In Focus: Champagne

  • Wednesday 11 January 2006

Champagne – currently the best-performing region in France in terms of wine sales – is now following Burgundy’s example, creating premier cru sparkling wines from single-vineyard sites. As Giles Fallowfield discovers, it’s not just a passing trend

Champagne is a prosperous region. The crisis in France’s vineyards has seemingly passed it by. Although the merchant houses, on whose brands the affluence of the region is built, have to pay a lot for their grapes, their wines boast a higher entry-level price than any other major French appellation. And despite the price, worldwide sales of Champagne have risen steadily for more than a decade.

While overproduction is an issue in much of France, in Champagne there’s talk of expanding the vineyards to meet the growing demand for bubbly, even though the Champagne vineyard area is three times larger than it was in 1945 and production has risen 10 times over the same period. Worldwide consumption topped 300m bottles last year with about 120m bottles exported. It’s all changed since the days when Champagne’s raison d’être was to supply light red wines for the tables of nearby Paris.

As autumnal visitors to the region will know, Champagne is usually an overcoat cooler than Burgundy at the time of harvest, and this cool climate is key to both the wine’s invention and its ongoing success. Before the modern era of temperature-controlled ferments, the fermentation process would grind to a halt with the onset of winter, often before it was complete. When spring arrived and temperatures started to rise, the wines already in bottle would start to ferment again giving them a slight spritz. These young, gently fizzy wines sold well in markets like England in the mid-17th century and once this secondary fermentation was controlled and refined by the likes of Dom Pérignon, the modern era of Champagne was born.

Cool climate remains one of the keys to quality, for Champagne is France’s most northerly vineyard – the perfect place for making a base wine to turn into fizz, as high acidity, a vital ingredient in Champagne’s long ageing process, is naturally preserved by the slow ripening process.

This is also the reason nine out of 10 bottles of Champagne produced today are unvintaged. Originally it was all made from a single year but, like today, vintage quality was extremely variable. As the demand for Champagne grew, blending different harvests was a way to make sure a larger volume of a more consistent quality could be produced, with poor harvests improved by adding material kept from better years.

Most Champagne is also a blend of all three main grape varieties planted in the region – Pinots Noir and Meunier, and Chardonnay. The five main production regions in Champagne are all strongly associated with one of these: the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar with Pinot Noir; Chardonnay in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Sézanne, and in the frost-prone Vallée de la Marne – the hardier Pinot Meunier. However, partly because the soils and aspect are not identical across each district, but also because individual grower producers who own most of the vineyards usually want the option of cross blending – it is generally thought to produce a better, more complete, finished wine – some Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay are found in all five.

For the major houses, this blend of grape varieties is sourced from a range of terroirs across the appellation, which stretches more than 150km from north to south. The blend for Moët’s Brut Impérial, for example, is typically made up of more than 100 different villages or crus as they are known. In Champagne, each village (all 323 of them) is quality rated under the system known as the Echelle des Crus, literally ‘ladder of growths’, and given a classification from 100% to 80% (the lowest rating).

The 17 grand cru villages (rated 100%) are all located in the three best-known districts, with nine in the Montagne de Reims, six in the Côte des Blancs and two – Aÿ and Tours-sur-Marne – in the Vallée de la Marne. Because all the well-known Champagne brands are a blend of grapes from different terroirs, the concept of grand cru Champagne is relatively undeveloped. Growers whose vineyards tend to be located around one particular village can and have used grand cru on their labels, though most tend to emphasise just the village name like Cramant, Bouzy or Ambonnay.

Since the millennium, however, a number of the largest houses, some smaller high-quality producers and the appellation’s biggest coop have launched both grand cru blends – typically based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a few select villages in the Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Blancs – and individual grand cru village wines. This, along with the introduction of more wines from specific single-vineyard sites, like the established Krug Clos du Mesnil and Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, is likely to be a developing trend.

Taittinger and Mumm have both launched attractive, but stylistically very different, grand cru blends. Moët & Chandon continues to make its ‘Trilogie des grands crus’, a trio of single-varietal, single-vineyard, grand cru, unvintaged Champagnes, although they are more expensive and can currently only be bought at Moët’s headquarters in Epernay. Nicolas Feuillatte has extended its range of four vintage grand cru village Champagnes, launched with the 1995, to six – three Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs – from the impressive 1996 vintage. Duval Leroy has also created three single-varietal vintage Champagnes (see separate entry).

Top quality producer Jacquesson, based in Dizy, is now making two single-varietal grand cru Champagnes from its vineyards in Aÿ and Avize (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively), as well as a premier cru Pinot Meunier (Le Clos) from a vineyard next to the winery in Dizy, the first cuvée from the 2000 vintage due to be released next year (2006). Jacquesson has also broken new ground by putting quality ahead of consistency in making its non-vintage brut the best blend each year. The first release based on the 2000 harvest – Cuvée 728 – was impressive but arguably surpassed by the exciting, expressive second release in January 2005 – Cuvée 729 – based on the relatively poor 2001 harvest but bolstered by 42% reserve wine from 2000 and 1999.

Another of Champagne’s great houses, Billecart-Salmon, launched a single-vineyard 100% Pinot Noir (Blanc de Noirs) called Clos St-Hilaire in 2003 from the 1995 vintage, produced from a site right next to the winery in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Two other leading producers are known to have similar projects nearing fruition.

Perhaps, as the Champenois learn about the potential of certain vineyard sites, partly due to vinifying such individual parcels separately, similarities with near-neighbour Burgundy will develop. However, as Champagne’s success has been built on brands and cross-regional, mixed-varietal, multi-vintage blends at that, it seems unlikely to signal the end of the art of blending.

KEY PLAYERS

Moet & Chandon

Moët & Chandon is the top-selling Champagne in eight of the top 10 world markets and one of the six brands owned by Moët Hennessy, by far the largest producer, selling around 53m bottles a year – some 18% of the region’s wine, and three times more than anyone else. Moët Hennessy also owns the next largest brand (Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin), two of the three best-known prestige cuvées in the shape of Dom Pérignon and Krug, plus Mercier, a major seller in French supermarkets, and Ruinart, the oldest house in Champagne. The best-value wines are Moët’s and Clicquot’s single vintages, which in top years like 1988, 1995 and 1996, age very well.

Pommery

Pommery, purchased from LVMH in April 2002, is the best-known international brand within the Pommery Vranken Monopole group, the second largest in Champagne. Paul François Vranken, whose company also owns Heidsieck Monopole and Charles Lafitte, is an unashamed innovator who has successfully developed the colourful Pommery POP brand while maintaining the quality of its more traditional wines, notably its elegant prestige cuvée Louise, which deserves a wider audience. He has become an influential figure in Champagne in little more than a decade.

Laurent-Perrier

While Laurent-Perrier is best known for its distinctively packaged NV rosé Champagne, the biggest selling pink fizz, its celebrated winemaker Alain Terrier, chef de cave for 30 years, makes two of the star wines of the appellation: Salon and Laurent-Perrier’s prestige cuvée Grand Siècle. Terrier is also behind the only widely available non-dosage (completely dry) Champagne, Ultra Brut, a style there’s growing interest in. The company’s position looks stronger since the purchase of Château Malakoff in February 2004, which has considerably increased its vineyard holdings.

Perrier Jouet and Mumm

Perrier Jouët and Mumm, now owned by Pernod Ricard after their fourth change of ownership within six years, are on good form. Thanks to winemaker Dominic Demarville’s efforts, Mumm’s quality has improved beyond recognition. Perrier Jouët’s range is also proving more consistent, with the straight vintage and Blason Rosé the best buys, and Belle Epoque, which benefits from having Champagne’s most distinctive bottle, given the chance to challenge the three icon prestige cuvées in Europe and the Far East as it already does in the USA.

Charles and Piper Heidsieck

Charles Heidsieck Mise en Cave, with its large percentage of reserve wines and extra ageing, has been one of the three most consistently high-quality non-vintage Champagnes of the past decade, although some consumers have not understood the concept (bottles bear the year they are put into the company’s cellars to mature). The straight vintage wines and its terrific (all Chardonnay) Blanc de Millénaires vintage also continue to shine. Quality standards, set out by the late Daniel Thibault, have been upheld by his successor Régis Camus. Quality at Piper Heidsieck has taken a significant step forward, particularly the vintage.

Louis Roederer & Deutz

Louis Roederer is one of the most influential houses in Champagne, thanks to the leadership of Jean-Claude Rouzaud, former chairman of the now defunct Syndicat de Grandes Marques. The quality of Roederer’s own wines, renowned for their elegance and longevity, are underpinned by its unusually large, highly rated vineyard holdings (60% of Roederer’s needs). However Rouzaud

has recently said he is willing to buy in more grapes (if the required quality is available) to increase production, even for Cristal, the icon prestige cuvée brand and the glitterati’s favourite. Bought in 1993, Deutz non-vintage Champagne has since become one of the best.

Bollinger

This deeply traditional, family-run house based in the grand cru village of Aÿ, controls a 163 ha (hectare) vineyard estate that supplies two thirds of its grape needs and underpins the high quality of its muscular, Pinot Noir-dominated wines. Bollinger’s commitment to the highest production standards was set out in its ‘Charter of ethics and quality’, published in 1992. The charter has become a blueprint for quality in the region, with more stringent rules than those of the Champagne appellation, and it has ensured that demand for all Bollinger’s wines has always exceeded supply.

Pol Roger

Winston Churchill’s favourite Champagne company, Pol Roger, has re-invested in improved production facilities, employed Krug’s former winemaker and, partly as a result, its wines have been showing consistently well, not just the excellent long-lived vintage styles. Now commercially stronger under Patrick Noyelle’s management, its reputation and influence are in the ascendancy.

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