“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it―unless I’m thirsty.”
― Lily Bollinger, (1899-1977), Bollinger Champagne
The famous quote from one of Champagnes leading ladies is one we can definitely get behind and nothing quite says "Treat yo' self" like a bottle of Champagne! It can be a complex yet elegant drop with many drinkers having their tried and true favourites, a particular brand they swear by or a style they won't budget from but it's definitely worth venturing out of your comfort zone to try new things when it comes to the wonderful world of Champers. While there are core commonalities across these wines (grape varieties used, winemaking technique etc.) the nuances and subtilties as well as the shear number of options now available can take you on quite a journey.
The Champagne region itself can be described as fairly nondescript. To put a picture in your mind, there are no beautiful sweeping mountain ranges and medieval looking villages that many have come to expect from French winemaking regions. Instead, it is more in the 'agriculturally posh' bucket. A bit like Hawke's Bay with its beautifully manicured vines stretching across the undulating hillside but with a distinct farm-y overtone (we're talking those farmers with nice bodywarmers and quad bikes instead of those who drive cab-less tractor with worn trousers held up with blue twine).
The soft white limestone and calcareous soil similar to what you see in the White Cliffs of Dover, give Champagne's wines their distinctive tang with a laborious production, analysis & grading process meaning wines must hit certain quality marks if they are to display the region's name on their label.
Some wines just seem to pop due to the mastery of the team behind them, the legacy of past generations and the position of the lands from where the wines are produced.
The rules and regulations of the Champagne region mean any wine to carry the prestigious name must comply with strict criteria around grape varieties used and wine production methods that in some cases date back hundreds of years. It is this long, prestigious history that has made many of the biggest brands from this region into household names.
But the success of this delightful wine is more complex and can be attributed to many different reasons. The bubbles for one is hard to ignore - a fun, but sadly not true, myth is that the 17th century monk Dom Perignon invented sparkling wine by happy accident. The truth however is far less exciting and mysterious and in fact sparkling wines by this method were being produced well before his time.
He is however responsible for significant improvements in the quality and production of Champagne and still a worth name to be associated with one of the worlds most famous drops. Perhaps another reason for it's popularity and long-standing allure is it's long association with royalty and celebration. And thirdly the clever marketing and premium price helps to bolster the perceived value and set it apart from the more ordinary.
The initial process of making Champagne is very similar to making any other wine. Where the real magic happens is during a additional and secondary fermentation that takes place after the wine has been bottled. This is done by first bottle the already fermented wine before adding additional yeast and sugar before sealing the bottle. Carbon dioxide is a bi-product of all wine fermentation however when the fermentation occurs within a sealed vessel (such as a tightly closed bottle) the carbon dioxide remains suspended within the liquid. It' not until the bottle is opened and the pressure is released that the carbon dioxide can then freely rise to the surface (hence those beautiful, sparkling orbs of air we love so much).
This process takes time and a careful hand which in part contributes to the hefty price tag these wines can demand compared to their sparkling counterparts. There are also plenty of sparkling wines made by much faster methods (eg. pumping C02 into them the same way you would when making soda water) but that's where the bottle fermentation (known as Methode Traditionelle) comes into it's own. It's the slow integration of carbon dioxide dissolved into the wine as the fermentation takes place that create the much smaller bubbles (or bead as we call it) and results in a wine that truly sparkles and dances across your tongue.
In order to carry the prestigious name of Champagne the wine must also spend a minimum of 12 months aging on lees (the spent yeast cells from the second fermentation). Many of the Prestige Cru's will spend longer than this with the result being a delicious, yeasty character that comes through on both the palate and nose that reminds us of a big fat lump of brioche or sourdough proving before being sent off to a hot oven to bake - yum!
The vast majority of Champagne is sold as non-vintage (NV). This is mainly due to the vast variations in seasons the region can experience. Brands have been built on a specific style and the demanding global consumer expects to get that same consistency on consumption. So blending wines across multiple vintages can help mitigate these changes and create a wine that can be produced with a high degree of consistency. These NV wines are required to mature in bottle for a minimum of 15 months before their release (i.e. an extra 3 months after the yeast sediment is removed at disgorgement). In reality though, most of these wines are likely to see closer to 2 or 3 years in bottle before being released. The vintage specific wines from Champagne are often only produced in excpetional vintages or vintages where a producer is able to produce a particular style they are known for based on climatic conditions. These vintage wines must spend a minimum of 36 months in bottle but again most far exceed that and usually aren't released untli they have aged for 5-10 years.
There is so much more to the world of Champagne than we have gone into here but this does give a tiny glimpse into why it is the celebrity it is and how many of its wines can demand the eye watering price tags they do. But there are bargains to be had and while some of the big name brands are great wines to have as an easy fall back to ensure you are getting the quality you seek, it still pays to be bold and try new things. There are hundreds of tiny producers and garagiste houses with more of these tiny labels making their way to our shores. Many of them are every bit as good as the Veuve Cliquot or Moet but with a much smaller following can be an absolute steal by comparison.