Champagne: greater than the sum of its parts

Maison Pol Roger in Epernay

Champagne is a wonderfully complex wine. Firstly, the champagne-maker has the option of using a blend of three different grape varietals (two of which are black grapes) – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Secondly, the winemaker must take into account the subtle effects of variation in climate, soil and aspect that impact on the fruit grown in different vineyards throughout Champagne, and blend different proportions of the wine from these individual vineyards appropriately. As if this weren’t enough, to add further complexity, the winemaker can blend in reserve wine which has been held over from previous vintages, sometimes up to ten years old. The resulting wine is a fully three-dimensional harmonisation, with a blend occurring between grape varietals, over geographical regions and through time.

The aim of a champagne-maker, when crafting a non-vintage wine, is to produce a wine that is consistent with the champagne house’s style. In many cases this style has remained unchanged over decades. As the final blending must occur before the secondary fermentation – that which gives the wine its bubbles – deciding a blend of champagne must truly be one of the most difficult arts in winemaking.

On a recent visit to Champagne, courtesy of Pol Roger, I got to see just why this blending process is so important. Pol Roger’s non-vintage wine is generally a 33% blend each of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. I was fortunate enough to try the unblended vin clair (still wine) from the 2010 vintage.

The chardonnay was thin, very lean, with a zesty lemony-apple taste. The nose smelt autolytic, doughy and almost sweaty. The pinot noir had more body – a slight creaminess, but was still high in acid. There was strawberry leaf and latex on the nose. The finish was fairly long, but very lemony with a hint of aspirin in there too. The pinot meunier had a more lifted nose – rounder with a sense of florality. The palate, however, had a bitter, ‘pippy’ flavour on the finish.

You may be able to tell that I really did not find these wines appealing. Yet, I absolutely love Pol Roger champagne! There are many good reasons for why these wines taste the way they do, yet it really drummed home for me that champagne is a wine truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Coteaux Champenois

Champagne doesn’t only produce champagne. A still red wine can be made from the two pinot varieties and bottled under the appellation of Coteaux Champenois. (The resulting red wine can also be blended with regular champagne to make rosé champagne in some houses.) I tasted the Louis Casters Coteaux Champenois from 2004/05 (a two-vintage blend).

In a single word, this wine was ‘light’. A very pale ruby in colour; an airy, diffuse nose with fruit rather hard to pick up. Rather, I perceived oak-spice, wet river stone and a greenness reminiscent of spinach. One of my fellow tasters suggested ‘beetroot’, which I think was very apt! The palate was delicate, creamy and balanced. The wine was not too acidic (unlike the vins clairs described above), with moderate alcohol and a stoney minerality; there were some very slight tannins and a short finish.

Overall this wine could (at a stretch) be mistaken for a very light pinot from the Beaune. It was well-made and pleasant in its own strange way. Did it, however, justify its €45 price tag? I think not. We have Burgundy for a reason; Champagne should stick to making champagne!

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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3 Responses to Champagne: greater than the sum of its parts

  1. Neel Burton says:

    Another thing that adds significant complexity is yeast autolysis during maturation.

    PS – Had Xian crispy aromatic duck with a 1999 Tokay last night, which worked beautifully!

  2. Pingback: Champagne in a nutshell | The Oxford Wine Blog

  3. Pingback: The Visual Guide to English Wine | The Oxford Wine Blog

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