Champagne - Behind the label

Champagne  – Behind the label

The air feels like a wet blanket and everything is dripping. The walls, the ceiling, the racks of bottles… it’s all covered in this tangled carpet of black mold.

As your eyes adjust to the gloom you start understanding the scale of what you are standing in; you are surrounded by millions of bottles stacked floor to ceiling. Literally MILLONS! Down here in these cold, dank tunnels, that really do go on for miles, it’s hard not to be struck by how truly bizarre this place is.

I have to say that I was honestly struggling a little with the antipodean nature of the whole Champagne process when I was last there. Having just seen the rows of gleaming stainless steel tanks, the immaculately sterilized production rooms, and to then be marched down a staircase of near Dantean proportions into that dark place, rattled my senses. In contrast to the polished air above, down there the air is heavy with age as the walls sweat with the dew of percolating rains, and this strange yellow glow from the sodium lamps casts bizarre, sickly looking shadows that dance across that living shag carpet of  mold. The contrast is so stark that one’s tendency is to want to reject that these two worlds really do exist side-by-side. Beverage factory meets hallways to the underworld…?

It’s an odd drama that is played out every year as the fruits of the summer sun are morphed into a salve for our social cravings, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that this strange parallel only defines a portion of what is Champagne. Granted the elements of their physical environment and the tasking process of making sparkling wine do play role in defining the Champenoise character but there’s more.

To understand the Champenoise the first thing you need to grasp is the effect of the requisite timescale.  Nothing happens quickly here, there are no quick returns on investment. You get this sense of constant improvement and of the importance of generational succession.   This is a group of merchant farmers who have ridden the waves of every major financial crisis for the last 200 years.  Come war, boom or bust they know what it takes to survive.

The second point to understand is the importance of reputation and the overshadowing need to maintain image at all costs.  This is the point I would like to focus on because we must understand that the most important thing for the Champenoise is to define and communicate their individual brand image.  Competition is fierce in the wine industry but it’s taken to a different level of intensity in Champagne.  Marketing dogma is ubiquitous and it’s up to us Somms to read through this somewhat darker side of the Champagne industry, to wipe the mold from the bottle if you will, in-order to best communicate these wines to our guests.

I will attempt to objectify the world of Champagne in 4 categories into which we should be able to fit most every Champagne (although not necessarily every producer): Reductive, Oxidative, Populist and Terroir Specific

Caveat lector! This is merely a quick analysis for the purposes of more effective restaurant service. There is truly no way to objectify any endevour where quality is based on subjective human interpretation.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room, Populist Champagne.  Please don’t let the title in any way detract from the importance of this category. This is the true work horse of the Champagne industry, these are the recognizable labels (read color in certain cases), the well known names and most of the non-vintage blends. Typically they have a higher dosage*,  tend to be more fruit forward and also tend to be lower on the price scale (note that I didn’t say in-expensive!). We can hope to expect that the individual producer’s style is well represented in every wine they make, but here you can expect a somewhat simpler, more approachable profile. However, it’s not uncommon for producers’ tete de cuvee (best) wine to fall into this category. It's also important to understand that this category is not wholly exclusive unto itself and actual style of these wines may be oxidative or reductive and/or come from single expressions of terroir.

How would you find these wines beyond just looking at price? Look for higher levels of dosage (above 8 grams/liter), the minimum of time required on the lees** and a higher percentages of red grapes in the blend, especially Pinot Meunier.   

Reductive Champagne - Reductive in winemaking terms refers to wine which has had minimal exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process. In some cases this can be a fault and create off-flavors in the wine, but what we are discussing here are wines which have been made in a style that is defined by minimal oxygen exposure.   Winemakers do this by not utilizing any porous materials during elevage***, through rigid use of SO2 and not allowing malolactic fermentation**** to occur.  In Champagne the winemakers also have the choice of which grapes to allow in the blend, and since most grapes are purchased they also have the option of terroir.  Chardonnay, especially Chardonnay from the Cote de Blanc, tends to add a more focused and linear structural profile to the wine vs. the profile of two Pinots.  Wines made in this style typically express a nervous verve of acidity, tart green apple flavors and chalky minerality in their youth. With age they soften to display a range of almost smoky qualities, think peat smoke, espresso roast and roasted almond, and in the best years these flavors can continue to develop for decades. Reductive Champagnes are perhaps the most difficult wines to understand in their youth and they can also be chided as being too dry by less experienced wine drinkers.  These wines require our attention as Sommeliers as much for the accurate translation of their aging subtleties as for their attractive understatedness. Classic examples include:

  • Salon
  • Taittinger
  • Don Ruinart
  • Dom Perignon

Oxidative Champagne – Oxidative is actually the opposite of reductive.  Wine and oxygen have a love hate relationship; the addition of oxygen can create range of new, more complex aromatic chemicals or it can turn a wine into vinegar.  However all aging is essentially oxidation and the art in winemaking is in discovering a balance point of oxygen exposure which best expresses a wines potential.  As one would expect, oxidative Champagnes are exposed to more oxygen than reductive styles during the winemaking process. This typically includes aging in oak, allowing malolactic fermentation to take place and the use of less SO2. Additionally, the use of Pinot grapes is commonly employed for their slightly broader palate and more exotic fruit spectrum.  There exists a huge range of sub-styles within this genre, some wines will only show a hint of that oxidative roundness and others will take on full blown oxidative and aldehydic notes similar to a sherry.  Even though these wines may also be a little tight on release, you won’t find that tart green apple quality here but rather a slightly sweeter yellow apple quality with notes of almond and just a hint of caramelization. With age these wines display a tapestry of dried fruits, dried flowers and exotic spices. Classic examples include:

  • Krug
  • Bollinger
  • Selosse
  • Vilmart

Terroir Specific Champagne – The vast majority of Champagnes are blended products; blends of vineyards and vintages. Therefore, the very thought of a single vineyard wine is quite incongruous in Champagne.  Up until recently this was a very rarified category and there were only a few very expensive wines like Bollinger “Vielles Vignes Francaise” and Krug “Clos du Mesnil” that were examples of single parcels of Champagne terroir. However, with the relatively recent Grower Champagne movement the access to single vineyard/terroir specific selections has become much more democratized.  The idea that a single grower has the capacity to vinify and age enough wine to be economically viable was unheard of until a group of wine critics and wholesalers started marketing the uniqueness factor of these wines.  Now the average consumer can purchase a wine that represents the terroir of a single vineyard/single producer without spending a ridiculous amount of money.  

Caveat Emptor!! Just because a wine is marketed as Grower or Terroir Specific doesn’t mean is a good wine.  In fact, there is a much greater risk in purchasing a wine from smaller “Grower” Champagne houses than one from the established Grand Marque producers.

Although there is always a risk in purchasing anything artisanal vs. a more established product line, in the best cases these wines can rival the depth and complexity of the big boys for much less money. Its important to understand that just like the populist style category this category is not exclusive unto itself. You will find a huge range of styles (reductive/oxidative/populist), blends and even single varietal wines that you might not expect like 100% Pinot Meunier or Pinot Blanc.  Some classic examples include:

  • Pierre Peters “Les Chetillons”
  • Bollinger “Vielles Vignes Francaises”
  • Chartogne-Taillet “Les Barres”
  • Krug “Clos du Mesnil”

The lesson is all of this is to not take any Champagne at face value. It’s our job as sommeliers to translate the subjective value of Champage and all other wines for our guest’s pleasure. With Champagne this can be made even more difficult with all of the inherent marketing but thankfully more often than not the technical information is also out there.  Make sure you populate your program’s wine list with a range of these categories. There is nothing worse than being forced into a vinous profile because a Somm is only buying wine for his/her own palate.

Take the time, do the research, look behind the label and past the sales pitches.  Our job is to communicate objective qualities in a subjective manner and the mark of professionalism that will set you apart is how well you are able to do just that.

Here are the Somm Bytes

  1. Champagne producers are masters of marketing and it’s up to us Somms to look beyond the label.
  2. Most all Champagnes can be divided into 4 categories:
    1. Populist – Fruit driven, higher dosage, more immediately approachable profile
    2. Reductive – No Oak, No Malo, often Chardonnay dominant, need age. Lower Dosage.
    3. Oxidative – Often aged in oak, typically go through malo, often Pinot dominant, very ageable.
    4. Terroir Specific – becoming more common, single vineyard, single producer, range of dosage and may be either reductive or oxidative.
  3. Just because a wine comes from a “Grower” producer and is terroir specific doesn’t mean it’s gonna be good.
  4. Just because a wines comes from a “Large” producer and is a blend of vineyards and years doesn’t mean it’s going to be a mediocre product.
  5. The mark of professional for any good sommelier is how well they are able to translate objective qualities in a subjective manner that their guests can best understand.

*Dosage is essentially the sugar added to the wine after the second fermentation to balance the inherent high acidity.  Sugar also has the ability to “hide a multiple of viticultural and vinicultural sins”

**Minimum lees aging describes the minimum amount of time a wine must spend aging on the dead yeast cells that percolate out of the wine after fermentation. 15 months of Non Vintage / 36 months for vintage is commonly utilized in Champagne.

***Elevage means raising in the sense of rearing a child. It’s a commonly used French term used to describe the process of developing the characteristics of a wine during the winemaking process.

 ****Malolactic fermentation is the process by which bacteria metabolizes the tarter, green apple flavored malic acid into softer, rounder lactic acid. Lactic acid is most commonly found in milk products.