Monday, 17 November 2008

Champagne: king of wines and wine of kings

“Champagne: in victory I deserve it; in defeat I need it.”, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte.

Champagne is the most mythologized of wines: the wine of celebration and a byword for luxury. Imagine Napoleon’s quote applied to any other drink and it doesn’t have quite the same ring: “Lager: in victory I deserve it…” See what I mean?

Just what makes Champagne so special, so deserving of its unique status among wines? In the end it all boils down to where it’s made: the northern French region of Champagne which gives the wine its name. Other wines may use the same grapes, the same production methods and maturation, but no other wine can use the name Champagne. Everything else is simply sparkling wine, no matter how high quality.

Champagne the region is the most northerly wine-production area in France, not far from Paris and atop an all-important outcrop of chalk. We don’t fully understand all the ways in which chalk is important for grape-growing, but it seems to play a vital role of water-regulation for the vines, as well as providing a material which can easily be excavated to make cellars ideal for maturing wines.

Champagne the wine can be made only within this region and is usually a blend of three grape varieties: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay. Of these, pinot noir and chardonnay have built their own considerable reputations as the varieties responsible for the great red and white wines, respectively, of Burgundy. Pinot meunier, little known outside Champagne, is more of a workhorse, useful sort of grape. According to accepted wisdom, Chardonnay gives finesse to the blend, while pinot noir provides structure and power; pinot meunier is responsible for an attractive fruitiness early in a Champagne’s life: useful for giving some early drinking appeal, where chardonnay and pinot noir take time to develop their full array of aromas and flavours.

What to look for on the label
Most Champagnes are, therefore, a blend of these three grapes. Each house or marque will have their preferred blend, which forms a large part of their distinctive house style. Veuve Clicquot and Bollinger are classic examples of Champagnes with a higher than average proportion of pinot noir. Taittinger, on the other hand, is proud of the high proportion of chardonnay in its Champagnes. You can even find 100% chardonnay Champagnes, which will be labelled blanc de blancs. Blanc de noirs, logically then, is made only from pinot noir and/or pinot meunier.

Most of what we see in this country – and we are Champagne’s number one export market, accounting for over a quarter of exports – is labelled Brut. In the somewhat arcane labelling laws of Champagne this is what dry Champagne is called. The other style that you’ll find, if you go looking, is Demi-sec: not semi-dry as the name suggests, but pretty sweet and something to serve with dessert. In between these two styles are various grades of sweetness, so the full and rather confusingly named, range begins with the driest Brut, moving through Extra dry, Sec, Demi-sec then sweet.

In addition to the level of sweetness in a Champagne, the other terms to look out for are vintage or non-vintage. Most Champagnes are non-vintage, ie they are made from a blend of wines from a number of different years. Champagne houses wanting to deliver their house style use this multi-year blending to maintain this style from year to year, ironing out differences in ripeness, acidity levels and so on. If a particular growing season is deemed to have produced a wine of sufficient quality and harmony, then growers will make a vintage Champagne, 100% of which will be from the named year. So vintage Champagnes are not made every year: in practice probably three or four times each decade.

Think pink
So much of Champagne is wrapped up in tradition and myth that it’s something of a novelty to see the region catching the pink fever that has swept through the whole wine world. Rosé Champagnes used to be a relative rarity, but now everyone seems to be having a go at making one and you can’t move for them. If Champagne denotes something to celebrate, then pink Champagnes seem to notch up the special occasion rate even further. As Michael Caine might say, not a lot of people know that most pink Champagne is made in a way positively forbidden for still rosé wine: a small amount of red wine is added to achieve the desired colour and flavour. Of course the Champenois have a suitably elegant term for it, rosé d’assemblage, but it can still seem like a surprisingly cheap method for a wine with a fancy price tag.

What to eat with Champagne?
The obvious answer is whatever you like! Champagne is supposed to go with anything and there is something in the cliché – whatever you’re eating, from fish and chips to haute cuisine, it tastes better with Champagne. Lily Bollinger put it best: “I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I'm thirsty.”

If this has whet your appetite to find out more about Champagne, then come along to one of my upcoming Champagne appreciation evenings. Taste a range of six different, high quality Champagnes and discover for yourself the difference between blanc de blancs, vintage, non-vintage, demi-sec and a range of “grandes marques”. Evenings run on Monday 17th November at East Horsley Village Hall or Wednesday 26th November at the Guildford Institute. They start at 7.30pm and cost £25 per person, including all of the Champagnes and glasses. More details are available on

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