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Non-vintage Champagnes - a wide spectrum of styles

23 March 2017

When choosing Champagne, can you tell the style you want? Last week, I enjoyed WineSPIT’s “Mastering Champagne” workshop with Ned Goodwin MW. It was inspiring to explore Champagne production (and hence the effected wine styles) in terms of dosage, reserve and more by tasting ten different non-vintage champagnes. Vintage Champagne, which must be made 100% from the year indicated on the label, represents around only 6% of production. The vast majority of Champagne is non-vintage (i.e. a blend of two or more harvests) meaning that there is a wide spectrum of styles and qualities, all being the balancing result of the tug of war between different winemaking elements:

  • the choice of grapes,

  • the timing of harvest,

  • the proportion of base wine and reserve wines,

  • dosage,

  • the option for undergoing malolactic fermentation (MLF) or not,

  • the timing of disgorgement, and

  • even the use of oak (in Champagne!).

A mindmap came up in my head during Ned’s talk:

The wines we tasted:

  • #1 Champagne Charles-Heidsieck, Rosé Réserve, NV

  • #2 Champagne Vilmart & Cie, Grand Cellier Brut, NV

  • #3 Champagne Louis Roederer, Brut Premier, NV

  • #4 Champagne Perrier-Jouët, Grand Brut, NV

  • #5 Champagne Charles-Heidsieck, Brut Réserve, NV

  • #6 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier, latitude Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, NV

  • #7 Champagne Bollinger, Special Cuvée Brut, NV

  • #8 Champagne Françoise Bedel, Dis vin Secret Brut, NV

  • #9 Champagne Agrapart & Fils, 7 Crus Brut, NV

  • #10 Champagne Laherte Frères, Ultradition Brut, NV

Champagne is the north most French winemaking region with a cool continental climate, where wine production is marginal and full ripeness occurs only occasionally. The crux about making Champagne is about using acidic and bland wine as a neutral base for introducing bubbles, with a touch of sweetness by dosage to counteract the acidity. Grapes Three main grapes used in the making of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Menuier. Chardonnary, mostly planted in the Côte des Blancs and Côte de Séanne, gives a much lighter bodied wine than in Burgundy and has high acidity with a floral and citrus fruit character. Pinot Noir dominating in Montagne de Reims and Côte des Bar, prodcues wines of greater body and length, and provides the structural backbone to most blends. Meunier predominates in the Vallée de la Marne as it buds late, protecting it from the spring frosts that occur more frequently in this area. It gives an easy-to-drink fruitiness, and will mature a little quicker than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The warming trend has made the issue less of a factor, and the proportion of Meunier has been declining. That said, Ned showed us Wine #8 - Champagne Françoise Bedel Dis, Vin Secret Brut which is made of 85% Pinot Meunier and 5% Chardonnay, fermented in enamelled tanks (90%) and oak casks (10%), with six years on lees after second fermentation in bottle, giving the resulting wine some interesting flavours of ripe fruits and baked apple, with hints of tropical fruits. Reserve wines A major factor in maintaining quality and consistency is the use of reserve wines. By law in Champagne, producers are required to establish reserve wines by setting side part of each vintage to be kept for later use. A typical non-vintage Champagne probably contains 60-80% of wine from the most recent vintage, a fair proportion from the previous couple of vintages, and smaller amounts of reserve wine from older vintages. Wine #5 - Champagne Charles-Heidsieck showcases how sophisticated a champagne house can prepare its Brut Réserve – 60% base wines from 60 crus in the harvest year (2008), a third for each variety (Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), are vinified cru by cru, variety by variety, in stainless steel vats; 40% from reserve wines, equally divided between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with an average age of 10 years, sourced from the best crus produced in the greatest years, which have been kept for between 5 and 15 years in stainless steel tanks. Lees ageing – one of the most important stages in Méthode Champenoise After second fermentation in bottle, the wine is left to spending some time on the lees before it is disgorged. At this stage, the wine is in a reductive environment (i.e. oxygen is excluded) and it picks up flavour and richness due to process of autolysis, as the dead yeast cells break down to release material that protects the wine from oxidation and ageing, retaining a fresh flavour. After disgorgement, the environment becomes oxidative, and the major factor for flavour development is a process called the Maillard reaction, which involves interaction between sugar and amino acids that were released by autolysis. This is the reaction that gives Champagne those biscuity notes of toast and brioche as it ages. By law, non-vintage champagnes must spend a minimum of 15 months maturing in the producer’s cellar, 12 months of which must be maturation on the lees. However, in most cases the wines will be aged for considerably longer than their legal minimum. Wines #1 and #8 have spent as long as six years on lees! Dosage Dosage is the adjustment of the sugar level in sparkling wines by the addition of liqueur d’expédition (a mix of wine and sugar) after disgorgement. This is used to top up the material that was lost when the sediment was ejected during disgorgement, and to counteract the naturally high acidity of Champagne.

Diagram from

Balance Although dosage contains sugar, it is not meant to give sweetness: It's more about balancing acidity; it is the last touch of the chef to increase flavour. In fact, three factors go into determining the balance of the wine: the acidity of the grapes at harvest; whether MLF is performed; and how much sugar is included in the dosage. Due to global warming, grapes are now harvested relatively earlier in order to retain high acidity in the grapes. MLF reduces acidity (by converting the sharp malic acid to the softer lactic acid), but it also makes wine generally creamier, resulting in a more balanced wine. Producers opting to block MLF may need more dosage to balance the austerity of the acidity. Most producers have reduced dosage over the past decade or two in response to their sense that grapes are riper. Timing of disgorgement Dosage is not necessarily fixed for a cuvée, but may be different for subsequent disgorgements of the same wine. Because a wine gains in richness with time on the lees, later disgorgements may need less dosage than earlier disgorgements. The trend for “no additional sugar” There is a fad to produce Brut Nature, or Zero Dosage. This is controversial. Zero dosage champagnes are not simply the “Brut without dosage”. Zero dosage producers either give the wine longer time on the lees to pick up some richness to compensate for the lack of dosage, or rest the zero dosage bottles an extra year before disgorgements, and some make zero dosage wine specifically from parcels of land that achieve greater ripeness. Nevertheless, because the ageing of Champagne depends on sugar for the Maillard reaction (explained above), there is a question as to whether zero dosage wines will have ageing capacity. Oak Generally there is little oak in Champagne. Base wines are made and held in stainless steel until the second fermentation is started in bottle. Krug and Bollinger are unusual in fermenting in old barriques, believing this adds richness and depth to the wine, and makes for longer ageing (e.g. Wine #7 - Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut). More recently there has been a move towards maturing wines in barriques after fermentation, but generally this is only for special cuvées. The wines tend to seem more mature, reflecting the generally oxidative style of winemaking, but are not oaky in any conventional sense, allowing the lieu-dits to show their differences, with more examples coming up in “Grower Champagne movements” below. Grower Champagne movements About 66% of Champagne production comes from large houses, which rely on a mix of grapes purchased from growers and to a lesser extent from their own vineyards. Such leading houses are described as Négociant-Manipulants, indicated by NM on the label. Since the deregulation in the late 20th Century, the (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) CIVC no longer fixes private contracts and prices for grape supply in Champagne. The growers are then free to sell to whomever they choose through mutual agreements or built-in contracts. Many choose to vinifiy wine themselves from estate grapes, making the so-called Boutique or Grower Champagne. They are described as Récoltant-Manipulant, indicated by RM on the label. NM Champagnes are generally produced on a vast scale meaning the need to source enough grapes from wide spread of vineyards, which do maintain a remarkable consistency that represents the house styles. By contrast, a grower’s vineyards are usually concentrated in one area of Champagne, which helps to bring character to the wine. Therefore, Grower Champagnes are usually more interesting – even if you don't always entirely like the choices that have been made. Trends have been developed to produce single vineyard wines and/or natural wines which emphasize on reflecting terroir by minimal human intervention, such as natural yeast fermentation, low or zero dosage, etc. Wine #2 is from Vilmart & Cie, which has been estate-bottling wine since the late 19th century. This Grand Cellier Brut Premier Cru is a blend of 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noir is vinified entirely in the larger size oak barrels known as foudres, and it’s typically a blend of three vintages. Rich in texture yet elegantly carried, and it ages with remarkable palate. Wine #5 Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut was made by natural alcoholic fermentation (natural yeast) with the malolactic fermentation happening spontaneously in casks, wooden vats and stainless-steel tanks. The wines were left on their natural lees for nearly a year and underwent gentle bâtonnages, but no filtering or fining. After blending, the bottles were transported to cellars, where the second fermentation and the maturation occurred over a period of more than 2 years. Each bottle is disgorged manually 6 months before being marketed. The dosage is 4 grams per litre (extra-brut!). The producer aims to make wines to reflect the pure characteristics of the estate. The resulting wine has it all, complexity, freshness and a great range of spices, toast and herbs on the nose. On the palate, it's beautifully layered, elegant and the finish is very long and dry. Another noteworthy RM Champagne is Wine #10 Champagne Laherte Frères Ultradition Brut, which is made from 60% Pinot Meunier, 30% Chardonnay and 10% Pinot Noir, 40% of which are reserve wines of past years kept in barrels. Alcoholic fermentation was done in foudres (20%), tanks (20%) and barrels (60%) with regular stirring of the lees, partial malolactic fermention, and a low dosage of only 7g/l. This demonstrates a good use of oak giving the wine flavours of spices, dried apricot, orange blossom, and crystallized honey with minerality on the finish. Sorry for making a lengthy piece. But I did learn a lot from Ned! Thanks to WineSPIT! References: Benjamin Lewin MW, Wines of France, 2015

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