Champagne has always meant something to me… looming large and lovingly in my mind and always with a lot of intrigue. I am writing a series of articles of my journey to Champagne during harvest time this year (2016). I scanned my many notes and I knew immediately that I could not cover in one article but only with several would do justice to this journey. This article is primarily to give some initial thoughts prior to departing to France and to give some overview whilst on this trip.
Champagne is a region and it is also the wine of the same name. I know some people have a hard time applying the word “wine” to the word “Champagne” as if it is another category of beverage. I get the point and the confusion but Champagne is a noble wine with an intriguing history unmatched by almost any wine region. Champagne was not born with instant recognition or acclaim—it is where Champagne had to be refined and over time become recognized.
Dom Pérignon is the left book end in the time continuum and Madame Barbe Clicquot is the right side of the book end (and I should emphasize there are actually no bookends left or right as many people before and after have contributed to what is Champagne today). Perignon and Clicquot are very important historical figures in how Champagne became a wine of acclaim and the epitome of the sophisticated.
Pérignon was a methodical Benedictine monk who didn’t drink but had a higher calling of creating a wine that was not just passable but to make an extraordinary wine—his chief contribution is the art of the blend. Clicquot refined Champagne by riddling bottles, placing bottles at an angle (riddling rack) to capture the used yeast.
Champagnes chief city of Reims has been a crossroads for at least a couple of millennia. Reims has been the city where French kings have been crowned since Clovis. No other city in France has had that glorious distinction not Beauvais, Amiens, Chartres or even Paris. Having wines on par with such a distinction has been a historical aim of Champagne.
To spur Champagne to finesse was not a mere generation or two’s scope of work it was a half a millennia to go from those pesky bubbles to awe those glorious stars in the glass. But while it was important to have an outstanding wine from Champagne—the Kings of France were not the only reason. There is something more fundamental. What persists is to get the wine just right it not was a labour of love but something more core about belief in the wine and the region.
Hopping in our time machine and if we were to visit Champagne before Perignon we would find cloudy, sweet and of course those pesky bubbles.
Champagne historically has always been challenged as a place to grow Champagne’s official grapes of Chardonnay, Meunier, Pinot Noir and to a lesser extent Arbanne, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier. Very cool climate, challenging weather conditions, early frost and even with global warming has not changed the unpredictability—it remains the constant. There is a common perception that global warming is changing wine grape cultivation in terms of more northerly regions will eventually be great places for Bordeaux and Rhone varieties and other warmer weather grapes. I remember reading an article in Wired magazine where a non-wine writer postulated that Zinfandel and Petite Sirah will be produced in more northerly climates reserved primarily for cool climate grapes like Okanagan Valley in Canada. This article, I interpreted is that there is a straight southerly to northerly affect for wine grape cultivation. I took away that this meant that global warming would change all regions evenly and it was just look north for where grape success would be found.
I digress… I know.
I bring this out in that while Champagne is not excluded from global warming trends. Simply at least for the near and mid-term most likely there will not be a vintage every single year—instead there might be more vintages per decade? But I think Champagne will still have more of the same–unpredictability with respect to the weather.
Champagne’s acclaim is it’s complex combination of history, experience with varieties, circumstances, self-regulation, and protection of it’s name and tradition and blending of wines, use of reserve wines, and refining styles of Champagne to fit every palate and mood.
I am still awe inspired with challenge that makes this wine not just a passable wine but a wine of great elegance and evocation. There is a reason we are not drinking still Pinot Noir or Chardonnay or Meunier from this region—it is apt as a blended, sparkling wine. I have tasted many a vin clair, a base wine, which simultaneously resembles what the Champagne might taste like and it is also tastes nothing like Champagne that you know from drinking a finished bottle.
I loved being on the ground in Champagne—simply because I know I would not just taste a fair number of wines I would be tasting a great ensemble of Champagnes and the styles that I don’t get to taste that many of and I might add my favourite styles: Extra Brut and Brut Nature. I have rarely had access to so many Brut Nature’s and I thought I would appreciate them when I would taste them—instead I fell in love once more.
On this harvest experience I was looking forward to not just tasting styles but from many producers and producer types – Négociant Manipulant (NM) and Récoltant Manipulant (RM) and to pair Champagne with food. Also walk through many caves, vineyards and to talk with cellar masters. What I didn’t expect and should have expected was the profound sense of history that I would walk into and through. Being based in Reims and me being a student of history was a profound sense of a history that is utterly extensive and brings Champagne into context—gives the fuller story of this amazing wine and history.
Champagne’s refinement is not by accident but through centuries of incremental improvement, and that a non-stop belief in this magical land. Stay with me as I write up more of my journey this past September (2016)
James the Wine Guy
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
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