At work with the WSET I am currently doing a revision of the unit on sparkling wines. This seemed an ideal opportunity to spend a long weekend in Champagne, the grand daddy of fizz producers. The basic idea was to visit a Grande Marque (the club of 24 prestigious Champagne houses), a top cooperative and a grower. I also wanted to explore the less well known Aube region of Champagne, nearer to Chablis than to Reims. Here a large volume of Pinot Noir is grown, much of which also goes into well known brands. It also has top companies of its own (for example Drappier) and many growers. What were the key learning points?
On a small point, it is fun to learn how to pronounce the names of the famous brands in French, in this case, Teh-tan-jay. But what the company is really known for is the excellence of the wines they produce in quite large volumes. Typical annual production is seven million bottles. In the smaller of their two cellars in Reims, they have three million bottles ageing peacefully, mostly their prestige cuvée. Then they have 19 million in a larger cellar in 10 kilometres of caves including the big volume Brut Réserve non vintage. These are not particularly big numbers by Champagne standard but what they show is how much wine is being produced to a really excellent standard.
What are the keys to this quality and volume? In Taittinger’s case, unusually, they own 290 hectares of prime vineyard land which provides 50% of the grapes that they need. This is the ultimate guarantee that the quality can be as high as possible – depending solely on their own work and the weather. Secondly, the wine is aged for a long time on its lees in the bottle. The ‘basic’ NV spends four years on it lees in naturally cool (12ºC) and stable cellars deep in the chalk, the classic vintage seven years and the top Comptes de Champagnes a decade. Thirdly, there is a generous proportion of reserve wine in the very high quality Brut NV. The current bottling is 70% from the 2011 vintage with the rest split between 2010 and 2009. The latter 30% adds depth of flavour and complexity.
Star wine: it is hardly a surprise that the Comptes de Champagne, Blanc de Blanc, 2006 was the star wine of this trip. It has a reputation which it easily lived up to. Grand Cru only and then only in the best years, first press, 5% barrel fermented, about 10 years on the lees: subtle, layered and exquisite with hazel nut, citrus and ripe apple notes, perfect integration with toasty lees, very subtle, super long.
If the Champagne scene is dominated by the big houses, the work of growing grapes is very much in the hands, literally, of thousands of small growers. These growers either sell directly to the big houses or to their local cooperative. Thus Champagne Le Mesnil processes the grapes of 600 growers who work just 300 hectares of vineyard. But the secret of quality here is that the grapes come from the best Chardonnay area of Champagne, the world renowned Côte des Blancs with its gleaming white chalk soils. The chalk drains fast in wet periods while acting as a giant sponge, making water available during dryer periods. Le Mesnil as a cooperative processes the grapes from the Grand Crus of Mesnil-sur-Oger, Cramant and Avize, along with some grapes from the Premier Cru village of Vertus.
Once the grapes are matured, they are picked and sorted by hand, pressed in large but soft pneumatic presses (8000kg capacity, twice that of the traditional basket press), fermented with selected yeasts at 18ºC and allowed to clarify naturally before being put in their bottles for ageing on the lees. Again, the ageing times are generous here in fact not dissimilar to Taittinger: three years for non vintage, 8-10 years for vintages wines.
But to focus on Le Mesnil’s own wines sort of misses the main point. Only 10% of the production appears under the Le Mesnil label (150,000 bottles), the rest will go as a base wine (vin clair) to undergo its second fermentation in the big houses such as Laurent Perrier or Taittinger. So in a very real way, the quality of the volume production of the Grande Marques is dependent on the standards set in the vineyard by small growers and by the wine making of supplier wineries such as Le Mesnil.
Star wine: the Prestige Vintage 2006 is not available in the UK but is well worth seeking out. And if you still need persuading that a wine from a cooperative can be great, the 1991 vintage which we tasted was all the evidence you would need: now a beautiful deep gold with fabulous chocolate, coffee and burnt butter notes, full bodied, still showing good fruit and a cleansing finish.
In addition to taking your grapes to the cooperative or to a large Champagne house, the third option is for the grower to make and market their own wine. This is the path taken by many small growers including Champagne Alain Leboeuf based in Colombé-la-Fosse in the Côte de Bar. The family has 7 hectares of vines and vinifies most of their own fruit. But there is a little bit of hedging their bets as they still sell a small proportion of the grapes to large houses. It’s just worth keeping those relationships alive in case you want to sell more to the major players at some future date.
The wine style here is relatively fruity, mostly Pinot based as is common in the Aube/Côte de Bar and towards the top of the 12g/l Brut limit. I find the combination of relatively ripe fruit and this level of sugar a bit sweet – but that is just a personal preference. Apparently the French prefer this rather softer style.
Star wine: Alain kindly pulled an old un-disgorged bottle of his Cuvée Prestige, based on the 1999 vintage, from his cellar for us to taste unsweetened. It showed beautifully full and rounded peachy fruit. It may be pas dosé but it seemed just right to me.
As we have seen, the various types of producer – grande marque, cooperative and grower – are in reality closely related to each other, indeed intertwined, in the complex world of Champagne. Together they are producing wines of real excitement and diversity and at a good range of price points.