What is Champagne?
It’s a wine.
It’s a wine made in a certain way from grapes grown in a delimited area.
That’s it. Yes it’s a load of fun, often a part of big celebrations, a bit of bling in a nightclub, or even launching a ship (don’t know about you but I always use Champagne when launching a ship), but for me they are secondary to Champagne’s identity as a wine. Also, there is Increasing recognition that Champagne can play a part in accompanying many – or all – courses of a meal, as well as being an apéritif or a vin de plaisir.
Of course the luxury image of Champagne is no accident, it’s down to the marketing prowess of the Grandes Marques over the last century or so. In their quest for a reliable, consistent wine the big houses buy grapes from all over the Champagne region, and blend them to create an ongoing house style – particularly with the non-vintage (NV) wines which are the vast majority of the bottles produced.
Thus, apart from a few ultra rare and ultra expensive select bottlings, Champagne made by the big houses doesn’t reflect a particular vineyard site.
Step up the Growers! Despite the high capital costs of setting up, Champenois grape growers are increasingly setting up to produce their own Champagne – see RM in the box above. They maintain a close link between the place the grapes are grown – the terroir – and the final product in your glass.
Grapes – The Big 3 Stars
Most new areas producing quality sparkling wine will use the big three Champagne grapes, whether we’re talking Tasmania, Marlborough or Sussex.
Chardonnay (C) gives lifted lemon citrus notes, which make it the lightest grape out of the three. All-Chardonnay cuvées need some serious ageing on the lees to gain complexity – they can be pleasant but rather simple if they are disgorged and released straight after the legal minimum ageing (15 months for NV). Approx. 29% of total vines
Pinot Noir (PN) gives red fruit aromas and flavours – particularly strawberry and raspberry – just as you get in a still red Pinot Noir. It also gives body and richness – sometimes even chewiness. It’s this Pinot whose colour is used for rosé Champagne. Approx. 38% of total vines
Pinot Meunier (PM) is often regarded as the ugly sister of the big three, and while it might be true to say that it doesn’t hit the heights of the other two on its own, it can play an excellent supporting role. It tends to show soft fruit characteristics such as pear and lychee when young, and then a certain earthiness with more age. Approx. 32% of total vines
Grapes – The Supporting Cast
If any of you did the maths from the three grapes above you will have noticed that the total proportion of Champagne’s area under vine represented by them is 99% – so what is planted in the remaining 1%?
These are four traditional grapes that have fallen out of favour in the area, but where they are planted the owners can keep on farming them. Such minuscule amounts means the wines are very hand to get hold of, but if you fancy trying something different then Laherte Frères make a Champagne from all seven grapes.
Pinot Blanc is often a component of Crémant d’Alsace and Franciacorta (where it is known as Pinot Bianco. It gives soft apple and citrus flavours.
Pinot Gris sometimes hides in Champagne under the pseudonym Fromenteau – but it’s really the same grape which does so well in Alsace and still pops up occasionally in Burgundy. When picked early it (as is often the case in Italy) it can show high levels of acidity which of course make it ideal for sparkling wine.
Petit Meslier is an appley variety that has a flagwaver based in – rather bizarrely – South Australia’s Eden Valley! In a region best known for dry as a bone Riesling, Irvine Wines make a varietal Petit Meslier sparkling wine which they claim was the first to be commercially bottled anywhere in the world
Arbane also has a champion, but this time in Champagne itself. The house of Moutard Père et Fils make the only varietal Arbane Champagne. Their vintage wine spends over 6 years on the lees so it’s the yeast rather than grape variety which are most apparent.
Champagne has a single Appellation for the whole region, but there are recognised sub regions within it. They can be grouped as:
The Vallée de la Marne is the most equally balanced between the three main grapes – 24% Chardonnay, 36% P Meunier and 40% P Noir
The Montagne de Reims is the large hill (mountain is pushing it a bit!) just south of the city of Reims. Here Pinot Meunier has the lead with 62% of the total.
The Côte des Blancs (which also has the more southerly Côte de Sezanne grouped with it for statistical purposes) is a chalky slope which majors in Chardonnay (82% overall and 95% in the central Côte itself – hence the name.
The Côte des Bar is the most southerly and highest of all the Champagne areas. Pinot Noir is the king down here with 87% of the land under vine.
Part two will look at some specific grower Champagnes.