When it comes to beverages, I find that certain wines are well suited for certain seasons. In the cold fall and winter we enjoy hearty reds and rich nutty Ports, and in the spring and summer the pendulum swings to crisp whites and juicy Rosé. However, if there is one wine that enjoys the best of all seasons it is most certainly Champagne. With a ceremonious pop of the cork, Champagne marks all holiday events, and during the warmer days of spring and the dog days of summer those bubbles are refreshing and beg to be enjoyed with outdoor picnics and in a bucket of ice by the pool. It also pairs extremely well with a variety of foods from delicate shellfish to even a hearty steak – really, I’m serious! Have some Camille Saves Grand Cru Rose NV ($69.99) with your savory fillet and be humbled by your pink bubbles.
Granted, with all of Champagne’s charm and versatility, there is a mysterious quality to Champagne that can elude, or even outright alienate some. In this guide we will discuss the differences in styles of Champagne, the terminology of the label, and what makes Champagne unique from other sparkling wines around the world.
The vintage of a wine is typically the year in which the bottle was produced. For most wines, a vintage is placed on the bottle regardless of whether the year was fair or poor. With Champagne, each Champagne house takes great pride in the wine they produce, and may choose not to declare a year as a vintage if they feel that the year was not worthy enough to be sold under their name. By doing this, there is a guarantee of quality for a Champagne that is vintage dated: it means the producer felt strongly enough about the wine produced that year to sell under their name. Some Champagne houses can be very meticulous about the quality of a vintage, such as Salon, a producer who has produced only 37 vintages since their first production in the 20th century! Salon is a brand that is built to last in the cellar. The Salon Blanc de Blancs ‘Le Mesnil’ 1999 ($279.99) is a perfect example of a great vintage Champagne. Even at fourteen years of age, it is still in its infancy. Offering precise minerality, a creamy texture, and superb balance of acidity and structure, ‘Le Mesnil’ can still spend decades to come in the cellar.
So what does a producer do during the off years? They produce non vintage Champagne, simply labeled as NV on the label. NV Champagne are created by taking wine from an undeclared vintage and blending it with wine from past vintages and undeclared vintages, in order to create a consistent product that represents purely the style of the producer. NVs should not be looked down upon since they can yield some of the best deals to be found. For example, during those many years were Salon does not produce a vintage, they source their fruit out to Delamotte, a sister producer. Delamotte Blanc de Blanc NV ($49.99) is a blend of Salon’s unused grapes, expressing the quality of the Grand Cru terroir that Salon sources at a fraction of the cost. Pure, mineral driven, and precise, Delamotte Blanc de Blanc NV is even cellar worthy in its own right, and can age well up to a decade.
Blanc de What?
The term on the front of both Salon and Delamotte, “Blanc de Blanc,” directly refers to the soul grape varietal used in the Champagne. There are three grapes allowed by French law to be used in making Champagne: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.
“Blanc de Blanc” literally translates to “White of Whites” and dictates that the Champagne will be comprised of 100% Chardonnay. Chardonnay adds delicacy, finesse, and freshness, and can create very pure and floral Blanc de Blancs .
“Blanc de Noir,” or “White of Blacks,” is made from 100% Pinot Noir, which lends richness and depth. The most underrated of the Champagne grapes, Pinot Meunier, is often used for general blending. It adds a hardy character that forms the backbone for blended Champagne, such as Krug Grande Cuvee NV ($159.99), a Champagne that is equally rich and assertive, and further distinctive for using oak casks for primary fermentation, which asserts the masculine qualities of Krug.
Although Pinot Meunier is mostly known as a blending grape, there are producers who create excellent Champagnes from 100% Pinot Meunier. One such producer, Egly-Ouriet, creates a rich, creamy Meunier based Champagne “Les Vignes de Vrigny” Premier Cru NV ($69.99).
The Grand Premier
At this point you may be asking yourself what the difference is between a Grand Cru producer, such as Krug, and a Premier Cru production, such as Les Vignes de Vrigny. In Champagne, the quality of a vineyard site is directly related to the terroir of the region around the town in which the vineyard is based;the best of which is declared as Grand Cru. A village declared as a Grand Cru typically has optimum soil and climate, with the most sought after soil being a mixture of limestone and eroded seashell sediments, which produce the best Chardonnay. Many premier cru vineyards tend be populated with more clay marl soils, which serve heartier grapes like Pinot Noir, and especially Pinot Meunier, optimally. The difference between Grand Cru and Premier cru is crucial, however it does not guarantee and absence of quality for Premier Crus, which can produce excellent Pinot based Champagnes at expensive prices, or a shameless amount of price gouging for Grand Crus, with many hidden gems with outstanding price to quality ratios. One such Champagne, Guy Charlemagne ‘Le Mesnil sur Oger’ Blanc de Blanc Grand Cru, Brut Reserve NV ($39.99) represents outstanding quality for a very reasonable price.
From Dry To Sweet
Are you still following along? That was a lot of information, but there is STILL more to learn about interpreting Champagne. The style of Champagne is created by the second fermentation that takes place in the bottle and creates the signature carbon bubbles that make you feel all warm and fuzzy. However, during this second fermentation, sedimentation occurs at the bottom of the bottle. By rotating the bottles over time in a process called ritaling, and popping off the closure of the bottle, causing the condensed CO2 in the bottle to shoot out all of the sediments that have accumulated in the neck of the bottle in a process called disgourgment. At this point, the overall style of the Champagne is decided, as a mixture of yeast, sugar, and wine, is then put in the bottle to make up the loss of wine from disgourgement. Depending on the sugar to wine ratio, this will decide the final style of the Champagne in terms of sweetness.
The levels from dry to sweet are as follows:
Extra Brut: Extra Dry
Demi-Sec: Dessert Sweet.
Champagnes can still be made in even sweeter styles than Demi-Sec, though they are very rare and expensive. A great introductory into dessert sweet Champagnes, Veuve Cliquot Demi-Sec NV ($49.99), is a delicately sweet wine, with flavors of orchard fruits and cream.
Rarer Champagnes Less Traveled
With more than 80 different Champagnes represented here at Beltramo’s, the choices can be infinite. But by understanding the language of Champagne, you can now better understand what the style and value of the bottle in your hand will be. Of course you can also always ask one of your personal Wine Consultants here at Beltramo’s.
Jimmy L., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant