An Ode to Champagne:
Is there any occasion that would not be made better by the addition of a bottle of Champagne? I say no and with the holidays right around the corner, ‘tis the season to indulge. Champagne may have traditionally been associated with celebrations, but it can be so much more: comforting, fun, romantic, geeky, the perfect way to combat your sorrows, and also a marker of momentous occasions. To be sure, it is a very special beverage, but it’s not just for special occasions.
Champagne is historical (ahem, it pre-dates Dom Perignon). The first sparkling wine in France was an accident; corks popped from bottles of what was supposed to be still wine, or bottles exploded, and the bubbles were considered a fault, or ‘le vin du diable’ the wine of the devil. It was later that we came to understand that a second fermentation was taking place within the bottle, creating the intoxicating bubbles. With this knowledge, sparkling wine began to be produced purposefully in a few different ways.
But, Champagne must be produced in the traditional method (also referred to as the classical method, méthode traditionnelle, méthode classique, and the champagne method). It is the most involved and meticulous way of producing sparkling wine. First, still base wines are made, then through the process of assemblage, winemakers choose particular combinations of base wines to create different cuvées. These blends are then bottled with a mixture of sugar and yeast, called the liquer de tirage, to induce secondary fermentation, creating bubbles in the bottle. After secondary fermentation, the wines must age on lees (the dead yeast cells). All Champagne must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release, of which 12 months on lees is required for non-vintage cuvées. The minimum for vintage cuvées is three years. Realistically, though, most Champagne is cellared for much longer. The bottles then go through riddling, the process of moving and rotating the bottle from horizontal to inverted in order to move the sediment to the neck of the bottle, in preparation for disgorgement. Disgorgement is the ejection of the sediment under pressure, often done by freezing the neck of the bottle. The wine is then often topped up with a mixture of wine and sugar, known as the dosage, and bottled with a Champagne cork and muzzle that we all know and love.
The area that we refer to as Champagne in France, was legally defined in 1927 and includes the regions of Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. There are three main grapes to know when thinking of Champagne, and those are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. Often, what makes Champagne special is the blend of these grapes, each playing its part to create a harmonious delight. Chardonnay provides a backbone, brightness, and ageability, Pinot Noir gives richness, structure, and body, and Pinot Meunier imparts fruity, berry notes, but sometimes earthy and nutty notes as well.
Though each region of Champagne grows all three main grapes, certain areas are known for particular styles. For example, the Côte des Blancs is known for its Champagnes based on Chardonnay, as is the Côte de Sézanne. The Montagne de Reims and the Côte des Bars in the Aube are known for Pinot Noir based Champagnes. And the Vallée de la Marne is known for its Pinot Meunier based Champagnes. These are generalizations, of course, and producers also have their particular styles and preferences.
There’s so much more to learn about Champagne, including vintage versus non-vintage, all the different types of producers, lesser known grapes, and even non-sparkling wine from the region, but, for now, let’s get to the goods!
Some producers we’d like to highlight this year are...
Champagne José Michel: Based in the Côtes d’Epernay in the small village of Moussy, José Michel made his first vintage in 1955 and has since developed a loyal following for his Champagnes. Champagne José Michel is a founding member of the “Trésors de Champagne” known as the “Special Club.” With 11 hectares of vineyards, José Michel works predominantly with Pinot Meunier, but also uses Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in his Champagnes.
Brut Tradition: “The non-vintage Brut is a blend in which the 70% Pinot Meunier forms the base and 30% Chardonnay adds complexity and finesse. In addition to the base vintage (typically 2 years old), the NV Brut benefits from being blended with reserve wines that are often 4 or 5 years old. The champagne is typically 2+ years ‘sur lattes’ and carries a dosage of 9 grams.” — Wine Traditions
The Brut Tradition is a Champagne that will satisfy a wide audience. It is a safe bet for gifting, since it is fruity, fresh, and has finesse. The dosage ensures that although the wine is dry, there is a touch of sweetness to round it out.
Brut Pinot Meunier “Although historically Jose Michel made many ‘mono-cépage’ bottlings of Pinot Meunier, he never advertised the fact on the label and when some west coast customers visited him around 2007 and suggested that he do just that, his response was to ask if anyone would buy it. The small cadre of west coast enthusiasts all said that they would and the rest is history. The Pinot Meunier is produced from a single vintage but does not state the vintage on the label because the Champagne does not necessarily spend the requisite minimum of three years ‘sur lattes’. The style highlights the unique aromatics and fruit flavors of Champagne’s indigenous grape. The level of dosage is 8g/l.” — Wine Traditions
Pinot Meunier is not often touted as the star of Champagne, and it definitely isn’t known for its aging potential, but José Michel’s Brut Pinot Meunier shows just how elegant and complex Meunier can be. This Champagne highlights subtle fruit flavors, floral notes, and is a true reflection of its terroir. Aromatically complex, full, and pure Meunier with moderate acidity.
2013 Vintage Special Club: “The Club de Viticulteurs is a group of independent Champagne producers who have come together in order to promote the high quality of their work. The José Michel Special Club was chosen by this group as an ambassador of quality and given the right to use the Special Club label and antique bottle. The Special Club is a blend of 40% Pinot Meunier and 60% Chardonnay. The vines are all at least 35+ years old. The champagne is disgorged according to demand and currently has six years on the lees “sur lattes” with dosage carrying just 6.5 grams.” — Wine Traditions
Fewer than 30 growers have the honor of being part of the “Trésors de Champagne” organization and José Michel is one of them. With rigorous standards for quality and a commitment to highlighting Champagne’s specific terroirs, wines only qualify for Special Club status after being tasted blind as still and sparkling wines from vintages that are deemed worthy of the label. The 2013 Special Club is balanced, rich, and generous. The Pinot Meunier provides notes of red fruits, and the Chardonnay adds floral and citrus components that harmonize beautifully with a long finish.
Cuvée de Père Houdart: “The cuvée de Père Houdart is an hommage to José’s grandfather and has been produced only a few times. The current cuvée is a blend of 40% Pinot Noir, 40% Pinot Meunier and 20% Chardonnay. Some of the wines were vinified in stainless steel and some in old foudres. 50% of the blend comes from the vintages 1971, 1975, 1976, 1982, and 1984 and 50% of the blend is from the vintage 2012. Bottles of the old vintages are opened and an assemblage is made with the new wine (2012) to produce a new Champagne. The Père Houdart matured ‘sur lies’ 4 years before being disgorged and finished with a dosage of 4g/L.” — Wine Traditions
The Cuvée de Père Houdart is rare and a testament to José Michel’s impressive cellar of older vintages; truly history in a bottle. The older vintages with significant age add a complexity that is hard to pin down, while the young base provides lift and liveliness. With notes of golden apple, spice, toast, minerality, and nuttiness, this is a really cerebral wine that deserves to be savored.
Champagne Dumont is based in the village of Champignol-lez-Mondeville, in the southern Champagne region of the Aube, about 90 miles southeast of Reims and Epernay. The Dumont brothers have 23 hectares of vineyards in the Côte des Bar planted predominantly with Pinot Noir, but also with Chardonnay and other grape varieties. The Kimmeridgian chalky clay soils here are more similar to those in Chablis than the rest of Champagne. Bernard Dumont’s comments are insightful, “We grow grapes on the same soils as the vine growers in the Chablis region. There, they produce white wine from white grapes and here we produce white wine from red grapes.”
Brut Tradition: “The Dumont Brut NV is a blend of 90% Pinot Noir and 10% Chardonnay. The grapes from their vineyard have qualities that seem less aggressive and more sumptuous than those from the northern districts. In addition, vinification of whole berries at low temperatures enhances this quality of soft elegance. The NV is a blend of vintages typically between two and five years old. It is aged for two years on the lees before disgorgement. Dosage is 9 grams.” — Wine Traditions
Dumont’s Brut Tradition is fruity with notes of white and yellow fruits, supple, and rich. The Pinot Noir gives it nice structure and elegance. A great wine for those who prefer a Pinot Noir dominant Champagne.
Brut Nature: “Dumont’s Brut Nature is produced without a dosage or ‘liqueur d’expédition.’ It is therefore without cover-up and must succeed quite naturally on its own qualities. In order to produce such a champagne, Dumont chooses wines that are perfectly balanced and pristine. The wine is a blend of 100% Pinot Noir from 3 vintages. The Brut Nature is matured 4+ years ‘sur lattes’ before being disgorged. This serves to soften the acidity and enrich the palate. This cuvée wonderfully expresses the special terroir of the Dumont vineyard.” — Wine Traditions
This Brut Nature is definitely a wine nerd’s Champagne. The lack of dosage allows you to explore the purity of what a 100% Pinot Noir Blanc de Noirs can be. It is full and rich, with minerality, toast and nuttiness, notes of apple and apricot. Definitely one of my favorites this year.
Solera Reserve: “Dumont is one of the very few Champagne producers who produces a champagne using the solera method. Bernard Dumont has dedicated one stainless steel tank to the project which was first filled in 1991. He works exclusively with Chardonnay for this cuvée and has been adding to the tank every year, making it at present, a blend of approximately 20 vintages. This solera system produced its first release in 2010. One of the most striking features of this champagne is the different effect created by producing a champagne from aged wine (the aging occurs after the first fermentation) followed by the typical duration of two years ‘sur lattes’ as contrasted with a champagne produced from relatively young wines which are aged for a long time after the secondary fermentation and thus remain in contact with the lees “sur lattes” for an extended period. The dosage is 6 grams. Production is about 400 cases annually.” — Wine Traditions
The Dumont Solera Reserve is a unique Champagne that is made using the solera method. This means that this Champagne is the result of adding young wine to a tank containing older wine (⅓ of which is removed for bottling each year), which gives it an evolving complexity, but renewed freshness. It is toasty and savory with bright notes of citrus custard and richness.
Champagne Perseval-Farge is a four hectare estate in the 1er Cru village of Chamery which is in the northern part of the Montagne de Reims, known as the Petite Montagne. The Perseval family traces its roots in the village back to the early 18th century and today it is fifth generation Benoist and Isabelle Perseval who carry on the tradition. The four hectares are planted with 40% Pinot Noir, 35% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Meunier and with 10% Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Fromentot (Pinot Gris) combined in a small parcel planted in 2004. The Perseval’s four hectares are divided among six parcels, all in the village of Chamery, with the greater portion being on the mid to upper slope with calcareous-clay soils and the smaller part on the lower slopes with sandy-clay soils. Besides his commitment to sustainability in the vineyard (holding ‘High Environmental Value’ or HVE3 certification), Benoist has worked to decrease the use of SO2 in his winemaking and at 26 to 35mg per liter, he uses one fifth of the norm. They vinify or age all or part of their wines in wood barrels before bottling. Assemblages with a minimum of 40% of reserve wines and aging times on lees of five years minimum and much more for vintages, or millésimes.
C. de Réserve is “a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Part of the wine goes through a malolactic transformation and 15% is vinified in wood. It is a blend of multiple vintages, more than 50% is reserve wine. Dosage is 3.5 g.” — Wine Traditions
The C. de Réserve full and toasty. The partial vinification in wood and high percentage of reserve wine gives it some weight on the palate, while the composition of all three main grape varieties present notes of ripe apple, plum, dried fruits, and minerality.
C. de Pinots is “a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. A gentle pressing is done with a vertical press and the juice is vinified in stainless steel vats and in barrels (not new). A part of the wine goes through a malolactic fermentation. This cuvée is typically a blend of several vintages with at least 40% being reserve wine. The Champagne rests 48 months ‘sur lattes’ before being disgorged. The dosage is 7g/L.” — Wine Traditions
The C. de Pinots is complex, seductive, and elegant. With a structured body, rich notes of hazelnut, ripe red fruit, sweet cream, and biscuit on the palate, and a lingering finish, this is the perfect Fall/Winter Champagne.