Champagne houses need a consistent style for their non-vintage Champagne, even after a bad harvest such as 2001. GILES FALLOWFIELD meets four winemakers at blending time.
The Champenois are slightly suspicious of English wine writers. Even of those writers that purport to know something about the appellation. As a general rule the larger the house, the greater the level of suspicion. Why would anyone want to visit Champagne, especially in January when it’s cold, wet and windy, to taste the base wines (vins clairs), just months after one of the most difficult harvests in recent years? At this point they are usually highly acidic, often still cloudy and pretty unpalatable. The pretext of looking at the whole process of blending seems improbable. More likely he’s come to stir up some scandal, to talk about the rains before picking started, the bloated grapes, the lack of acidity and ripeness, to rant on about how bad the wine based on the 2001 harvest is likely to be. Not so. The idea of looking at the complex process of blending non-vintage Champagne after a large, but mostly dilute and not particularly ripe, harvest is a sound one. What better time to show off the blenders’ skills. For surely only the most adept winemakers will be able to conjure up an acceptable standard of non-vintage fizz from nature’s less-than-generous offerings in 2001.
The fundamental difference between making non-vintage Champagne and most table wine is that you can blend together several harvests to produce the former. So while the quality of any given table wine will be largely dependent on how kind the weather is during any particular year, it is entirely possible to make decent non-vintage Champagne after one relatively poor harvest.
Vintage Champagne is made only in the best years, perhaps one in three. Some years no vintage fizz will be made at all, right across the appellation, and this looks increasingly likely for 2001. While vintage Champagne is a reflection of a single harvest and the specific characteristics of that year, non-vintage Champagne, which represents the vast majority of production, is something quite different. The winemaker’s aim is to make a product that’s, first and foremost, consistent from year to year. A wine that conforms to their house style, one they hope consumers will recognise – that’s the theory at least. The winemakers may achieve such consistency by blending, adjusting the relative proportions of the three grape varieties, the percentage of any given cru and the amount of reserve wine they use.
So how does the process of blending work and what can winemakers do when the base wine from a particular harvest lacks the necessary qualities to make reasonable non-vintage Champagne? To find out, I went to Champagne in the last week of January when, for most, the process of blending is beginning. I visited four very different producers – two individual houses, a grower and one of the largest cooperatives – in an effort to obtain a representative cross-section in terms of size, style of wine and winemaking philosophy.
The big house
Alain Terrier has been in charge of the winemaking at Laurent-Perrier in Tours-sur-Marne for the past 27 years. Like his contemporary, Jacques Péters at Veuve Clicquot, Terrier knows a thing or two about blending. He makes the best-selling rosé Champagne, one of the few consistently top-class prestige cuvées in Grand Siècle, plus Ultra Brut, the only commercially produced non-dosage Champagne among the larger houses. Terrier has assembled individual village crus, regional blends and reserve wines going back to the 1996 vintage, for us to taste. A selection of the building blocks from which he will make the non-vintage cuvée. Before we start tasting, Terrier points out that blending the non-vintage brut can be just as difficult after a very good harvest like 1990, as it will be with 2001: ‘That’s because in such years as 1990, the base wine has a strong personality. I am trying to produce a consistent style, so the biggest compliment that can be paid to me is that whatever the specific characteristics of a harvest, consumers don’t notice a difference.’ ‘The good thing about the 2001 harvest is that the base wines are clean and pure, although they lack weight, length in the mouth and roundness on the finish,’ says Terrier. Happily, because they will make no vintage wine or special cuvée from the 2001 harvest, he has the whole array of more than 75 different crus to draw on for the non-vintage blend, which, he says, makes it easier.
Reserve wine from previous vintages, which always plays a part in making non-vintage, will take on a more crucial role. ‘The proportion of reserve wine we use will rise, from 10 to around 30%,’ says Terrier, ‘as well as the percentage of grands and premiers crus involved.’ I ask him to describe the Laurent-Perrier house style. After all, this is what he wants to end up with in around three years’ time when the non-vintage brut is first released. He’s clear about what he’s after. A wine of pleasure, of purity, elegance and roundness, without any heavy element. Something that’s easy to drink and when you try it, you want another glass. As we start tasting base wines it emerges that Terrier is a Chardonnay man, and buys this variety from all over the appellation. Chardonnay is key – it makes up 45–50% of the non-vintage, perhaps even a little more with a harvest like 2001, Terrier says. It brings purity, vivacity and elegance to the blend. Not just Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, although it’s important, but also from the Côte de Sézanne and Montagne de Reims villages like Trepail and Villers-Marmery. Terrier will use around 30 different crus of Chardonnay in the blend with reserve wines from 1998, 1999 and 2000 to balance the 2001, plus a little of the 1996 vintage, but not too much, as its strong character – high alcohol and high acidity – would change the house style.
We turn to the Pinots – Noir and Meunier – swapping red fruits and greater richness for the citrussy, floral notes evident among the Chardonnays. As we work our way through nearly 20 different samples of still, highly acid base wines, which are very difficult to taste, let alone analyse, I get some idea of the task ahead of Terrier. At this point, near the end of January, he’s tasted about 90% of the base wines and has just started to put together two cuvées. His assembling various elements to make a more interesting whole I can follow. His understanding of how these disparate parts will develop over time into something pre-defined, recognisable as the Laurent-Perrier house style, is another matter.
The smaller house of Deutz is physically close to Laurent-Perrier, but stylistically far apart. Even though it is based in another grand cru village, Aÿ, that’s only about 10km to the west of Tours-sur-Marne. This too is Pinot Noir country, some say the finest in Champagne, and the Deutz Brut Classic non-vintage wine is based on black grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, which each account for about a third of the blend. Because Deutz gives its non-vintage brut four to five years’ ageing, far in excess of the minimum of 15 months, winemaker Odilon de Varine has to cast his mind even further forward than Terrier. His task is made easier by the fact that Deutz owns enough vineyards to supply 35% of its grape needs while, at Laurent-Perrier, Terrier only has 8% of his total requirements and must buy the rest in.
Deutz also uses fewer different crus than Laurent-Perrier, about 30 in total, de Varine says: five Chardonnay, eight Pinot Noir and the rest Pinot Meunier. ‘We know where the good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is, but there are lots of little spots for Meunier along the Marne Valley and around Epernay. However all the vineyards we use are very close to Aÿ. Châtillon-sur-Marne, which is just 20km away, is the most distant.’ De Varine also sees the 2001 harvest as good blending material, ‘better than 1987 or 1991, especially when we can add reserve wine from 2000, 1999 and 1998, all three of which we will be declaring as vintages’. For Deutz, which routinely has between 25 and 30% reserve wine in its non-vintage, this doesn’t represent a problem, ‘we will just add a little more in 2001’, says de Varine.
Getting the balance right
Deutz non-vintage has a more distinctive personality than Laurent-Perrier’s, something I don’t think Terrier would argue with. ‘For me what’s important is balance between structure and elegance,’ says de Varine. ‘It should have an attack, a freshness and a structure that ensures it lasts in the mouth two or three minutes after your initial taste. It’s important too that it couldn’t be classified as boring, fat or dull.’ His suggestion that ‘the first glass should be so enticing that it must be followed by a second’, had a familiar ring. At the Reims cooperative, where the Jacquart brand is produced, reserve wines also play an important role. Head winemaker Richard Dailly expects to use as much as 35% in the non-vintage Brut Mosaïque blend, made from the base of the 2001 harvest, to give more character and depth. However, most of this reserve wine will be Pinot-based, from the previous 2000 harvest, for Dailly believes Chardonnay doesn’t work well when kept in reserve, it loses freshness and elegance and doesn’t really age that well in bottle. As a result the 45–50% of Chardonnay typically included in the elegant, lifted Brut Mosaïque blend, usually comes entirely from the current harvest on which the non-vintage Champagne is based. Dailly can get away with this approach because to make Jacquart he has access to the best parcels across some 840 hectares of vineyard owned by members of the cooperative in various different parts of the Valle de la Marne.
Although reserve wine will help keep the quality of the non-vintage fizz high during poorer harvests, Dailly feels consistency is maintained more by the use of 134 different crus than by reserve wine. He concedes: ‘Chardonnay was quite disappointing in 2001, diluted and lacking in character. But Pinot Meunier was extraordinary and some Pinot Noir outstanding.’ For Philippe Chartogne-Taillet, a high-quality grower/producer based in the village of Merfy to the northwest of Reims, the 2001 harvest presents similar problems, albeit on a different scale. He only produces 80,000 bottles a year and perhaps as much as a quarter of that is sold off to the négociant if he isn’t entirely happy with its quality. By the time I taste base wines with Philippe, I am in danger of thinking I’m an expert, but his astute analysis quickly brings me down to earth as he goes through his idea for an assemblage in front of me. I can at least recognise the quality of some of the reserve wines we try from the previous three vintages. And the importance of reserve wines in keeping up both quality and continuity of style, is once more underlined.
Happily he takes me off for supper in Reims and a decent Hermitage to wash it down. By now that’s about all I’m good for, I’ve had my fill of tasting vin clair for another year.
Giles Fallowfield is a freelance wine writer.