Champagne is a truly paradoxical wine, which is perhaps part of its mystique. It is created in a highly regulated environment, with strict rules about the region in which the grapes can be grown, how many grapes can be harvested, the type of grapes, the vine pruning method used, the 8-step fermentation process, the colour of the vigneron’s shirt … OK, the last one is an exaggeration, but you get the picture. In spite of these strictures, producing champagne is a highly creative activity and results in one of the most expressive wines around. The Grower Producer champagnes, in particular, reflect their history and their terroir. Each bottle carries it own creation story and the character of its producer within it.
First comes the grape
One way of describing champagne is by the type of grape used. It’s a common misconception that champagne is made only with white grapes, when in fact the red-skinned pinot noir and meunier grapes make up about 70% of the total planting in Champagne.
Under the AOC regulations, champagne can only be made with grapes from one of the following varieties: the two red grapes pinot noir and meunier; or the whites: chardonnay, pinot blanc, pinot gris, arbanne and petit meslier.
Pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay dominate champagne production now, with the other varieties used much more sparingly. Arbanne and petit meslier, in particular, are rare and only grown in a handful of small plantings. These ancient varieties are much harder to grow, and much less resistant to phylloxera, an insect which feeds on the vine roots, destroying the plant. This bug was introduced to France, allegedly from vines imported from the US in the mid 1800s, and decimated the vineyards. In time, the vines were re-established but with the general push for hardy, high-yield grapes that fitted in with the post-war adoption of large-scale industrialised farming relying on chemical pest control, the more challenging varieties were more or less abandoned.
These innovations didn’t result in an improvement in the quality of champagne, but after reaching a low point, we are now enjoying the fruits of the labours of far-sighted growers who began using sustainable and organic viticulture techniques in the 1980s and ‘90s. Some of these artisanal Grower Producers, such as Champagne Tarlant from the Vallée de la Marne and Champagne Moutard et Fils from the Côte des Bar, are committed to nurturing both arbanne and petit meslier and have recently produced cuvées with these grapes.
Blanc de Blancs champagnes
These are champagnes produced exclusively from white grapes, normally chardonnay, hence the name, literally ‘white from whites’. Some think blanc de blancs champagnes have the greatest aging potential and they often develop complex nutty aromas and a biscuity creaminess. A blanc de blancs may celebrate the taste of a single grape variety, for example Jacques Lassaigne’s Les Vignes de Montgueux which is 100% chardonnay or may be a blend, like Tarlant’s Bam! which is a blend of pinot blanc, petit meslier and arbanne.
Blanc de Noirs champagnes
Literally ‘white from blacks’, these are champagnes produced exclusively from ‘black’ (red-skinned) grape varieties and may highlight the single variety, either 100% pinot noir or 100% meunier, or may be a blend of the two.
Although the colour of champagne is generally ‘white’, ranging from pale straw through to a golden honey hue, it may actually be a blend of both red and white grapes. The most common blends will use combinations of pinot noir, meunier and chardonnay. Each brings a different characteristic to the mix: pinot noir adds structure, meunier delivers fruitiness, and chardonnay gives elegance and improves aging of the wine.
Vintage vs Non-Vintage
People sometimes assume a vintage champagne is, by definition, a very old champagne. Rather, it is an exceptional champagne produced just with the grapes from a particularly good harvest. This happens only three or four times in a decade when a champagne House or producer decides it’s an outstanding year so they ‘declare’ it a vintage year. Vintage champagnes must be 100% from the specific declared year.
Vintage champagne must be aged for at least three years, however most vintage champagnes are usually aged longer before being released onto the market. They are complex, full bodied and have intense flavours.
On the other hand, champagne ‘house style’ generally refers to non-vintage bottlings, which may be carefully blended from many vintages to taste the same year after year. While the non-vintage style may be quite uniform, it can also allow more creative freedom for the wine producer to experiment with blends across years and grape varieties, so don’t dismiss NV champagnes as necessarily inferior, particularly if you are open to exploring the full diversity of champagne’s expression.
For non-vintage champagne a minimum of 15 months must be spent in the cellar, of which the first 12 months is maturation on lees, according to the champagne AOC regulations. However, most champagnes are aged for much longer because the process adds complexity and sophistication to the aromatic profile of the wine.
These wines are rapidly growing in market share and are particularly popular during the festive season. The colour and flavour of this champagne is influenced by red grape skins, by adding a little red wine (from pinot noir or meunier grown only in Champagne) or by the less common saignée technique.
If you really want to experience the magic of champagne, try the Grower champagnes of the innovative artisans who use organic and biodynamic viticulture practices and work with their grapes, including the temperamental heirloom varieties, to find their truest expression. Grower producers such as Laherte Frères and Agrapart have had great success using heirloom blends to produce interesting champagnes that are full of character and as individualistic as their creators. These are the champagnes which the French drink to celebrate, commiserate or just because la vie est belle and with the help of Sally Hillman, you can find a champagne that’s perfect for every occasion.