A look at some excellent Champagnes.
By Louis Marmon
Washington Jewish Week May 27, 2004
Perhaps it is the bubbles that are thought to resemble stars. Or the legends of the wine’s origin, or names of the famous who were devoted to it. Regardless, Champagne remains the wine of choice for celebrations.
True Champagne is produced only in northeastern France, in an area of 85,000 acres of chalky soil. The weather can be harsh and the soil is poor which forces the vines to grow deeply into the ground. It can only be made from three types of grapes, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, which are blended together by each winery (or House) to create a wine of consistent style and taste. Champagne production is difficult and labor intensive, which helps explain the price of a good bottle.
Champagne begins as a still wine fermented in barrels or steel tanks. The wines are then blended and bottled with a small amount of yeast and sugar. The characteristic bubbles are a result of a secondary fermentation that occurs in the bottle. Carbon dioxide produced by the yeast becomes trapped in the wine and the wines rest for at least a year in cool caves beneath the ground. The bottles are slowly turned and gradually inverted to force the yeasts into the bottle neck. To remove the yeast easily, the neck is frozen and the solid plug is removed. The bottle is then filled by a bit of a wine and sugar mixture that determines the sweetness of the wine.
Most Houses make a variety of Champagnes. “Blanc de Blanc” is made entirely from chardonnay, while “Blanc de Noirs” is produced exclusively from pinot noir and pinot meunier. A special Champagne is “Rose” which is made by adding a bit of still pinot noir to each bottle or by letting the wine rest on pinot noir skins to add color. Over 80 % of the Champagne produced is non-vintage, a blend of different years. In years of exceptional grapes, vintage Champagnes are made. Some Houses make unblended Champagne to demonstrate the characteristics of a particular vineyard. Champagne is also categorized by the amount of sweetness. Most Champagnes are “brut” or “extra brut” and contain very little sugar. Then, in increasing order of sweetness, is “extra-dry”, “sec”, “demi-sec” and “doux”.
Each House has a characteristic style or texture appreciated when tasting. Pommery, Tattinger and Laurent-Perrier are known for a lighter style emphasizing fruit and crisp acidity. Bollinger, Krug, and Pol-Roger are Houses that produce full-bodied, creamy Champagnes that can have toasty and nutty notes. Mumm, Nicolas Feuillatte (who makes a kosher version), and Moet & Chandon (including their top cuvee, Dom Perignon) are Houses that strive for a middle road, seeking a balance of acidity and fruit with softer toasty flavors.
Sparkling wines are also made in other areas around the world, often using the same method of production utilized in Champagne. California sparking wines are frequently fruiter than Champagne since the grapes ripen better in the warmer climate. An example is Mumm Napa Reserve Brut NV which has fig and vanilla notes with a nicely balanced finish. From Italy near Venice comes Prosecco, made by the Charmat process in which the second fermentation occurs in tanks rather than in the individual bottles. They tend to be more fruity and less acidic than Champagne An excellent Prosecco is Zardetto Brut NV, that is light and dry with vanilla and peach flavors.
However, it is French Champagne that is the benchmark for sparkling wines. Their consistency, flavors and variety of styles provide a versatility that few other wines can match. For a private toast with a loved one, try one of the less dry Champagnes such as Mumm Carte Classique Extra-dry NV which is slightly sweet and has nicely balanced pastry and mineral flavors or Perrier-Jouet Blason Rose Brut NV which has more citrus and bread flavors and a slightly spicy finish.
At a recent tasting with friends, the A. Robert Le Mesnil Blanc de Blanc Brut 1997 was one of the favorites. It has a beautiful spicy apple taste and an excellent finish. Also well liked was Jean Laurent Blanc de Blanc Brut NV which has tropical fruit and peach flavors. Among the other favorites were Charles Lafitte Grand Cuvee Brut NV that has a nutty, lemon taste and the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top Brut NV which is a nicely balanced, very flavorful wine with apple and caramel flavors. Montaudon Millesime Brut 1997, which one of my friends described as “racy”, has citrus and ginger notes while the Montaudon Brut NV was as flavorful but lighter, providing a nice contrast to their vintage effort. And we all agreed that the sweeter Mumm Joyesse Demi-sec NV would be excellent with dessert.