“I drink champagne when I win, to celebrate… and I drink champagne when I lose, to console myself."
I must confess that my wife and I cracked open a bottle of bubbly last weekend to celebrate the country’s escape from five years of socialist depression and the fact that we can delay our emigration a little longer. Then this week we had an even greater celebration of champagne courtesy of the House of Lanson. The Master Marketor, Andrew Marsden, has a professional connection with Lanson and he had arranged for a vins clairs[i]
tasting at the Inner Temple Hall, unique in this country. Lanson had to get the permission of the French government to ship over the samples. Our tasting was presented by Hervé Dantan, Chef du Cave, who told us that not only was this the first tasting he had presented outside France; it was the first he had had to do in English. But he carried this off with aplomb. We then had a lovely three course meal, the first and third courses accompanied by champagne and the entrée by a fine South African red wine in which Lanson has an interest. This was presented by Paul Beavis, Managing Director of Lanson International UK.
I like to think I know quite a lot about wine, its various regions, grapes and methods, but I know very little about champagne. Of course, everyone has heard of champagne, it must be one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all. It has worked its spell on the world as has no other wine. Champagne is produced exclusively in the Champagne region of France, with meticulous care and attention. The region is one of the most northerly grape growing regions and the terroir is very special.
Winemaking in the region pre-dates the Romans, but later, as the power of the church grew, many important vineyards were bequeathed to monastic orders. Between 898 and 1825 the Kings of France were crowned in Reims, in the heart of the Champagne region. The wines flowed freely on such occasions but the wine growing clergymen wanted to produce something different to compete with the full-bodied red wines of their Burgundian neighbours. In the early eighteenth century they started to produce sparkling wines which soon became the taste of the aristocracy.
An English scientist was involved in the discovery of sparkling wine. In 1662 Dr Christopher Merret noted that “sugar and molasses [were added] to wines of all sorts to render them sparkling”. Forty years later in Champagne, Benedictine monks Frère Jean Oudart (1654-1742) of Pierry and Dom Pierre Pérignon (1639-1715) of Epernay, pooled forces to deliberately attempt to make sparkling wine. “Come quickly,” Dom Pérignon reportedly said on tasting his first sip of champagne, “I am drinking the stars!” The British were to make another significant contribution, inventing a bottle that was strong enough to withstand the pressure of champagne bubbles.
There are many rules governing the production of champagne. First and foremost, champagne must only come from the region of Champagne. Strict controls are placed on vineyard yields; the height, spacing, density and pruning of wines; the grape harvest and minimum aging periods. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the three main grape varieties permitted in the making of champagne. The vineyards are quality rated on a village-to-village basis by a percentile system known as the Échelle des Crus. There are only 17 Grand Crus villages that have been awarded the maximum Échelle of 100% and 38 Premier Crus villages rated between 90 and 99%. The majority of the villages are currently rated at between 80% and 89%. Grapes must be picked exclusively by hand. A fixed and high percentage of the wine should come from the first press. The minimum period for ageing of non-vintage champagnes is set at 15 months and 36 for vintage. Only 80% of a year’s harvest can be used to make champagne. The remainder is kept as reserve wine for future blends.
There are two different ways of making champagne which produce a very different taste. Most modern champagnes use a technique called malolactic fermentation (MLF) which was widely introduced in the 1950s to get champagnes to market more quickly. This process softens the hard malic acid in the champagne and tends to produce a heavier, less fruit-driven style of champagne. However, not only does this method produce a different style of taste, but it also ages more quickly and after a few years can produce a harsh flavour. The people from Lanson told us that theirs is the only major Champagne House that still uses the traditional method of non-malolactic fermentation. Rather than accelerating the process with MLF, Lanson’s champagnes are aged for a minimum of three years to allow the flavours to evolve in their own time and to balance the acidity. This, they claim, “results in elegant champagnes that retain a purity of fruit and have unforgettably crisp, clean, fresh flavours and the ability to age gracefully” and judging by my experience the other night I am happy to endorse this. Paul Beavis conceded that Cristal and Krug are the only other well-known champagnes that have stuck with the original method. So, yes, Bollinger, Moët Chandon, Mumm, Taittinger, Pol Roger, Veuve Cliquot and all the rest, even Dom Pérignon, have all abandoned the original method of fermentation to cut corners.
The main three grapes contribute different flavours to champagne. Chardonnay is known for its finesse and has the greatest potential for longevity, keeping the champagne fresh as it matures. Pinot Noir provides much of the champagne’s backbone and Pinot Meunier has flowery notes on the nose and a youthful fruitiness on the palate. The non-vintage champagnes of the leading Champagne Houses will have different proportions of each grape. In its Non-Vintage Black Label Lanson uses 35% of Pinot Noir Verzenay, 50% of Chardonnay Avize and 15% of Pinot Meunier. Hervé told us that in some ways it is more difficult to make a Non-Vintage blend. They are trying to ensure consistency from year to year while the market accepts that a vintage can vary. To do this they also blend in a percentage of a different Chardonnay with a touch more spice in its flavour and may use wines from as many as eight previous vintages. All of this is done carefully and slowly over as much as six months relying greatly on their memories of previous years, because this is going to be aged over a minimum of three years.
The UK based independent food research specialist, Leatherhead Food International, has researched the differences one may find when tasting non-malolactic and malolactic champagnes. They find the flavour profile of a non-malolactic fermented champagne includes greater overall flavour intensity; greater complexity of flavour; greater length of flavour and greater complexity of after taste.
So what is the méthode champenoise?
1. Pressing the grapes. Grapes are chosen according to their variety, origin and quality. Every cuvée is pressed and stored separately.
2. First fermentation. Once the grapes have been pressed, the juice is cooled for clarification. Once clarified, it is transferred into clean fermentation vats ready for the first fermentation. It is at this stage that the winemaker must decide whether or not the champagne undergoes malolactic fermentation.
3. Blending or assemblage. House champagnes will contain a specific proportion and blend of grape varieties and the winemaker blends many wines to create the final still base wine for the champagne.
4. Setting off the second fermentation and bottling up the bubbles. The winemaker then adds the liqueur de tirage, a mixture of reserve wine, sugar and yeast culture, to stimulate a second fermentation and to create those all important bubbles. The wine is then poured into glass bottles and sealed with metal crown caps.
5. Storing the champagne sur lattes. The second fermentation takes place in deep, cool, chalk cellars for a minimum of fifteen months. The wine now develops an array of aromas and flavours through contact with the yeast sediment (the lees).
6. Riddling or remuage. It is then time to remove the lees. The bottles are racked and then each bottle is gradually riddled (tilted from horizontal to vertical) to encourage the sediment into the neck of the bottle. These days this tends to be automated.
7. Maturing. The champagne is then left to rest sur pointes (upside down). The flavour is further enhanced by contact with the sediment in the neck.
8. Disgorging. The sediment is removed from the neck by freezing it. When the crown cap is removed, the pressure from the champagne causes the sediment, now encapsulated in a plug of ice, to fly out with considerable force.
9. Dosage. The liqueur d’expédition - a mixture of wine and sugar – is then added to sweeten the champagne to the desired degree.
10. Finishing. The bottles are then sealed immediately with a cork and a cap and then rest to allow the liqueur d’expédition to marry with the wine. The cork is actually straight before it goes into the bottle and the familiar mushroom shape is a result of the compression of the inserted portion of the cork.