Styles & Wines of Champagne
There is a misconception that non-vintage, because it is a blend of different years, is inferior to vintage champagne which is made from one, theoretically exceptional, year's crop. But non-vintage champagne is the wine that a producer's reputation rests on as it's the first introduction to the house style for most consumers. They have to like the non-vintage wine if they're to be persuaded to move on to more expensive, exclusive products. This makes it vital that non-vintage champagnes are high quality.
Some producers, such as Krug, prefer to use the term, "multi-vintage," as this expresses the nature of non-vintage wine better. Non-vintage champagne is a complex blend of often three, and sometimes many more, different years. The aim is to produce a wine which has a consistent and recognisable style but reflects the nature of the different vintages and which can be drunk young to suit consumer tastes but which still has enough complexity to age. The blend must be aged on its lees in the bottle for at least twelve months, but the best wines mature for much longer than that. The result is that all producers have their own unique expression of champagne, terroir in this case being a reflection of the producer's history and style as well as the region.
Bollinger Spécial Cuvée (60% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 15% Meunier; $60)
The importance of getting the non-vintage wine right can be seen in Bollinger's recent history. The famous producer is known for a more oxidative style, with the wines aged for six to seven months in large oak casks (they own three thousand of them!). However, Bollinger received wide criticism that the Spécial Cuvée was too oxidative - to the point of being oxidised. The reputation of the producer fell as a result and Bollinger were forced to address the issue. In 2012, they introduced a new bottle shape which is wider at the bottom and narrower in the neck, with the aim of slowing the ageing down to reduce the risk of oxidation.
It seems to have worked, because the Spécial Cuvée is tasting beautifully right now. It's complex, with nutty, biscuit, yeasty aromas, but it's also wonderfully refreshing. This is a serious wine to be savoured. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Vintage champagne should only be made in the very best years, but a combination of commercial imperative and climate change have seen vintage champagne made most years this century. This can dilute the exclusive appeal of vintage champagne.
Vintage champagne should reflect the house style of a producer, a continued but more concentrated expression of non-vintage. It should, of course, also reflect the conditions of that year. It also has to be aged longer than non-vintage, with a minimum of three years' ageing in contact with the lees in the bottle. Again, the best wines are aged even longer.
Gaston Chiquet Or Premier Cru 2007 (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay)
While non-vintage champagnes are approachable when young, vintage champagnes are at their best with some years' maturity. Gaston Chiquet are a small producer going back several generations as both growers and then winemakers. Not as famous as the Grandes Marques, their wines represent good value and are consistently good quality. Their Premier Cru vintage demonstrates this with a rich body and even some black fruits coming from the Pinot Noir, acidity and freshness from the Chardonnay, and mature aromas of mushrooms, nuts, biscuits, and smoke. ✪✪✪✪✪
Blanc de Blancs
A wine which is made solely from Chardonnay is a Blanc de Blancs (literally white wine from white grapes). These wines will have markedly high acidity, very restrained green fruit aromas, and a tight, but lingering structure. Without the body that Pinot Noir brings to the blend, I can find them a little tart sometimes. But drier styles that allow the acidity to stand out have become increasingly fashionable, and Blanc de Blancs wines have been part of that trend.
Pierre Peters Cuvée de Réserve Blanc de Blancs NV ($62)
Pierre Peters are a small, family-owned and -run grower-producer all of whose wines are 100% Chardonnay as they're based in Côte des Blancs where Chardonnay plantings dominate. Their Cuvée de Réserve is a perfect example of what the best Blanc de Blancs should taste like: linear, acidic, and restrained. For a wine like this, one doesn't talk about fruit aromas but about its structure. ✪✪✪✪✪
Blanc de Noirs
Here, Blanc de Noirs means "white wine made from black grapes," which in the case of champagne will be Pinot Noir and Meunier. These wines can be a little too fruity, lacking the structure and acidity Chardonnay provides. For this reason, there isn't too much Blanc de Noirs made but if you like fruitier, fuller styles of sparkling wine a Blanc de Noirs is a good option.
Fleury Blanc de Noirs NV ($40)
Another small, and in this case biodynamic producer, Fleury Père et Fils are based in Côte des Bar mainly working with Pinot Noir. Their Blanc de Noirs is a good value champagne, rich and fruity but with enough acidity to lift the wine and make it refreshing. ✪✪✪✪
80% of all champagne is now Brut. This literally means "brutal," referring to the sting of the acidity. It's a term that originates from the 1850s, when it was made popular by Madame Pommery. At that time, there were two styles of champagne aimed at two different tastes. Le goût russe was for a very sweet style (at over 250g/L of residual sugar) preferred by the Russian market in which Veuve Clicquot and Louis Roederer were very successful. Le goût anglais was much drier, and it was in the English market that Madame Pommery made her name and fortune. After the Russian Revolution, that market collapsed and the dry, English style became widespread. Over time, Brut champagnes have got drier and drier to the point that terms such as Extra Brut and Brut Nature have been introduced for wines with very little residual sugar. The point of that sugar is to balance the high acidity which, without any sugar in the wine, can be tart or, so to speak, brutal.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve NV ($50; equal amounts of Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay)
This is a classic Brut but also one of the sweetest. Residual sugar is 10.5g/L (a level which has actually fallen in recent years) but the acidity is so high that it's difficult to discern any sweetness at all. An equal blend of all three Champagne grapes, this wine has the ideal balance between restraint, weight, and fruitiness, as well as acidity and sugar. Charles Heidsieck, by the way, was the original Champagne Charlie. ✪✪✪✪✪
Jacquesson Cuvée 737 NV ($75)
Run by two brothers, Jacquesson release a slightly different version of the Brut each year (numbered according to internal bookkeeping). They do this to highlight that their non-vintage wine does in fact reflect vintage variation and terroir - the Cuvée is a blend of three consecutive years, the characteristics of which should all be reflected in the wine. It's a very different style from Charles Heidsieck: residual sugar is 3.5g/L, making the wine very dry indeed, and the style is earthier and more oxidative. ✪✪✪✪✪
The way in which rosé champagne is made is unique to the region and illegal elsewhere in Europe. Simply, a small amount of red wine (usually from Pinot Noir) is added to a white wine to make it pink. This is what we used to jokingly do as students, and it's quite a shock to learn that some of the finest wines in the world are made in the same way. But that red wine adds colour, power, and fruit aromas without taking away the delicacy and subtlety of the white wine.
Deutz Rosé Millésime 2009 ($80)
One of my favourite producers, Deutz make exceptional rosé. Made from Pinot Noir, there's a richness and weight to the wine but there's still a light touch to it which gently coats the mouth. Lightly spicy and fruity, this is a serious, elegant, refined wine which should be drunk from a Pinot Noir glass. ✪✪✪✪✪✪
Sometimes called the tête de cuvée, the prestige cuvée is a producer's leading wine. The first was Dom Pérignon, first released in 1936 by Moët et Chandon to revive a market struggling to recover from phylloxera and the First World War. Prestige cuvées are only made in truly exceptional years and there is often something particuarly special about them which makes them unique. For example, Bollinger's Vieilles Vignes Françaises is made from pre-phylloxera Pinot Noir vineyards; Pol Roger's Sir Winston Churchill is named after the producer's most famous consumer; while Cristal, made by Louis Roederer, refers to a wine made in 1876 exclusively for Tsar Alexander II and (rather impractically) bottled in crystal.
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2006 ($125)
Taittinger own the historic home of the Counts of Champagne, who over the centuries played an important role in developing the reputation of Champagne for trade and wine. Taittinger have made the wine since 1952. It's a Blanc de Blancs, aged for a short time in small new oak barrels, and the wine tastes as much like a white Burgundy as it does a sparkling wine. That oak contributes a rich, creamy texture to the wine, with mature earth and mushroom aromas, all held together and enlivened by high acidity. A fine example of how gracefully champagne ages. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪