A Champagne Apologist? Moi? - By Kate McIntyre

 I have been accused of being a 'Champagne apologist' more than once, mostly by people who find most Champagnes boring and overpriced.  I am happy to admit that I find charm and enjoyment in many different styles and quality levels of Champagne, and the context of the occasion often will reflect the success of the fizz.  I'm certainly not advocating that all Champagne is of an equally high quality, but I must also say that the more I taste and learn, the less boring I find this style of sparkling wine to be.  Even more exciting, is that from the best of the Grands Marques to the best small grower producers; we are seeing more quality Champagne available in Australia than ever before.

Champagne as a wine style is highly regulated by the local body, the Commitée Interprofessional du Vin de Champagne (CIVC).  Established in 1941, the CIVC sets the lowest price limit for fruit, it is at the forefront of research in the vineyard and in vinification and it regulates what is allowed to be grown where and how in the vineyards of Champagne, and then what can be done to the fruit once it arrives in the wineries to be made into the wine know as Champagne.   Like most regional AC bodies in Europe, the CIVC regulates the absolute minimum that is required for a wine to be called Champagne, thus limiting the lowest levels of quality to something that is both attractive and potable, and of a higher quality level than the least sparkling wines from other parts of the world.

Champagne production, by law, is a long and drawn out procedure.  The style of wine that is modern sparkling champagne is the result of combining various winemaking techniques to enhance the natural fruit characteristic resulting from the marginal climate of the region.  Fruit ripeness is achieved with low potential alcohol, while retaining extremely high natural acidity.  The bubbles in Champagne are a result of a second fermentation in bottle that serves to raise the alcohol of the wine by ½ - 1 %, achieving in most cases a final alcohol level of just 12%.  The bubbles enhance the delicate fruit and secondary winemaking aromas and flavours, many of which are the result of the essential time the wine spends on lees after the second fermentation takes place.  Sugar, the dosage, is added at the end of the winemaking process to balance the acid.

While Champagne was, until fairly recently, a very sweet wine, designed to drink at the end of the meal, today we prefer a dryer style of fizz.  In 1846, Perrier-Jouet released a Champagne with no added sugar, which was received very poorly at the outset, as there was no sweetness to offset the high acid levels of the wine.   Today, the Champagne term 'Brut', which translates as dry, actually allows for a dosage of 0-15 grams per litre of sugar.  The human threshold for sugar is somewhere between 5-7 g/l, and this is the level to which many higher quality Champagnes are sweetened, softening the attack of the acid, without adding overt sweetness to the palate.

To make a successful Extra Brut style (no added sugar), your fruit needs to show more overt fruit ripeness than is traditional and the overall quality of the fruit must be better than great.  The trend for warmer vintages and resulting lower acidity over the past decade has helped to allow this style of champagne to become more popular, although balancing acid with a judicious dosage continues in most houses.  When it is well done, it should simply add a richness and textural component to a wine.  When a dosage is overdone, the acid and sugar will fight each other, resulting in a sweet and sour finish to your Champagne that becomes more obvious as the wine warms up and the bubbles dissipate.  A Champagne with some dosage will also develop a mellow richness and complexity with bottle age that a non-dosage wine cannot achieve.

Making good Champagne, year in, year out, is a balancing act, not only of acid and sugar at the end of the winemaking process.  Most Champagne houses will traditionally own some of their vineyards, and will purchase fruit from growers to make up the difference.  Traditionally, Champagne is a blend of chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, from different sub-regions across Champagne, allowing for balance and complexity of flavours and a consistency of house style.   A non-vintage Champagne will also have the added complexity of a number of reserve wines from previous vintages blended into the base wine.  Champagne houses are required to hold back 10% of each vintage for reserve wine, and the best quality Grand Marques will use up to ten different reserve wines along with differing percentages of the current vintage to blend in complexity and to find the consistent house style, year in and year out.

There is in Champagne today a growing breed of small, grower producers, known as récoltants manipulants.  Many used to sell their fruit to the bigger companies and have now decided, for a number of different reasons, to go it alone.    The best of these producers offer an alternative to the Grands Marques that can inspire even the most jaded Champagne palate, both with the discovery of something new, and the philosophy behind these wines.
These producers follow a more Burgundian inspired model of 'terroir' based wines - essentially because for practical and economic reasons they have a single vineyard, or small number of vineyards they own and produce fruit from that becomes their Champagne.  The difficulty here is that they do not have the access to fruit from all the corners of Champagne, or the versatility to select and discard different regions in different years to fit a flavour profile they are looking for.  The best of these producers, however turn this to their advantage, cherishing their sites, and developing an understanding of the unique flavour profiles that are derived from their terroir year in and year out, as well as the differing characters of the different vintages. 

So are the Grande Marques better, or less good than the Récoltants Manipulants?  Style and flavour profile may differ widely amongst producers both big and small, but quality, as reflected in finesse, length, balance and complexity can be found all around.  This is not to say that all champagne is of an equal quality - but the lesser quality wines are not bad wines, just perhaps lacking the depth, intensity, length, finesse and complexity of the highest quality Champagnes, from the smallest to the largest producers.

Top quality Champagne can come from both ends of the style and philosophy spectrum.  Different styles of Champagne can be either flippant and fun, or brooding and serious, depending on what you want from your wine.  And the great thing about Champagne is, if a house or a style bores you, there is always something different just around the corner.   The best way to find out is to get out there and taste them - as much as you can!

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