This article appeared in the December 2006 edition of Connections Magazine (Ireland)
Pernod Ricard recently announced the creation of the world's most expensive champagne. At $1,300 per bottle, it makes Cristal, Krug and Dom Perignon seem decidedly down market. Big Deal. Unless you're a Russian Oligarch, rap star or reading this on your private jet, you're probably not their target market. It's also important to note that the wine isn't actually available yet and that the company's just signaling their intentions. Yes, this is a wine made up in a corporate board room. So if you're the type that believes wine is made in the vineyard and winery and not in a marketing meeting then you're also not their target market.
The sad reality is that most Champagne is made in a similar way: what actually goes into the bottle is much less important than brand positioning. It's no accident that the two largest champagne houses, Moet & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot are both owned by the world's largest luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. Champagne is simply synonymous with luxury. It's also synonymous with celebration. Just open a bottle and you have an instant party! By the time it's poured and glasses are clinking, “value for money” is hopefully the last thing on everyone's mind. I hate to sound like 'ol Ebenezer Scrooge but this giddiness – combined with the marketing muscle of the big Champagne houses – is a recipe for getting ripped off. In the world of wine, the $30 to $60 or even more for a non-vintage brand-name Champagne can buy much more. For the same money, you get get a stunning Bordeaux, top shelf Sancerre or major league Barbaresco. You can also get a fantastic Champagne.
Wait, how's that? You just said that they're all over priced! Two words: Grower Champagne. Also known as Artisanal or Estate Bottled Champagne, Grower Champagne is perhaps the last great secret in wine. It's an exciting and growing (never mind the pun) movement that is simply inevitable. What other region sells industrially produced bulk wine at prices more or equal to estate bottled wines? This would be the equivalent of paying more for a Mouton-Cadet than a classed Bordeaux such as Giscours or Lagrange. This complete absurdity is manufactured through consumer complacency and of course, marketing. You can fool most of the people some of the time. . .
Now that we're all riled-up, let's go through the steps in making Champagne to further illustrate the difference between Grower and Industrial Champagne:
Champagne is one of the northernmost wine regions in the world so grapes are difficult to grow well there. In such a cool climate and tend to be higher in acidity and lower in sugar than the same grape varieties grown in warmer regions. In other French regions, more Cremant, or sparkling wine will be made in years when the weather has been cool and the grapes haven't developed well enough to make a decent still wine. The difficult climate is also a reason why Champagne allows non-vintage wines, where good, medium and indifferent years are blended together to produce house styles individual to both grower and big-name producers. Vintage Champagne is only made in good years.
Just like any wine, Champagne is only as good as fruit that go into it, so the best Champagne, whether made by a brand-name or grower producer is made from the best grapes which correspondingly grow in the best sites. Somewhat like Burgundy but using villages instead of specific plots of land, the 294 villages of Champagne are classified into 17 Grand Crus at the top and 40 Premier Crus just below. The best wines such as Cristal are made from the best sites, however you won't see Grand Cru on the bottle as they're not made exclusively from Grand Cru grapes. Generally Grand Cru and Premier Cru are only seen on grower bottles since their fruit is much more likely to come from one village. Industrial Champagne on the other hand is by necessity made up from a wide range of grapes and it's simply much more difficult to maintain a high average quality when you're shipping out millions of bottles. Just like with Mouton-Cadet or Yellowtail.
All Champagne starts out as a still wine, with the bubbles coming from a second fermentation. At this point, the best wines will be made with great care, while the industrial ones will be made into a neutral and highly acidic base wine, more dependent on later steps in the process than the raw materials to provide any sense of character.
Assemblage: One of the most arcane and hyped parts of the process, this is where the still wines from the first fermentation are blended together. It requires a great deal of artistry to put together a great wine given stocks from many different vineyards and vintages – as many as 70 – to produce the consistent house style for non vintage wines. However it's much more difficult when the each of the wines have a great deal of character, than when they've purposefully made into a neutral base wine.
Second Fermentation and Maturation.
This is where the bubbles come from. As the wine is bottled, a small amount of liqueur de tirage is added to the blended wine. This is a mixture of wine, sugar and yeast. The yeast eats the sugar, giving off carbon dioxide which dissolves into the wine forming the all-important tiny bubbles. Dead yeast cells or lees from this secondary fermentation then react with the wine in a process called autolysis. Autolysis gives Champagne (and other sparkling wines made in the same method) its desirable and distinctive biscuit-like flavor but can also become non desirable rubbery flavors if something goes wrong. The more time spent on the lees, the more distinctive the wine can become. By law, non-vintage Champagne must mature a minimum of fifteen months while for vintage Champage a minimum of three years is required.
Remuage and Dégorgement:
Remuage is the process where the deposit in the wine from the secondary fermentation is collected in the neck of the bottle. This is either done in mechanical Gyropallates or by hand in small pupitres which are racks that hold 60 bottles each. While the pupitres conjure up images boutique production, both methods achieve the same result. Dégorgement is simply the removal of this deposit, which is carried out quickly so as not to lose pressure. One reason Champagne marketers often give for their high prices is the labor intensive process that goes into the wine. Funny you don't hear that from Cava producers who use exactly the same method.
The small amount of wine lost in dégorgement is replaced by a wine and sugar solution called the dosage. This is the final step in giving Champagne its distinctive character and degree of sweetness. Depending on the amount of sugar used, the wine will vary on the dryness/sweetness scale from Extra Brut (no added sugar), Brut (very dry), Extra sec (dry), Sec (off dry) Demi-sec (sweet) to Doux (very sweet or luscious). Sadly, the dosage is also where pretty much all of the house style of an Industrial Champagne is determined. The marketing people would like you to think that the artistry of the assemblage determines this style, but since the wines blended together are fairly devoid of character, it really depends on the dosage.
Obviously, like most things it's not all black and white and just because it's a Grower Champagne doesn't mean that it's good. Conversely, just because it's an Industrial Champage doesn't mean it's bad. Wildly overpriced perhaps, but not necessarily bad. Luckily, from a consumer perspective the small amount of Grower Champagnes currently imported into the US, Ireland and the UK are of high quality, so if you're looking for something very special for your holiday libations they're definitely worth seeking out. Right now they're bargains, but inevitably as more and more people find out about them, their prices will most likely rise dramatically.
2000 Pierre Gimonnet & Fils 1er Cru 'Fleuron'
Officially labeled as a Premier (1er) cru, 70% of the fruit for this high quality Blanc de Blancs comes from Grand Cru vineyards. It has wonderfully fresh notes of pineapple and melon coupled with a nice yeasty/earthy quality on the palate and a long and elegant cassis-like finish.
NV Gaston Chiquet, Brut Tradition
Made from 45% Meunier, 35% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Noir is an easily likeable fruity silky wine. With hints of carmeled apples on the palate along with lovely purity and great structure, this wine is both fun and elegant.
NV Barnaut Blanc de Noirs Brut Grand Cru
100% Pinot Noir from the Grand Cru vineyards of Bouzy, I really like this one. A complex nose of roasted coffee, toffee, black currants and light floral notes. The black currant fruit on the palate is amazingly sustained through the very long finish.
For comparison sake, one of the Big Boys:
NV Moët and Chandon Brut Imperial
This one is the most expensive of the bunch and strikingly harsh in comparison. And I'm not just trying to force a point here, folks. The acids level seems uncomfortably high with a fairly one-dimensional cassis flavor. Just OK.
Some Grower Champagnes to try from JancisRobinson.com
Jean Lallement et Fils
Pierre Peters .
Vilmart & Cie
Wine Library's episode on Grower Champagne
. The inimitable Gary Vay-ner-chuk makes a compelling case.
Terry Theise's Champagne Catalogue
is simply an excellent and free book on the subject.
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