March 21, 2007. Champagne demystified

Much myth and disinformation exists around the wine and history. Perhaps it's better to start from the beginning. With annual production >300 million bottles a year - make double sure you are getting the real deal.

Champagne Trivia
#1 - Originally Champagne was not fizzy
Originally, Champagne at least up until the 17th century was probably more along the lines of a rose than the sparkling we know today.

#2 - Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne
That was more marketing blitz byMoet & Chandon in the early 20th century. Actually, it was the English who added sugar to still wine from Champagne before our famous Benedictine monk.

#3 - Napoleon's favorite Champagne house was Moet & Chandon.
Jacquesson came in 2nd - the medal awarded to the house was for the grandiosity of the cellars.

In 1728, the law forbidding shipment of wines in bottles was revoked. Soon after, many Champagne houses began to appear. Among them Ruinart, Moet, Cliquot, Heidsick and Jacquesson to name a few. It was only in the early 20th century that the practice of disgorgment arrived (i.e. removing the sediment by freezing the wine at the neck). Prior to this, Champagne always had sediment due to the lees. Over the years different Champagne houses "targeted" different markets. The houses of Cliquot and Roderer looked at Russia while the houses of Bollinger and Krug looked to Britain.

The Grape & Wine
Three types of grapes are used in the making of Champagne (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier & Chardonnay). Two of these varietals are what Burgundy is famous for. In Champagne however, the northerly location and hence cooler climate gives these varietals a higher acidity - a key component to longevity in a great Champagne. Very often Champagne is a blend of these grapes. Non vintage Champagne (NV) would be this and a blend of various vintages to maintain a "house style". This requires the wine maker to have an expert knowledge of blending. The NV tends to get the 2nd rate juice is frankly less interesting than vintage Champagne. The Pinot Noir in the blend is supposed to give the wine structure while Chardonnay is supposed to add acidity and bouquet - both have good aging potential. Pinot Meunier is a very hardy grape and was probably prized for that rather than any inherent qualities over the other two varietals. Blends with this grape are purported to be shorter lived - perhaps unbalancing the other components over time.

When to Drink
IMHO Vintage Champagne is usually opened too early. If you like the fizz open an NV - Vintage Champagne needs age especially the good ones. Now comes subjectivity and personal preference - I like mine (especially Blanc de Blancs) north of 10 years. The balancing point between youth, complexity & maturity (without going over the hill) is where I like it - in other words guesswork. For Vintage Champagne from good producers in good years 10 years is way too young... The 1990 Vintage is only coming into adolescence.

Types of Champagne
  • NV or Non-Vintage Champagne. A blend of many vintages to form a consistent style.
  • Demi-Sec/Sec. Sweet or semi Sweet Champagne (usually the worst juice goes here).
  • Vintage Champagne. Usually offered only in good vintages but not adhered by many.
  • Blanc De Blancs. "White from white". Wine from Chardonnay grapes only (usually). Best examples need age
  • Blanc De Noirs. "White from Black". From Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier. Probably needs more aging than Blanc De Blanc. Aromas can have vegetal and animal nuances - bit like a mature red Burgundy. Not to everyone's liking.
  • Special bottlings. Usually the best and most expensive juice the house has to offer. Examples are Dom Perignon, Roederer Cristal, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Bollinger R.D. , Pol Roger Winston Churchill, Salon "S", Krug Clos De Mesnil etc...

Notable Champagne Villages
  • Ambonnay - Pinot Noir 80%, Chardonnay 20%
  • Avize - Chardonnay 100%
  • Ay - Pinot Noir 86%, 4% Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay 10%
  • Dizy - Pinot Noir 29%, Pinot Meuinier 41%, Chardonnay 30%
  • Epernay - Mainly because most Champagne houses are represented
  • Mareuil-sur-Ay - Pinot Noir 82%, Pinot Meunier 9%, Chardonnay 9%
  • Le Mesnil-sur-Oger - Chardonnay 100%
  • Reims - Pinot Noir 31%, Pinot Meunier 38%, Chardonnay 31%
  • Verzenay - Pinot Noir 90%, Chardonnay 10%
  • Verzy - Pinot Noir 80%, Chardonnay 20%

Favorite Champagne Houses (Value, Quality or both)
  • Billecart-Salmon
  • Bollinger
  • Charles Heidsck
  • Jacquesson
  • Krug
  • Piper-Heidsik
  • Pol Roger
  • Salon

* Reference material from Richard Juhlin's excellent book "4000 Champagnes"


allie said…
nice summary on champagne.
Unknown said…
I prefer to drink champagne in a speciall time like when i go out with my boyfriend or when i have an important meeting with my partners. I think this drink is very delicous!!!!
This is the reason why i was interesting to read this wonderful blog. Actually my boyfriend is decided to buy viagra and we going to drink a good champagne this night of course.
Unknown said…
I had a meeting days ago with my partners in costa rica investment opportunities and we drank a great champagne, the taste was really delicious and the dinner, oh my god delicous too.

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