history of Champagne, going as far as to order a wallpaper – the “winepaper” – made especially by a cooperative workshop, Moulin Kéréon in Brittany, with pulped Chardonnay grapes. The house, which receives a lot of visitors, decided to reduce their number in order to focus on the business end of things. The whiteness of the chalk pits, among the finest cellars of Champagne, has diminished slightly. “We clean them,” says cellar master Frédéric Panaïotis. “It’s a bit like Lascaux [the site of France’s famous prehistoric cave paintings],it ends up altering.” There is now a charge for the tour, €70, but it lasts three hours, including a tasting, and the number ofpeople is limited to eight per group. “There’s huge demand,” says Panäiotis. Ruinart, despite its long history (it was created in the early18th century), is one of the major recent successes of Champagne. As part of the LVMH group, in 15 years the house has doubled the number of bottles sold, and the brand now sits somewhere between Bollinger and Roederer in terms of volume, at around 3 million bottles. “We are very strong in the French market, after a long-term strategy of commercialization implemented by commercial director Jean-Pierre Steinsulz, who will soon retire. He has looked after the brand as if it were his child,” says a spokesperson. The elegance of the bottle, designed in the ’90s, and a very tight range have also helped its development. But also the quality of the wines, strongly marked by predominant Chardonnay in all blends, especially in the rosé, one of the mainstays of Ruinart.
- Dom Ruinart Rosé 2002: The year of the disgorging process is now given on the back label. Fruity nose, candied cherry, lively taste, still very young, wide enough, good flavors, long and delicious, creamy. €240.
- Dom Ruinart Rosé 1998 (85% Chardonnay,15% red wines from Sillery and Verzenay): Raspberry, tangerine, blood orange, fresh palate, elegant, tight, nice bitterness. Dosed 5g. Very nice, persistent wine. €239.
- Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blancs 2002 (72%Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, Chouilly Avize, Le Mesnil. The balance is provided by the Montagne de Reims: Sillery, Puisieulx , white Mailly, a little white Verzenay): Candied citrus nose, nice citrus bitterness, candied lemon, grapefruit on the finish, very creamy. Burgundy style. €159.
- R de Ruinart (54% Pinot Noir, 6% Meunier, 40%Chardonnay. 2009 base, completed with 2008 and2007 wines): Citrus peel, lively taste, elegant, fresh and delicate, fruity finish. €41.95.
After the large investments made in the cellars and buildings,the house is undergoing fine-tuning: “We have 10 different wines, each of which has found its place. At a technical level, we are pretty much there… although we’ve been working in a slightly more responsive way, because there was demand for that!” says cellar master François Domi. At Billecart, there is great appreciation for extra brut or very-low-dosage champagnes, which reveal the local character of the terroirs in all their purity without “adding make-up.”
- Le Clos Saint-Hilaire 1998 (A raw 100% Pinot from Clos, harvested fairly mature. Vinified in oak): Honey, candied fruit,lychee, tropical fruit notes, baked apple,mild spices, smoky taste, tight, slightlytannic, orange chocolate . Long, fulland refined. €330.
- Elisabeth Salmon Rosé 2002 (50%Chardonnay, 50% Pinot Noir from Mareuil): Rose nose, chalky, pomegranate, floral,earthy, creamy taste, bright, tight, fresh.Tasty, lingering. €182.
- Extrabrut Reserve (Zero dosage.2009 base, 40% Pinot Meunier, 35% PinotNoir, 25% Chardonnay, with 25% reservewines in the mix): White-fleshed fruit,spicy, apple, lively taste, light, soft, fruity,no hardness. €39.50.
This article was originally published in our print magazine Le Point Rendez-vous en France