Happy New Year wine lovers! Hope this email finds everyone moving towards their resolutions for the year of 2016. I certainly hope it will be a happy, productive, and healthy vintage for all. Our recent meet the somm dinner held at Chateau Cotter in SLC was well attended by the list members and while we had a lovely time of food and wine it was evident by the responses to questions throughout the night that our members have lots of room to grow in the knowledge area. So lets get to it!
In celebration of the new year, lets go spend this month reviewing the beverage that most people use to welcome the new year, sparkling wine. Now while great sparkling wines are now made all over the world, this sparkling wine review will focus on the original sparkling wine region, Champagne. As I’m sure you all know Champagne is located in the north of France, east of Paris and is generally credited with discovering sparkling wine and learning how to actually make it intentionally. The Champagne region is located about as far north in latitude as any wine growing region in the world and is quite cool. See map below.
The soil in Champagne is very interesting and is key to some of the success that the region enjoys. It is essentially almost pure chalk. See soil cutaway below. This provides a lovely mineral aspect to the wines in addition providing a great substance to dig amazing wine caves in. The current estimate is that there are 1.1 billion bottles of champagne resting below the surface of the earth in the wine cellars of the producers!
I realize that many of our list members aren’t quite to the level where soil content is something interesting, so lets move on to the actual wine. Champagne is made from 3 allowable grapes. Given that most Champagne is white, you may be surprised to know that 2 of the 3 grapes are red. The allowable grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. These can be used in any variety to make the wine. The “classic” blend of Champagne involves all three of these grapes, however many wines will be made from only one or two of the grapes. A Blanc de Blancs wine for example is made from 100% Chardonnay.
Additionally just as with many wine regions in France, Champagne does have ratings or rankings that are sometimes placed on the labels. You will sometimes see Grand Cru or Premier Cru noted on the label. While in most regions this rating is done by specific vineyards (for example Burgundy), in Champagne the ratings are applied to an entire village. Therefore if your vines are in a village that is rated Grand Cru, you are entitled to put that on your label. Some of the more famous Grand Cru villages include Ay, Ambonnay, Verzenay, and Mesnil-sur-Oger. As with other regions, beware that just because it says Grand Cru, does not necessarily mean its a great wine. Different producers still make different qualities of wine within the same village.
Now to the most important aspect of Champagne, the bubbles! How do they get the bubbles in there?? While there are multiple ways to make sparkling wine, only one method is allowed in Champagne and this is the original method termed “method Champenoise” or method traditionelle”. This involves a second fermentation. Lets get back to basic wine science. Sugar (grape juice) + yeast = ETOH + CO2. In a normal fermentation that takes place in a large tank, the CO2 simply bubbles out the top of the vat and leaves still wine. This is the first fermentation in champagne. After still wine is made, this wine is placed into bottles and then additional sugar and yeast added to the still wine. This still results in alcohol and CO2 being produced, however now the CO2 has no where to go and becomes trapped in the bottle! This gives us bubbles.
This also leads to another classic aspect of Champagne. When you add yeast into the wine it obviously will be visible and result in cloudy wine. This would be a put off for many consumers, so to remove the dead yeast after they have performed their service, the wines are “riddled”. Riddling involves slowly tipping the wine up onto its neck so that the dead yeast will collect in the neck of the bottle. Then the necks are quickly frozen and the caps are pulled off the bottles. The frozen plug of dead yeast then shoots out the top due to the pressure and voile sediment free wine! Hand riddling involves use of wooden riddling racks and while this is becoming less common, it is still the classic way to move the yeast. The gyropallette is a mechanical way of accomplishing the same thing, but is not as classic.
Finally, after the plug is removed the “dosage” is added which results in the final sugar concentration in the wine. The dosage is basically some still wine with sugar and the amount of sugar is what gives you the final level of sugar in the wine. The different sweetness levels from driest to sweetest are brut nature (basically no dosage added), extra brut, brut, extra dry, sec, demi-sec, and doux. The vast majority of Champagne is brut, but if you are going to serve it with dessert a demi-sec wine may be more appropriate. This dosage of sugar helps to cut some of the acidity that is present due to the difficulty ripening grapes at such a northern latitude.
Now that you know all the steps of sparkling wine making, lets get to one more differentiator in champagne. This is the type of producer. There are generally 2 (technically 3, but we’ll stick to 2) types of producers in Champagne. These are big companies (AKA the large houses) and small farmers. You only have to remember one thing to differentiate between the two, on every bottle of Champagne is a code with 2 letters and several numbers. This is usually small print somewhere on the bottom or side on the label. If the 2 letters are NM, this is a wine from a negociant or larger house (negociant-manipulant); if the 2 letters RM, this is from a grower producer (recoltant-manipulant; aka farmer and wine maker). Therefore even if you have never heard of the particular producer, just by looking at these letters, you can determine if this is a champagne from a small farmer or a larger producer.
Ok, I suppose thats enough verbiage for one email, so lets get to some wine. The goal will be to taste one grower champagne and one negociant champagne to see if you can appreciate a difference. In general, the negociant wines go for a standard “house style” that is essentially the same year in and year out. This is accomplished by blending wines from multiple vintages (this is why many Champagnes do not have a year listed). Whereas a grower Champagne will generally show the differences (good or bad) of the vintage year to year as they do not have the resources to keep large reserves of wines in cask. Here are my recs:
Chartogne-Taillet Cuvee Saint Anne – this is a delicious grower Champagne that is taut, lively, and crisp. It has lots of lemon zest, green apple, and hints of lees and saline minerals. It is a fairly reasonable value (for Champagne) at around $50. This will be great with sushi, fruit and cheese plates, or just to sip as an aperitif.
Bollinger Special Cuvee – this is probably my favorite large house (Louis Roederer is also very good). The Bollinger house style is full bodied and richer with notes of sweet brioche, toast, baked apple, and lemon curd. The palate is much broader, richer, and more expansive making this a good bubbly for a richer fish dish, but also very enjoyable on its own.
Other Producers that I have thoroughly enjoyed include: Pierre Peters, Jacquesson, Andre Clouet, Jacques Selosse ($$$), Marie Courtin, Billecart-Salmon, Philliponat, Krug ($$$), Cedric Bouchard, Pierre Gimonnet, Marc Hebrart, Paul Bara, J Lasalle, Pol Roger, Roederer, Jean Lallement, Delamotte, Pierre Paillard, Egly-Ouriet, and Roger Coulon. This is not an exhaustive list, but one to make a good start into the celebration wine of the world.
Hope this email finds you all well and that this helps to consolidate your knowledge on one of the worlds favorite beverages!
While I do appreciate the sham bouillon that was presented to me at our recent members only dinner, I would greatly appreciate some actual payment and we have expanded our payment profile now to accept stock options, raw diamonds, furs, and options on land in Burgundy.
The account manager here is foaming at the mouth and I have scars to prove her abuse over my continued production in the face of non-payment. So please if you would like me to be alive for next months edition, please pay promptly.
J. “Bubbles” Newman