The Champagne appellation is unique but the wines themselves are different every time. Different vineyards, different plots and different grape varieties; different vintages, different blends and different aging periods – with so many subtle variations in play, there are almost as many wine styles in Champagne as there are Champagne winemakers. The result is an array of wines to suit every taste, every circumstance and every dish.
No wine is as versatile as Champagne – whether you are enjoying a relaxed drink with friends or toasting a victory. Birthdays, New Year festivities, romantic dinners for two, wedding receptions – when there is something worth celebrating, Champagne is always the first choice.
The two factors that give Champagne its diversity are terroir and winemaking technique. By terroir we mean the sum total of all those natural and human influences that play a part in grape growing.
There are the natural forces at work in the vineyard: soil, subsoil, vine orientation, macroclimate and microclimates; and there are the choices made by individual growers in terms of grape variety, rootstock, vine training and even harvesting. The Champagne appellation embraces some 280,000 vineyard plots in 320 villages (crus). Each has specific features that make for quite different characteristics in the wines.
Which brings us to winemaking technique. Wine does not happen by accident. It reflects the handiwork of its maker, whose personal technique depends on the style of wine he or she has in mind. How to press the grapes and rack the juice; how much yeast to add; at what temperature to conduct fermentation; whether or not to let the wine undergo malo-lactic fermentation; whether to ferment in steel tanks or wooden vats.
Decisions like these all leave their mark on the wines. They also influence the composition of each blend, the period of aging and the level of ‘dosage’.
Champagne production, from grape growing to winemaking, is a very tightly regulated process – but not at the expense of individual creativity.
Producers and cellar-masters are free to make the most of Nature’s bounty – free to produce wines that make them proud.
To Malo or not to Malo: Alcoholic fermentation is an essential part of the winemaking process. Malolactic fermentation however is largely optional. Most Champagne makers favour it, though not necessarily for all wines, but some of them do not.
Malolactic fermentation, if desirable, comes after alcoholic fermentation, driven by specific bacteria that convert malic acid to lactic acid. The process
reduces and softens the acidity in the wine, producing a more complex nose with hints of buttery brioche and a creamy, dairy roundness. Wines that have not undergone MLF tend to retain their floral/fruity character for longer, remaining typically sharper and more acidic.
Whether to ferment in wood or steel: Prior to the 20th Century, all Champagne wines were fermented in wooden vessels, usually oak barrels with a 205-litre capacity called ‘pieces champenoises’.
A few producers still ferment their wines in oak but most prefer the inert, neutral environment of a stainless steel vat. Wood by contrast does interact
with the wine, in two important ways. The wood itself contributes compounds that add to the wine’s bouquet, introducing oaky, vanilla, and sometimes toasty flavours. Wood also breathes, exposing the wine to a constant, tiny quantity of oxygen that softens and fattens up the fruit.
By combining wines with different sensory characteristics, the Champagne maker looks to create a ‘cuvée’ that is distinctly more than the sum of its parts. Blending is in many ways the highpoint of winemaking, creating a sense of balance that is not found naturally – a quality that is only acquired by human intervention. The resulting ‘cuvée’ is a personal masterpiece, composed by the cellar-master or grower from the virtually endless permutations available to them. The ultimate objective is the same today as it has always been: to create a Champagne that, vintage after vintage, expresses and perpetuates each individual winemaker's particular vision and style.
Most Champagne is blended wine. Not only a blend of three different grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier) but also a blend of wines from different villages and different vintages – the so-called ‘vins de réserve’ (reserve wines) that may account for more than 50% of the final blend.
Reserve wines are the wines held over from previous vintages, some of them dating back several decades. These are wines matured at low temperatures in wood or steel tanks, or sometimes in the bottle. They are tasted regularly to assess their development.
If a white Champagne is made exclusively from light-skinned grapes (Chardonnay), it is labelled as ‘Blanc de Blancs’. If made exclusively from Blending black-skinned grapes (Pinot Noir and/or Meunier) it is labelled as ‘Blanc de Noirs’.
In truly exceptional years worthy of commemoration, the winemaker may decide to release a vintage Champagne – a wine made exclusively from the grapes grown in that year.
A ‘Prestige cuvée’ is a producer’s flagship Champagne – a wine that stands as a benchmark for the other bottlings in the producer's portfolio. Vintage or non-vintage, these wines are made from the cream of the crop and are usually released in specially designed bottles.
Rosé Champagne is made by maceration, ‘saignée’ or by the blending of red and white wines.
In the maceration method destemmed black-skinned grapes are left to macerate in a tank until the desired colour has leached out of the skins and into the juice (24-72 hours).
In the ‘saignée’ method a small portion (10-15%) of juice is bled off (‘saignée’) after 24-72 hours from black-skinned grapes that are undergoing extended maceration for red wine production. This pink fraction then goes through the secondary fermentation in the bottle.
In the blending method – by far the most widely used in Champagne – a small amount of still, red wine from Champagne (5-20%) is added to an otherwise white blend prior to bottling. The resulting rosé wine then goes through the secondary fermentation in the bottle.
Champagne maturation is a long and complex process.
Immediately after bottling (‘tirage’) every ‘cuvée’ must spend at least 15 months in the cellar – this is the legal minimum for non-vintage Champagne. For vintage Champagne, the minimum is three years. In practice, non-vintage wines are generally aged for 2-3 years prior to disgorgement, vintage wines for 5-10 years or more.
It is in the course of cellar maturation that secondary fermentation occurs. This is the process that transforms still wine to sparkling wine – hence the name prise de mousse, literally ‘capturing the sparkle’. Aging does not stop there of course, but continues through two important chemical reactions.
The first is autolysis: the enzymatic self-destruction of yeast cells, liberating substances that in turn favour the development of tertiary aromas. These are the classic bottle-aged characteristics of Champagne wines, typified by notes of leather, tobacco and candied fruit.
The second is an exchange of gases – carbon-dioxide for oxygen – facilitated by the special ‘tirage’ stopper, which is usually a crown cap but sometimes a cork. Because the seal is not perfectly airtight, it allows a low rate of gas exchange that has significant consequences for the sensory characteristics of the wine.
Champagne continues to evolve after disgorgement (expulsion of the lees). Indeed, helped by addition of the ‘liqueur d’expédition’ at the ‘dosage’ stage, the wine will continue to evolve until the bottle is opened.
Immediately after disgorgement the bottle is topped up with a ‘liqueur d’expédition’ (mixture of cane sugar and wine) which quantity varies according to the style of Champagne (dry, medium or sweet).
The ‘liqueur d’expédition’ is the final and definitive touch given to a winemaker’s composition before shipping and labelling. Champagne may be dosed with the same wine as the bottle holds (to bring out the character of the grapes, vineyard, etc) or another wine altogether – it all depends on the style of Champagne that the winemaker has in mind. Reserve wines for instance, especially when aged in wood, can add a whole new dimension to the tasting experience.