CHAMPAGNE CRASH COURSE
Images: Courtesy of Bernard Brémont
With the imminent release of three champagne wines from the extraordinary Bernard Brémont in Ambonnay, it is worth knowing a little about Champagne wine itself. Following is a brief-as-I-can-make-it explainer...
- Champagne-Ardennes region is in the very cool North-East of France, above Burgundy and below the German border (North-East of Paris). Champagne is the only sparkling wine that can be called ‘champagne’ and is legally protected under the French CIVC system (one of the many quality guarantee systems like the ‘AOC’ controlling geographical designations issuing certain protections and limitations over the grape type, yields, production technique, harvest date and use of the naming, etc…)
- There are over 300 communes or villages within the designated planting area that are allowed to produce champagne wine.
- The villages are then classified with a kind of pedigree of sorts. The best being Grand Cru, then Premier Cru and then secondary cru (Deuxième Cru)
- 17 villages are Grand Cru, amounting to only 9% of Champagne’s plantings.
- The three main grape varieties permitted for use are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the slightly inferior Pinot Meunier.
- The geology is critical. Most vines sit on calcareous clays that lay over belemnite chalk ridges which are essentially petrified old seashells from an ancient seabed. The Champagne producers cut their cellars or ‘cave’ directly into this chalk and they make excellent cool and stable environments for the maturation and fermentation processes (around 12-14 deg c). This soil imparts a particular ‘minerality’ in the wine that is scarcely replicated in any other sparkling wine.
HOW IT IS MADE
- THE TYPES OF CHAMPAGNE PRODUCER - To start with there are a handful of types of champagne producer, but two main types of producer dominate the landscape: The bigger champagne houses most of us are familiar with like Gosset, Ruinart, Moët et Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Mumm, Bollinger, Taittinger etc… are called ‘Negociant-Manipulant’ (NM). Then there are ‘grower’ champagne houses called ‘Recoltant-Manipulant’ (RM). The former will buy grapes, juice, base wine or finished bottled wine from growers or others to make most of their wine, the latter must make all their wine from grapes from their own estate-owned vineyards.
- TRUE CHAMPAGNE CHARACTER - Champagne is, at its heart, an aperitif style wine: dry-tasting, delicate with a swelling mousse, assertive acidity and complex bready-yeasty notes derived from the secondary fermentation. It’s served chilled before a meal. Typical champagne character is defined by finesse, elegance and acid power, rather than the broader, heftier and more unctuous palate of a dry table wine (see more later)
- MAKING PROCESS - The grapes are harvested with low maturity (low ripeness), then de-juiced (pressed to extract juice). The sweet juice is fermented by yeast to make dry base-wines which can be matured and blended to make a preferred style or quality, so not unlike any other table wine up to this point. However, from here, the base wine is then precisely charged with a little more yeast and sugar and put into bottles under a crown seal to undergo a second fermentation called ‘tirage’ which produces CO2 gas for the bubbles (generating about 6 bar pressure, twice your car tyres!). These tirage stock of bottles (stored in deep underground chalk caves of constant 13 deg c temp) can be left for many years on their yeast lees (‘sur lees’) to acquire and develop champagne’s typical bready/biscuity/brioche characteristics that counter-balance the austere apple/citrus/mineral-like acid. The wine at this stage will be cloudy with yeast, so to settle the yeast it is ‘riddled’ (‘remuage’) down towards the crown seal where it forms a little wad. When the wine is deemed at it most ready, it is disgorged quickly (‘degorgement’) - the little wad of yeast lees comes off with the cap and then very quickly a tiny dose of a sugar solution (‘liqueur d’expedition’) is injected and it is quickly corked and sealed before too much pressure is lost or air (oxygen) is allowed in. This ‘dosage’ of sugar helps balance the acidity but really shouldn’t be detectable as sweetness or it will ruin the fine and delicate aperitif-style balance of the wine. The wine is then sent to market with the intention of consumption within a few years.
THE CHAMPAGNE CONUNDRUM - The Big Guys vs The Small Guys
- THE SMALL GUYS
So here’s the thing, there are about 16,000 growers in Champagne managing 34,000ha of vines. 4000 of these growers are Recoltant-Manipulant (RM’s) or grower-producers, many of which sell mainly within France. The quality of many of these is rather questionable, sometimes through lack of experience and understanding, sometimes through the need to implant some distinguishable personality in their wine in what is a very crowded market. Champagne is troubled by a misunderstanding of it’s true nature and sadly sometimes these poorer wines don’t transmit the most elegant form of champagne wine. We miss what could be referred to as ‘true champagne character’. Instead they sometimes simply resemble woody and bubbly table wines.
THE BIG GUYS
The ‘Negociant-Manipulant’ (NM’s), that many of us are familiar with build large blends and often have great processes, knowledge and experience, but they also produce a lot of rather dare-I-say trashy non-vintage wine ‘NV’ designed specially for export, doing just as much damage to the consumer’s understanding of champagne as some of the lesser of the grower made wines (the RM’s). Australia is the 5th biggest consumer of Champagne, but we tend to take a lot of this rather crumby NV with high dosage (too sweet) and the wines are quite clumsy, unbalanced, and not always true in their champagne character.
So the very finest of wines tend to come from the small amount of reserve blends (special vintage cuvees) from the big guys, at enormous expense, and from the sparing few of the more exceptionally skilled small guys. Champagne winemaking is perhaps the most exigent of all winemaking types - enormous detail, scientific understanding and experience is required, and like all good things it requires a very finely cultivated taste for what is ‘true’ champagne character. Enter Thibault Bremont, trained at Taittinger and now making his family wines with great skill and understanding and Grand Cru vineyard resources to die for.
‘TRUE’ CHAMPAGNE CHARACTER
- I’ve mentioned this idea of ‘true champagne character’ a bit, so following is a more detailed explanation.
Sparkling wine grown in Champagne is of course Champagne, but that doesn’t make it what I would call ‘true’ Champagne. Stylistic development is now so diverse that the ‘true’ Champagne character is often lost to either appease the under-educated consumer, to appease the ego of the winemaker or simply through a lack of craft. Its delicateness and finesse is often overruled by more aggressive, ambitious and sometimes clumsy wine handling. This of course doesn’t mean to say these styles are invalid, they perhaps are just more at the expense of what could be more precise, refined and focussed on Champagne’s character itself. Why is this? Champagne is rather difficult to understand firstly (also expensive to understand) and is also incredibly difficult to make, there is no doubt it is the most exigent of winemaking practices. This leaves the consumer exposed to wines that can be passed off as typical when in fact they may be far from typical, making it even more confusing to grasp. Great champagne making requires good (real) science, deft olfactory perception, a lot of experience, and enormous care and attention to detail in the vineyard and winery.
So what is ‘true’ Champagne character? Short of saying ‘it has to be experienced’, it is a very very fine minerally structure that is both delicate and powerful at the same time. Delicate meaning light enough on its feet yet nuanced. Powerful meaning driving and focussed on the palate, with intensity but not bulk. Acid drives the wine, it is beautiful when it sails down the palate and pushes on, wetting the palate, rather than being ‘hard’ and short. The wine shouldn’t be ‘baggy’ (saggy on its edges). It shouldn’t be too broad or oily from alcohol. It shouldn’t be blank or papery through excesses of tannin and phenolics that crop or flatten the palate. Any tannin astringency should combine with acidity for a super-fine texture and dryness we expect from what is ultimately an aperitif, not a bubbly table wine.
In terms of flavours, the fruit flavour itself is usually citrussy, perhaps appley and sometimes greener less ripe stone fruits feature. It will have a chalky minerality typical of the soils in Champagne. The flavours we might expect from the tirage process are ideally bready, brioche-like or biscuity. The better the structure and fruit of the wine the better these characters can meld in seamlessly. This character is heralded, considered ideal and utterly gorgeous to experience. The mousse, or the nature of the bubbles should be fine textured, swelling and creamy so as not to overwhelm the palate but instead carry-through and slowly release the complex flavours.
Here are the characters that are readily disruptive or augment the delicate trim and balance of good Champagne. That is, when they are not well engineered into the wine:
- Oak - Base wine can be stored in oak barrels prior to tirage. Too much oak character quickly out-competes the delicate flavours and often makes the palate lose its tight cadence, overly broadening and flattening the wine, giving it too much weight. Oak is fashionable and might be an easy way to lend a trademark appearance to a producer.
- Excess dosage (Liqueur D’Expedition) - This is the sugar added at the end of the process (at disgorgement) to balance the acidity, it needn’t appear sweet, but sadly it often does. It leaves the palate cloying and destroys the delicate dryness and subtlety of character. The big houses are guilty of sending tonnes of this overly sweetened NV junk to our shores - and we consume it, not helping our understanding or taste for Champagne.
- Aldehyde - a nutty character important to champagne’s character, but takes a deft hand to intertwine it and harness it’s savoury and nutty dryness (Bollinger do this rather well in their top wines and are known for it). Too much and the wine quickly becomes acrid and blunt in it’s finish.
- Phenolics / Tannins - These compounds produce an important astringent character, adding a tactile dryness, but when too much or the wrong sort the palate can become papery, flat, truncated or even bitter. The wine quickly loses its characteristic elegance.
- Botrytis rot character - Noble rot creates a pungent dried citrus peel character and adds an unctuousness that shouldn’t really feature in champagne wine (or most table wines for that matter either). It is rife in cool wet seasons in Champagne, and expert vignerons with the best sites avoid its impacts.
GLOSSARY OF CHAMPAGNE LABEL TERMS
- Champagne is a minefield of terms, particularly those found on the labels. Following is a brief run down:
- ‘BRUT’ - Essentially means a ‘dry’ tasting Champagne wine. So you might see Brut NV or Brut ROSE on a label*.
- ‘NV’ - Means ‘non-vintage’. This is a blend of base wines from different vintages. A house might pride itself on the consistency of it’s NV wine.
- ‘VINTAGE’ - Wine produced solely from one vintage of grapes, eg 2012 vintage. Vintage wines are only produced when it’s considered the wine is perfectly balanced to stand alone and doesn’t require blending with other vintages to be excellent.
- ‘ROSE’ - Is a blushed pink or salmon coloured wine. The colour comes from Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier grapes which are black skinned. Small amount of dry red wine made from these grapes might be added to acquire this colour, or it can be acquired through ‘saignee’ at pressing where extended skin contact will start to bleed colour into the juice. These wines often have a little more body and richness. The wine can still have a Chardonnay base.
- ‘BLANC de BLANCS’ - This is a wine Champagne wine made only from Chardonnay grapes, quite a challenge since Pinot Noir tends to add a bit more fruit flavour and spine.
- ‘BLANC de NOIRS’ - This means ‘white of blacks’ and is a wine made from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier only. Quickly expressed juice is not coloured, hence white wines can be made from black grapes.
*Other designations of sweetness in gm/L sugar are as follows: ‘Brut Nature’ or ‘Zero Dosage’ (0-3g/L sugar); ‘Extra Brut’ (0-6g/L); ‘Brut’ (0-12g/L); ‘Extra-Sec’ (12-20g/L); ‘Sec’ (17-35g/L); ‘Demi-Sec’ (33-50g/L); ‘Doux’ (minimum 50g/L). Strangely ‘Extra Sec’ meaning extra dry, is sweeter than Brut.