During a recent trip to Champagne, we enjoyed tasting a wide range of sparkling wines, from non-vintage wines costing under $15 to vintage wines aged two decades and costing $150 or more (notes below). We sipped with different types of food and appetizers, from lunch into the evening and found new sparkling wine and food combinations.
Experts from the different Champagne houses provided highlights of their traditional approaches to making the wines within the strict regulations for this appellation and the nuances driven by the soil, the weather, the grapes and blending of the three main grapes allowed in the region or producing wines from a single grape (Blanc de Noir, Blanc de Blanc).
Wine from Champagne is noted by its Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label, which in France is the mark of a product that draws its identity and characteristics from its geographical origin. To set the stage for our tasting notes, we wanted to provide a few more facts on the region, gleaned from the official site of the Comité Champagne, the trade association that represents the independent Champagne producers (vignerons) and Champagne Houses. The site is packed with information. In our highlights, the copy in quote marks comes directly from the site.
Essential Champagne Facts:
- The Champagne production zone (AOC vineyard area) is defined and delimited by the law. The zone has roughly 34,000 hectares (83,960 acres, or about 131 square miles) of vineyards, spread across 320 villages (‘crus’) of which 17 traditionally rank as ‘Grands Crus’ and 42 as ‘Premiers Crus’.
- There are four main growing regions: the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, Côte des Blancs and Côte des Bar. Together these encompass 278,000 individual vineyard plots, each with an average size of around 1,800 square meters, or 19,368 square feet, making the average plot less than half an acre (43,560 square feet in an acre).
- Champagne has some 15,000 winegrowers.
- The Champagne region lies at the northernmost limit of vine cultivation (latitudes 49°5 and 48° North for Reims and Bar-sur-Seine respectively). Its dual climate has both continental and oceanic influences.
- Continental influences bring often-devastating winter frosts but also provide high levels of sunshine in the summer.
- Oceanic influences keep temperatures on the low side but also ensure steady rainfall, with no major fluctuations in temperature from year to year.
- Its annual average temperature is 11 degrees Celsius (52 degrees Fahrenheit) and the region receives 700 millimeters of rain a year (27 inches). Paris: 53 degrees and 21 inches. Bordeaux: 55 degrees and 36 inches. Healdsburg, Calif.: 60 degrees and 42 inches.
- The subsoil in Champagne is predominantly limestone, provides good drainage and “explains why certain Champagne wines have a distinctly mineral taste.”
- Elsewhere, chalky soils give way to a greater proportion of marls, clays and sands. The chalk in Champagne originated with sea life in the Mesozoic era.
- Pinot Noir accounts for 38% of Champagne’s surface area, followed by the Meunier (32%) and Chardonnay (30%). Other approved varietals are the white Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris (together less than 0.3% of plantings).
- Pinot Noir adds backbone and body to the blend, producing wines “with telltale aromas of red berries and plenty of character.”
- The Meunier is more robust and less prone to frost damage because it buds later. “The Meunier adds roundness to the blend, producing supple, fruity wines that tend to age more rapidly than their Pinot Noir counterparts.”
- Chardonnay yields “delicately fragrant wines with characteristic notes of flowers, citrus and sometimes minerals.”
- Regulations govern plant density, which is roughly 8,000 plants per hectare in Champagne, or about 3,238 plants per acre.
- Growers believe they can optimize fruit quality through high-density planting. “The more the vines have to compete with neighboring plants for water and nutrients, the smaller and better the crop load per vine.”
- Champagne wines are produced by natural yeast fermentation in the bottle, in accordance with strict regulations directing every aspect of a natural winemaking process known as the Méthode Champenoise. The regulations cover pruning techniques, yields per hectare, alcohol levels, juice extraction per kilogram of grapes and sugar levels for each type of wine (Brut, etc.). Even non-vintage wines are required to have a minimum of 15 months storage period for bottled wines prior to shipping.
The Comité Champagne website can provide much more detail and features comprehensive brochures and a creative illustration to show aroma development in Champagne wines, from youthful radiance, to mature balance at up to eight years of age, and completeness and complexity starting at age six. We experienced some of these fruity, floral, earthy and mineral characteristics during a recent three-day visit to Champagne. We tasted at some of the region’s oldest and most noted wineries, and at smaller boutiques. Check the websites of each Champagne house for more information.
Champagne Tasting Notes
Pommery NV – (Pinot Noir 33%, Pinot Meunier 33%, Chardonnay 34%. The non-vintage is released three years after bottling; the Vintage wines can go up to 12 years of aging before release. They don’t declare a vintage each year. Do 5 million bottles a year. Have 22 million bottles in storage. 116 steps into the cellar.)
NV Tasting Notes: Pale straw gold; light yeasty nose; mid-body; light acids; soft, easy-drinking. (UC Davis 15.5-16; other scales, 88-89).
Ployez-Jacquemart 2008 Blanc de Blanc Champagne € 42. Founded 1930; 3 hectares. Brut 15 grams sugar; Sec 35, Demi Sec 45). Grand Cru vineyard. Does Malolactic, uses French oak. Woman winemaker. Uses the gyro-palette for riddling; handles 512 bottles. Bottles lay flat for aging. Then 6 to 8 years before releasing a vintage. 2008 is Extra Brut, 0.4 sugar.
2008 Tasting Notes: Mid-gold; light yeast; vanilla; peachy; mid-body; tight acids; long fruity finish; fine bubble texture. (16-16.5; 91)
Ployez-Jacquemart 1998 Brut Champagne € 120. (2/3 Chardonnay, no malolactic). Mid-dark gold; older Chardonnay nose; complex honey, roasted nuts; mid-body; older flavors; round, ripe, lush older finish. (16.5-17; 92)
Dom Perignon has 17 different Grand Cru sites. Hautvillers and village wines. Does aging bottled upside down. Cellar has wines 10 to 20 years and older.
Dom Perignon 2009 Champagne. Light mid-green gold; Pinot Noir nose; yeast; minerals; nectarines; mid-body, good balance; long semi-lush finish, chalky. (16.5-17; 92)
Taittinger NV Brut Reserve Champagne (9 grams sugar, 3 to 4 years aged, from 18 regions). Pale straw gold; sweet yeasty nose; light yeast on the body; mid-body; decent acids; yeasty finish. (16; 90)
Taittinger 2006 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blanc. Light mid green-gold; big yeasty, toasty nose mid-body; older Chardonnay nose, honey; spice, minerals; chalky finish. (16.5-17; 92)
Boizel NV Essential Champagne (55% Pinot Noir; 8 grams sugar). Sharp mid gold; light yeasty nose; mid-body; semi tight; big bubbles; decent fruity finish. (16; 90)
Boizel NV Rose (50% Pinot Noir, 30% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay). Mid salmon; light Pinot Noir nose; flower; apricot; tight, good acids, fruity finish; good summer wine. (16-16.5; 91)
Boizel 2008 Grand Vintage Champagne (50-50 blend; 8 years aging). Sharp mid straw gold; older yeasty nose; mid-body; decent flavor; semi-crisp; acids fading; a little short. (16-16.5; 91)
For questions: Tom Gable, firstname.lastname@example.org