The Champagne region and producers

To better understand Champagne it is necessary to know not only about the wine, but about the region, the history, structure, production, styles, producers and the differences between brands, as well.

The region

The Champagne region (Appellation) is located east of Paris and comprises 301 recognized (1927 classification) Champagne villages. Some of these villages are classified as Grand Cru and others as Premier Cru. These classified villages are usually on the more advantageous south facing slopes. Grand and Premier Cru villages are able to sell their grapes at a premium to non classified villages.

Within Champagne there are 5 distinct areas with different terroir and different grape focus. The 5 areas are Cote des Blanes, The Aube, Montagne de Reims, Vallee de La Marne and Cote de Sezanne. Each area produces quantities of all three Champagne grapes, Chardonnay, Pinot Nair and Pinot Meunier. The Cote de Blanes and Cote de Sezanne are primarily Chardonnay areas and the others are mainly Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier.

Since most Champagne is a blend of all three grapes, most Champagne houses will source grapes from across the region. The higher priced Champagne producers will tend to source from the Grand Cru villages.

Importantly, it is the land rather than the Champagne producer that is classified. There is no classification system for producers (although historically the term Grande Marque was used to describe a Champagne house that was deemed to be "famous"). Champagne producers rely on reputation rather than classification i.e. their branding.

Until the last couple of years Champagne volumes were fast approaching the maximum allowable. The limits were both the areas on which the grapes could be grown and the yield per hectare. Although the permitted yield levels have increased it is still usual to sec grapes left on the vine or discarded between the rows after harvesting simply because the yield levels had been reached.

The growers and producers

Most Champagne grape growers do not make Champagne and most Champagne producers buy in grapes although many of the big producers will own some vineyards (but not enough to meet their needs). There are 19,000 grape growers and only 2,124 of these make and sell Champagne. Most grape growers are small with only 30 having more than 30 hectares. There are around 50,000 different Champagne labels

The bigger Champagne producers are called Champagne houses. There are around 260 Champagne houses representing over 70% of production and 90% of exports. The LMVH company owns Moet et Chandon (which includes Dam Perignon), Krug, Mercier, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot. LMVH produces around 60 million bottles a year out of a total of 350 million bottles for the whole of Champagne. Moet et Chandon produces around 30 million bottles.

The majority of Champagne producers produce no more than 5,000 cases a year. These are known as grower producers because they produce Champagne from their own grapes. In the past, part of Champagne mythology has been that it was only the big Champagne houses that were capable of producing the best Champagne. This was because they had greater access to grapes from more sources (a function of scale) and had superior blending expertise. Nowadays, the grower producer has become more sought after ... a recognition that they can and do produce great wines.

The 3 grapes

The major permitted grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Nair and Pinot Meunier. Each has different characteristics which are often expressed as:

Chardonnay - adds elegance, finesse and longevity
Pinot Noir - adds backbone, depth and structure
Pinot Meunier - adds youthful fruity freshness

The complexities of terroir mean that a particular grape variety can produce different results depending on where grown. In practice, therefore, the large producers will buy each grape variety from many sources throughout the region.

Most Champagne is a blend of all 3 grapes. There is no consensus on what the “best” blend is or indeed whether a blend is better than Champagne made only from one variety. Price does not relate to the type of grapes used.

Champagnes that uses a blend of Chardonnay and one or both of the red grapes will usually be labeled simply as "Champagne". Champagne made only from Chardonnay will be labelled "Blanc de Blancs". Champagne made only from black grapes will be called "Blanc de Noirs".

Which type or bend is "best"?

There is no simple answer. The same blend from 2 different producers will often taste very different because of factors other than the blend. It is also a matter of personal preference. Arguably, Blanc de Blancs can be gentler, more elegant and a good aperitif. The addition of the black grapes can produce a richer, fuller, "grippier" wine.

Evaluating Champagne (or any sparkling wine):

Price and personal taste are obvious considerations. The bubbles, however, can be a guide to quality: in general, the smaller the bubbles the better. Smaller bubbles help to release more of the flavors and aromas. What causes the bubbles and (in particular) the differences between bubbles produced by one Champagne versus another one appear to be not fully understood.

The dissolved carbon dioxide that is liquefied under pressure and released when the cork is removed is obviously necessary. There are studies indicating that minute imperfections on the Champagne glass trap the gas and allow it to form bubbles before being released. Many US Champagne glasses have a nick at the bottom of the glass to facilitate this. The condition of the glass is important. Dirty or not rinsed glasses (detergent) will retard or kill the bubbles.

The size of the bubbles appears to be influenced not simply by the pressure but by the qualities of the juice. The type and level of dissolved salts, minerals and carbohydrates in the wine have significant impacts. The terroir of Champagne may be particularly beneficial. Cooler and slower fermentation and maturation (in the cool underground cellars of Champagne) may also be beneficial. Other countries/regions generally find it difficult to replicate the bubbles of fine Champagne.

In fine Champagne, the bubbles form long lasting "necklaces" of small bubbles that accumulate on the surface as a mousse.

The label codes

Champagne labels often say little about the content or themselves. The mandatory label codes, however, do reveal grower/producer information. The following letters are on the front label (usually in extremely small print) followed by a number which is the number of marques or brands registered by that producer.

NM: Negociant-Manipulant - Producer who buys grapes in volume to make Champagne.
RM: Recoltant-Manipulant - Grower who also makes Champagne; may also buy or sell grapes.
CM: Cooperative-Manipulant - A cooperative of growers who also make and sell Champagne under their own labels.
RC: Recoltant-Cooperateur - A grower selling wine made by a coop
ND: Negociant Distributeur - A company selling Champagne that it did not make
MA: Marque d'Acheteur - Buyer's own brand

Major Champagne brands

Although not an exact guide, the blend gives some indication of the house style. Each house will also produce other variants, including vintage Champagne that may have very different blends. Other factors include length of time on lees before disgorging and source of grapes.

 

Blend of leading vintage variant

 

% Chardonnay

% Pinot Noir

% Pinot Meunier

Moet & Chandon Brut Imperial

10

50

40

Taininger Brut Reserve

38

42

20

Lanson Black Label

35

50

15

Bollinger Special Cuvee

25

60

15

Krug Grande Cuvee

25-35

45-55

15-20

Mercier

10-15

45-50

40

Heidsieck Cordon Rouge

28

50

22

Veuve Clicquot

30

55

15

Canard-Duchene

22

40

38

Nicolas Feuillene Reserve Par1iculiere

20

40

40

Duval-Leroy

73

27

-

Ruinart

40

50

10

Vilmart Grand CellierCellier

70

30

-