Inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s article “Bubble by Bubble, The land and brands, the cuvée and hearsay—Lettie Teague’s effervescent guide to Champagne,” I wanted to share the article on my blog.  I know it’s quite long, but I hope you find it as interesting {and as enticing} as I did.  Happy New Year!

Most Champagnes are 'nonvintage'—a blend from several different years.

Champagne’s capacity to inspire good cheer has been well documented; less often noted are all the great witticisms it has inspired. From the trenchant observations of Winston Churchill (“Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it”) to the deathbed commentary of John Maynard Keynes (“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink enough Champagne”), no other wine even comes close to matching the Champagne compendium of clever maxims and memorable quotes.

I’m not quite sure why. Is it the bubbles? The bottle? Or simply the name? Even nondrinkers know what Champagne is—even if they don’t know where it comes from or how it is made. It’s a wine that’s at once completely familiar and yet entirely unfathomable. “How do those bubbles get in there, anyway?” a woman asked me last week, while holding a glass.

The answer to that question and others can be found in this (all too) brief overview of the history, production and geography of Champagne—along with lots of recommended Champagnes, of course.

Bringing Up Bubbly: A History

For centuries, Champagne—the wine produced in this region of northeast France—was a still, pinkish wine. Champagne in its familiar bubbly form is said to have been “invented” by a monk in the mid-17th century. According to legend, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk (and much later a prestige brand), called out to his friends and fellow monks, upon tasting the very first sparkling wine: “Come quickly—I am tasting stars.”

In fact, Dom Pérignon was a talented fellow who did a lot of useful things, like limiting yields and replanting vineyards, but he wasn’t the first to make a wine sparkle. That distinction is likely to belong to an English scientist named Christopher Merret, who figured out how to produce a secondary fermentation in a bottle—the source of Champagne’s bubbles (more on that later).

The bubbles come from a secondary fermentation in the bottle, thanks to the addition of sugar and yeast.

The Lay of the Land

Champagne, like Chablis, was famous first as a wine and only much later as a place. (The two also share the distinction of having inspired a legion of dubious imitations.) Although collectively referred to as “Champagne,” the region is actually divided into five distinct parts: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne in the middle and the Côte des Blancs to the south, and the less famous Aube and Côte de Sézanne. The Champagne landscape is a mix of rolling farmland and forests, a pastoral if somewhat unexceptional view, save for the pristine, chalky soils of its vineyards—the same chalk that shows up as the White Cliffs of Dover across the Channel.

Don’t Call It a Champagne Grape

Burgundy and Champagne share the same grapes, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, though a third grape, Pinot Meunier, is also important in Champagne. A rustic, early-ripening cousin to Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier is important because it “rounds the wine out,” according to Nicolas Chiquet of Gaston Chiquet Champagne, which produces some very fine wines with a fair amount of Pinot Meunier. Champagne may be one of those grapes, or a blend of two or three. (The “Champagne” grape sometimes found in grocery stores is actually the Corinth grape and has nothing to do with making Champagne.)

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier account for 98% of all Champagnes produced, though a few other grapes may be legally grown and there are a few Champagne producers who use them (most famously Aubry). The Montagne de Reims is best known for Pinot Noir, the Vallée de la Marne is home to great Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and the Côte des Blancs produces great Chardonnay.

Where Bubbles Come From

All wine is made a through simple fermentation process that converts sugar into alcohol. In Champagne, there is a secondary fermentation in the bottle, thanks to an addition of sugar and yeast. As this second fermentation takes place, bubbles of carbon dioxide begin to form. When this is complete, the Champagne bottle is gradually turned upside down until the yeast has collected on the crown capping the bottle. This tedious process, called riddling, was once done by hand but is now (mostly) accomplished by a machine. After as short a period as 18 months (the legal minimum for nonvintage Champagne) or three years (the vintage minimum), or as long as 10 years, the bottle is “disgorged”: The cap is removed; the yeast is forced out; the wine is topped off with a small “dosage” of wine and sugar (the higher the sugar level, the sweeter the resulting Champagne) and the bottle is finally corked. The bottle remains in the cellar for a few months or years before it is shipped. (Alice Paillard of Bruno Paillard, a top Champagne house, refers to disgorgement as “surgery” and the time afterward as “surgical recovery” as the wine knits itself together again.)

The Sweet Spectrum

While the first Champagnes were very sweet, Champagne has grown much drier over the years, and the average “dosages” are getting smaller. Some producers now aren’t adding dosages at all: These wines may be designated as Non Dosage or Brut Zero. Moving along the spectrum in order of ascending sweetness, you’ll find Extra Brut, Brut (the most common designation), Extra Dry, Dry, Demi-Sec and Doux.

There are also several Champagne colors: Blanc de Blancs (all Chardonnay) Blanc de Noirs (a white wine made from red grapes) and rosé, which is produced either by blending red and white wine or by the saignée method, which allows a brief contact with the skins of red grapes.

The Pecking Order

Unlike in Burgundy, where vineyards are ranked, or Bordeaux, where wine estates are divided into classifications, in Champagne the classification system is based on the villages where the vineyards are located. There are 319 villages in Champagne and 17 that are rated “grand cru” in recognition of the quality of their terroir. Another 43 are designated “premier cru,” just below grand cru. The rest are unrated, even if some might (and do) produce exceptional wine. Growers in grand cru villages get the highest prices for their grapes from Champagne houses, those in premier cru villages get about 90% to 99% of those figures and those in unrated villages may get as little as 80%.

This system, called the “échelle des crus,” was implemented about 50 years ago to protect Champagne growers. (Champagne houses had once sourced outside the region for grapes, a practice that has long been outlawed.) There is a delicate balance between the Champagne houses and the growers, who own the vast majority of vineyards but produce very little wine. Instead, most growers sell their grapes to the big Champagne houses, whose wines are designated “NM” (négociant manipulant) on the label. There has been an increase in the number of growers making their own Champagnes in the past couple of generations—their wines can be identified by the letters RM (récoltant manipulant).

Time in a Bottle

If you’re drinking Champagne this holiday season, the odds are great that it’s nonvintage—a blend of several vintages, from dozens to even hundreds of wines from different harvests, styled to taste the same year after year. Nonvintage Champagne accounts for the majority of production for most Champagne houses. For example, at Louis Roederer, the home of Cristal, the Brut Nonvintage accounts for 75% to 80% of total production. (The term “nonvintage” has fallen out of fashion with some producers, who prefer the more positive-sounding “multivintage,” though I’ve yet to hear someone ask for a “multivintage” Champagne in a restaurant or retail store.)

A vintage Champagne, conversely, is a wine from a single, presumably superior year—and comes with a higher price tag. Recent top vintages include 1995, 1996 and 2002, though some producers have speculated that the 2008-vintage wines (not yet on the market) will be just as good as those from all three of these preceding years—perhaps even better. A third designation you may see on a Champagne bottle is “prestige cuvée”; this is the very best wine produced by the Champagne grower or house. Some of the best-known examples include Dom Pérignon from Moët & Chandon, Cristal from Louis Roederer and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, though some of my (other) favorites are made by smaller houses like Pol Roger (Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill) and growers like Pierre Gimonnet (Special Club).

The Big Guns

The great success and global recognition of Champagne rests largely on the work of the “brands”—big Champagne houses such as Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Perrier-Jouët. They account for the vast majority of sales and just about all the promotional dollars, although thanks to American importers like Terry Theise, grower Champagnes (which Mr. Theise companionably calls “farmer fizz”) have become quite fashionable. Instead of large marketing budgets and celebrity spokesmen, grower Champagnes have prospered thanks, especially, to a cadre of impassioned sommeliers.

Bottles Worth Buying

When I explained to my family and friends (and two customs officers) that I had taken a tasting trip to Champagne recently (do any two words sound more privileged than “Champagne tasting?”), the collective response was ill-disguised envy. And with good reason: Champagne, overall, has never been better. The quality is high; the prices are (mostly) reasonable, especially compared with those of other world-class wines; and some of the best producers’ wines, even those of the smaller ones, are fairly easy to find.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some of my favorite producers—a mix of big houses, small houses and growers—whose wines I tasted and loved at home and abroad: Bollinger (for its big, yeasty style); Cédric Bouchard (ethereal single-vintage wines); Gaston Chiquet (the master of Pinot Meunier); Deutz (brilliant Blanc de Blancs); Dom Pérignon (in a class by itself); Duval-Leroy (the “Femme” cuvée); Pierre Gimonnet (more brilliant Blanc de Blancs); René Geoffroy (delicious rosés); Alfred Gratien (the Cuvée Paradis bottling); Marc Hébrart (his special Club bottling); Krug (multivintage); Pierre Moncuit (great Chardonnay-based wines); Bruno Paillard (particularly the rosé); Pol Roger (always reliable); Louis Roederer (consistently great across the board); Salon (brilliant Blanc de Blancs at a steep price); Camille Savès (stunning rosé); and Vilmart (the rosés).

It’s a long list, and yet I’m sure it’s incomplete. There are so many more Champagnes I need to taste. But as Dorothy Parker said, “Three be the things I shall never attain: envy, content and sufficient Champagne.”

Louis Roederer Brut Premier, $40 | I once served this wine blind to some winemaker friends and they mistook it for its super-premium cuvée sibling, Cristal. It’s just that (consistently) good. Roederer is a family-owned Champagne house and one of the few to own a substantial percentage of its own vineyards. This rich, toasty wine, a blend of 150 to 200 different wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) aged in oak casks, delivers remarkable complexity for the price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pol Roger Brut Réserve, $40 | The Épernay-based Pol Roger is another small, family-owned Champagne house that also happens to own a significant amount of its own vineyards and produces wines of consistently high quality. Its nonvintage offering, made from a high proportion of Pinot Noir, is a blend of dozens of wines from several vintages and regions. It’s a medium-bodied, creamy wine with a wonderfully rich texture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Brut NV, $45 | There aren’t many women winemakers in Champagne today, and there were far fewer when Nicole Moncuitbegan making the wines at her family’s domaine in 1977. Her wines are fresh and elegant and—dare I say ‘feminine’? This 100% Chardonnay Champagne is made from vineyards in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, one of the most prestigious districts in the Côte de Blancs region.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pierre Gimonnet Brut Blancde Blancs Sans Année, $40 | The Chardonnay-based Champagnes of the Côte de Blancs-based Pierre Gimonnet are, simply put, chiseled perfection. I’ve yet to have a Gimonnet wine that doesn’t impress. The nonvintage is a perfect introduction to the Gimonnet style: a bright, pure, extremely dry style with a dazzling minerality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camille Savès Brut Rosé, $62 | My recent trip to Champagne revealed a somewhat unsurprising fact: Champenois drink Champagne with their meals. Of course, there are plenty of people in the U.S. who do the same, and some wines, like this big, boisterous rosé, are particularly well-suited to food. Made from Chardonnay and grand cru Pinot Noir (from the village of Bouzy) by the Savès family (Hervé and his father, Camille), it’s a hedonistically, compellingly delicious rosé.

 

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