We had some great feedback at the shop about our last blog post as people sounded their appreciation for a little extra focus on bubbles. In my never-ending quest to find topics to write about, I thought we’d continue with the theme again this week and see where it leads us. Actually, the more I think of it, the more I reckon that this information just might spill over into next week’s blog as well. We’ll see.
Before we go any further, we should probably take a second and talk about the basics of how champagne is made. The process is as follows: Grapes are grown and turned into wine. Typically this wine is then blended with other wines. The blended wine is then put in a bottle with some yeast and sugar and then sealed. It ferments a second time while in the bottle and the carbon dioxide produced during this fermentation becomes trapped in the wine. The wine then rests for an extended period of time on the dead yeast cells from the secondary fermentation. The yeast is then removed from the wine and more sugar and some reserve wine is added to the bottle. It then rests again before being sent to market.
I’ve spent the last few weeks brushing up on Champagne as we prepare for the holidays and I can’t think of a more complicated, precariously situated, or fascinating wine region. It’s mind-boggling to say the least. Geographically, Champagne is located in the northern extremes of viticulture. The region perpetually fights to achieve ripeness and it is precisely due to this struggle that a whole arsenal of vinification techniques have been developed to balance austere acidity of these cold climate grapes. In this week’s blog, we’ll talk about some of these traditional vinification techniques while giving a nod to a couple of the distinct terroirs throughout the region. Next week, we’ll flip the script and discuss a little more about the region’s viticulture and how aspect and soil types play into this relationship.
If forced to select the most important choices made during the vinification of champagne, I’d propose the following five:
- The selection of the wines for the blend, this includes wines from different varietals, villages, and vintages.
- The choice of whether or not to use oak. This is actually a question of whether or not to make a reductive/fresh style or an oxidative/luscious style.
- Whether or not wine will go through malolactic fermentation.
- The amount of time the wine ages on dead yeast cells (yeast autolysis.)
- The amount of dosage the wines receive upon bottling.
While many of these factors are more or less the same as any winemaker in any region would consider while producing a wine, in Champagne, at this extreme border of viticulture, the impact of these choices are magnified ten-fold as Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Noir so transparently express both the impacts of terroir and manipulation. Before we go on, let me give you a taste of what we’re going with this and how complicated these decisions can be:
Marc Hebrart Cuvee de Reserve Brut – $56.99
This fantastic Champagne punches well above its weight in terms of quality to price. Sourced predominately from the Grande Vallee in the eastern part of the Vallee de la Marne, it is a blend of 85% Pinot Noir and 15% Chardonnay. The Pinot Noir hails from the Mareuil-sur-Ay, Hautvillers, Avenay Val d’Or, and Mutigny Premier Cru Vineyards while the Chardonnay is from the Bisseuil Premier Cru Vineyard. After the grapes of each parcel of land are hand-harvested, they are vinified separately in glass-lined or ceramic tanks. A substantial portion of this wine is stored as reserves to build future cuvees. Beyond being a blend of wines from two different grapes from multiple sites, this particular wine is also an assemblage of four different vintages. 45% from the reserves of the 2015 vintage, 25% from 2014, 20% from 2013, and 10% from 2012. It sees extended sur lie aging to give it additional texture and weight and it also undergoes full-malolactic fermentation which gives the wine additional creaminess. There is some experimentation with oak and indigenous yeasts at the House but it is unclear if those wines made it into this blend. Also unclear is the precise amount of dosage the cuvee sees but most of the Marc Hebrart portfolio sees between 6.5 to 7 grams per liter of sugar, so it is safe to say that the amount in this particular wine would be similar.
If this seems like a lot of information, you’re right, and if you did the math, you’d see that potentially twenty distinct still wines or more were assembled to make this bottling. That might seem like a lot but some Champagnes are actually blends of up to four-hundred different still wines! Marc Hebrart is not far behind. The house owns 65 distinct parcels across 6 villages and to my knowledge, each parcel is vinified separately; multiply the production of those villages by numerous vintages and it becomes evident that Marc Hebrart’s palate has plenty of colors from which to create its vision of what Champagne. Going back to the wine at hand, the complexity of this brut cuvee shows in the glass but perhaps more importantly is the grace of the wine; this elusive component can only come from the tradition and artistry that evolved in the region over the last couple centuries. Marc Hebrart is one of my absolute go-to’s on the shelf for a sub $75 bottle. It is a wine which subsumes a myriad of concepts and complexities to arrive at what I believe is an elegant expression – an elegant expression of the crossroads between place and process.
The use of oak can be tricky but as the oak employed in champagne is predominately neutral, the question really isn’t whether or not a House wants soft baking spice notes wafting from their consumer’s glasses but rather whether or not they feel their fruit best expresses itself via oxidative or anaerobic winemaking. More often then not, the decision is made at ground zero, the site where the vines are grown. If a house wishes to maintain a fresher style, precautions against any oxidation are taken at every step of the way, from seed to glass. Fermentation tanks are filled quickly, sometimes blending grapes together from entire regions rather than vinifying parcels separately. Nitrogen is employed whenever possible to keep the oxygen away from the berries.
The non-oxidative style of Champagne tends to be brighter, fresher and exudes racier acidity. They do not get their weight from oxidation but rather from contact with the lees, malolactic fermentation, or bottle age. On the other hand, the Houses which tend to align stylistically with the oxidative camp typically showcase wine with slightly fuller bodies and may still add to that weight via malo and extended lees. The fruit character of these wines tends to show a bit more bruised apple or pear on the nose. Houses like Ruinart, Moet & Chandon (especially the Cuvee Dom Perignon), Laurent Perrier, Mumm, and Gimmonet tend to be more reductive (non-oxidative) and brighter in style while the houses of Krug, Veuve Cliquot, Bollinger, and Jaquessson are more oxidative in style.
Krug Grande Cuvee Brut – $199.99
This release is a blend of approximately 45% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier. It is a blend of nearly 200 wines from 20-25 distinct villages and up to 10 distinct vintages. All of Krug’s base wines are vinified in oak for around three weeks, then carefully guarded against further oxidation. Krug warehouses over 4,000 barriques throughout the region for this incredible, annual project. The wines rarely go through malolactic fermentation and complete primary fermentation very slowly at low temperatures. Krug’s Grande Cuvee is considered one of the most iconic bottles of bubbles on the market.
Ruinart Brut Rose Magnum (1.5 liter), $249.99
This is a blend of 55% Chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs and 45% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and Vallee de la Marne. Ruinart, in contrast to Krug, goes to great lengths to ensure every little oxidation happens to the wines at any point in the process. They ferment fruit from a region rather than by village in order to fill their fermentation tanks up quicker as a safeguard against oxidation. Nitrogen is employed to expel oxygen whenever possible and they put immense effort into researching the science of fermentation and seek out innovative ways to capture their vision of what their wine can be. Their house style is fresh and lively and their library of reserve wines is not as deep as a house that seeks a more luscious style but it is enough to create majestic complexity and depth in their cuvees – only 20-25% of this release was sourced from reserve wines. It is important to stress however, that these wines are not devoid of profundity. While graceful and elegant, the highly expressive with aromas of exotic fruits and floral notes are entrancing. I’ll envy the person who claims this double-sized bottle as their own.
The amount of time a wine spends quietly waiting for disgorgement within the nearly 650 miles of underground caves throughout the region of Champagne is referred to as it’s time sur latte (a bottle on its side) or sur lies (on dead yeast cells.) It is during this time that the yeast cells break down and the wine assumes a brioche or bready nose and a creamy mouth feel. It is required that all champagnes go through this process at a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage and 36 months for vintage bottlings but most producers regularly go well beyond those limits.
Billecart-Salmon Extra Brut Rose – $99.99
This bottling sees 8-9 years of lees contact. It is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay, and 20% Pinot Meunier. 80% of the wines were fermented in stainless steel and the remainder in oak. Billecart-Salmon typically harvests early and the resulting brightness of the fruit shows through in the cuvee, however, to counterbalance the high acidity of the pristine fruit, some oxidative processes, full malolactic fermentation and extended lees aging help to round-out the severity of the acid and in the end, yield a highly elegant but powerful style of sparkling wine.
The last aspect of we’re covering in this week’s blog is dosage – the amount of sugar and reserve wine added to the bottle after the dead yeast has been removed. If you’d an idea of how this is done check out this link. Dosage is perhaps one of the most greatly misunderstood aspects of Champagne. Many newer connoisseurs often hope to find wines of transparency and consider dosage as an artificial or foreign additive in the wine and therefore make the wine less honest. I feel that the sugary mixture, just like oak, malo, and sur lies aging, is just another chance for the winemaker to find the best, most beautiful expression of the fruit. A young blanc de Blancs Champagne from a chalk driven region such as Le Mesnil-sur-Oger with no dosage, no oak, no malo and the minimum amount of lees contact, can be absolutely punishing to the palate and maybe even unsafe for tooth enamel.
A.R. Lenoble Cuvee Riche Demi-Sec – $64.99
This Champagne sees a dosage of 34 grams of sugar per liter which is about 4 times what you’d normally see at our shop at this price point. It is noticeably sweet but the acidity balances it nicely and frames the plush, round, fruit character. This is an absolutely gorgeous bottling and would pair nicely with a wide range of sweet treats.
Thanks for reading and we hope to see you around the shop soon,
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