Wine Guide Champagne
Wine Guide Champagne – Wine Region MapThe name Champagne carries almost mystical properties for a vast number of people. However, there are a bewildering number of Champagne houses, co-operatives and growers bottling wine under their own labels and a further huge own-label business with wines of immensely variable quality all being bottled under the auspices of just one appellation. The great Champagne houses virtually invented the concept of the brand in winemaking and in most cases they do a very acceptable job. Nonetheless, in the absence of a better classification system the area remains a minefield for consumers. There are some 30,000-plus ha under vine with many of the 19,000 growers cultivating no more than a hectare or two. Both in the cellars of the region and in the vineyards there are inevitably substantial variations in quality.
The appellation and its districts
Making sparkling wine is realistically the only consistent vinegrowing activity that can be undertaken here, among the windswept rolling hills of the most northerly of France’s wine regions. Alsace may be on a not dissimilar latitude but crucially it is protected by the Vosges Mountains. Ripening the three varieties Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay is by no means easy. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are at their optimum in the production of the great wines of the Côte d’Or some 240 km (150 miles) to the south. The vital requirement here is to provide grapes that are physiologically ripe and of sufficient intensity to produce at least good wine. That means controlling yields and harvesting properly ripened fruit, which remains a problem.
Within the appellation the communes have been classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru. This does not however give an indication of quality or the potential of a given terroir as it does in Burgundy but works more as a means by which to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest. You may have an outstanding performer in a second-classed village and a moderate grower in a grand cru.
The appellation falls into five main districts, which account for some two-thirds of the working vineyard area. These five districts may yet become their own sub-appellations in a desired move to establish better regional identity within this geographically extensive AC. The rest of the appellation is spread across a vast area. Indeed the idea that all Champagne comes from fabled chalk soils is not the case. Much of the vignoble is clay, sand or marl. The Montagne de Reims is just to the south of that city and the aspect of the vineyards improves as it extends southwards. Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are the predominant varieties here and are famed for producing rich, full-bodied Champagnes. The village of Bouzy is as well known for producing the best still Côteaux Champenois reds as it is sparkling wines.
The Vallée de la Marne to the north-west of the Montagne de Reims stretches east along the River Marne. The centre of the district is the town of Épernay and the best vineyard sites are to the east. Red grapes are predominant here and the wines tend to be a touch lighter than those from the Montagne de Reims, with more elegance and refinement. The Côte des Blancs is, as the name suggests, white wine territory. Chardonnay is virtually the exclusive grape here with very few red plantings. The vineyards are largely sited with an easterly aspect. The great Chardonnay villages of Avize, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger and Vertus are found here.
In the far south west of the main Champagne area, north of Troyes, is the Côte de Sézanne, with the small town of the same name at its heart. The vineyards are dominated by Chardonnay, which accounts for some seven out of every 10 vines. As in the Côte des Blancs there is extensive chalk in the soil but not to the same degree. Way to the south of Troyes and away from the main Champagne appellation boundaries is the Aube. The area is one hundred miles from Reims. The soil is different, there is no chalk but more of the Kimmeridgian clay and limestone soils of Sancerre and Chablis. The latter is in fact a good deal closer to the Aube than any of the other Champagne vineyards.
At present the Aube is largely planted to Pinot Noir. There is a case for a considerable increase in Chardonnay. The area could potentially make extremely rich and powerful Blanc de Blancs.
The range of different styles available takes in sparkling white and rosé along with the still red wines which use the Côteaux Champenois appellation. While the role of the master blender in Champagne remains as significant as ever, the development of wines that come from single terroirs or from the same, very specific sources when vintage conditions favour – like the great Salon wines – seems likely to accelerate as time goes on. The sheer quality of many of the emerging small growers is a signal of things to come.
The styles and method outlined below should only be used as a very general guide; there can be significant variation within these. It is quite possible to find deluxe super-premium cuvées that are non-vintage (NV), Blanc de Blancs that may be from a single vineyard or a blend of many, or Blanc de Noirs in vintage and NV versions.
Most common and providing the bulk of the output of the great Champagne houses are the regular NV blends. The use of reserve wine stocks is an undoubted asset, but a huge variation in quality exists. Available vineyard resources (and consequent fruit quality) and the length of time on lees in bottle are just two of the factors that affect the style of these wines. You should expect Vintage cuvées to be a significant step up. They should be denser and richer with significantly greater structure. Inevitably there will be more variation in style with these as they reflect the nature of the year. Generally they should only be released after good harvests.
Blanc de Blancs is produced solely from Chardonnay while Blanc de Noirs is produced from Pinot Noir and/or Pinot Meunier, to the complete exclusion of Chardonnay. Blanc de Blancs is more refined and elegant and often has a tighter structure when young, whereas a Blanc de Noirs is fuller, with richer, more opulent flavours. The pink Rosés can be made either by blending in a little red wine (the only AC where this is permitted) or, and generally with better results, by the normal manner of a short maceration on skins. The best rosé generally comes from pure Pinot Noir.
The most expensive Champagnes are the Deluxe bottlings or Luxury Cuvées. There is a wide range of styles but the best are among the finest white or rosé wines in the world. The latter are generally more expensive and made in minute quantities.
Because of the variable and challenging climate there is much vintage variation. Vintage wines are only produced when conditions permit. 2013 is reputed to be one of the best vintages since 1996. Despite losing some of the crop due to miller and age, the small harvest that remained is of excellent quality. 2012 was a welcome return to quality after two poor harvests with low yields enhancing the prospect of good vintage Champagnes. 2011 was marked by difficult growing conditions and vintage Champagnes for this year will be few and far between. 2010 also was a year where the skills of the winemaker will be paramount. It remains to be seen how many vintage wines will be made. 2009 produced a generally good yield of top quality fruit. As a result some very good vintage wines are likely to emerge. 2008 provided challenging growing conditions but the late season weather looks certain to see some fine wine produced. 2007 was a low-yielding year of variable quality that nevertheless put pressure on prices. 2006 may produce some vintage wines with a successful harvest after a difficult growing season. 2005 looks sound although there was some uneven ripening in the red varieties. 2004 produced a good crop and some good wines have emerged. 2003 has also produce some excellent vintage bottles despite the heat. Volume too was very low. 2002 was good. 2001, though, was a disaster with unprecedented rainfall.
From 1995 to 2000 the Champenois were very lucky, having a string of good to very good vintages. 1996 and 1998 were outstanding. 1996 was uniformly good, very warm and sunny with ideal ripening conditions. There was some variation in 1998 which is now emerging on the market. Prior to 1995 the only really halfway presentable year was 1993. There were an alarming number of 1992s which were green and hard. 1990 is a classic. There are fine wines on release now, like the Bollinger RD 1995. 1989 and 1988 were both very good but not quite on a par with 1990. 1989 has less structure and should be drunk now. 1985, 1983 and 1982 are all great earlier years and top wines encountered from these will be worth considering, although 1985 and 1983 particularly do need drinking now.