Monday, August 8, 2011

CHAMPAGNE: Blending for Bubbles on the Edge!

On the edge of where grapes can ripen sits the benchmark for sparkling wines. It could only happen here in northeastern France, in a singular region of controlled origin, Champagne AOC. Only here in its rolling hills of impoverished soils atop chalky, seeping limestone  would the regions heavy rainfall and cool temperatures not doom a winegrape crop.  With the development of thirsty nouveau riche markets of the late 18th century in the commercial /social centers of the North and Baltic seas to the west, only here could the region's river Marne, which joins the Seine outside of Paris, become the world's expressway for this unique sparkling wine. Not beyond the influence of nearby rival Burgundy, only here in the Champagne region, could the under-ripe grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay be partners to the art of blending in their high acid states to create one of the world's most important wines, known simply as Champagne.
Champagne village in chalky limestone
Above the 49th parallel of latitude, this cool regions still wines have re-fermented in the warmer Springs that follow harvest throughout history. As such, the re-ferment of a harvest was nothing new to French winemakers. In the Southwest of France, Limoux re-fermented sparkling wines have been purposely produced from around 1531, and the English physician and naturalist, Christopher Merret, described the process of adding a liqueur de tirage back to the wine in 1662, six years before Dom Perignon even took his post as cellar master for the Abbey of Hautvellers near Epernay. Decades of innovation and  trialed evolution were required in this part of France to create the sparkling benchmark we know today. Importantly, it was here in Champagne that the art of blending an under-ripe harvest of different Burgundian varietals from many different regional vineyards was to create the world standard for sparkling wines.

Following its establishment by the Romans, cities like Reims had remained a strategically important regional trade center. This regions prominence was galvanized with the early Middle Age's crowning of Louis the Pious, son of Charlemagne, and continued throughout the centuries that followed as a nobility Mecca, the site for the crowning of the Kings of France. In addition to its historic cereal grains, recent centuries have seen the regions cooler northern Montagne de Reims department became dominated by Pinot Noir, bringing a firm structure and important high acid to the cellar masters artful blend. All three regional grape varieties can be found in the East to West  river causeway, Valle'e de la Marne, around Epernay, but it's fruity, dark skinned Pinot Meunier that is most widely planted. South of Epernay, on mostly east-facing vineyards of Chardonnay, the important Cote des Blancs contributes finesse to the cellar master's grape and vineyard blend. Heading further South lies the Cote de Sezanne, offering a riper Chardonnay from its more protected South facing vineyards. The most remote and warmer Aube, once the scorn of the Champenois, is a dryer region that brings a fuller bodied Pinot Noir from its drier climates. Combined, these low-sugar grapes allow a great Champagne to became a blended sum that is greater than its individual parts.
Grand Cru vineyards of Verzenay

These forested and grain blanketed departments are the domaine of small, independent growers, more than 19,000 of them, many of whom contract their fruit to the houses of Champagne. Today, the large Champagne houses only grow and produce a small amount of the wine produced here, with smaller houses, coop's and independent growers accounting for the majority. After decades of debate and conflict, the I.A.N.O. (Institut National des Appellations d'Origine) mapped out the appellation to its current configuration of over 80,000 total acres in 1927. Seventeen(17) villages have been rated through the percentile E'chelle de Crus as Grand Crus, annually earning the top price for their grapes. Tiered below are the Premier Cru villages, who get from 90 to 99 per cent, and then more than 260 crus(villages) sell at 80 to 89 per cent of the established price. Such a hierarchy combined with the regions annual cool climate challenges means simply that blending not only vineyard lots, but, also grape varieties as well as reserve wines from previous harvests are necessary for the production of a consistent product and the economic health of this region's wine industry.

It is the artful blend that consistently defines the style of each producer, their signature as it were. Non-vintage blends make up the overwhelming majority of all production, and even when a producer declares a 'vintage' year, a minimum 20% of it must be held in reserve. Similar to Sherry, each vintage is not only a blend of different grapes, lots and vineyards, but also of years. Following harvest, the fruit clusters are gently pressed so as not to extract color, chaptalized if needed to increase potential alcohol, and then are mostly fermented to low alcohol dryness in stainless steel tanks. In the racking that follows, the cuvee or blend is created(assemblage) to achieve the artfully consistent house style. A dosage of a sugar and wine mixture(liqueur de tirage) added to the clear wine ignites a second fermentation(prise de mousse) inside the capped bottle, creating(autolysis) the dead cell sediment(sur lie) that is eventually trapped in the bottles neck. Following a minimum of 12 months aging, the degorgement or removal of the sediment, introduces a small amount of dosage(here as, liquer d'expedition) which is returned to the topped off bottle to create it final level of dryness(or sweetness), and then is cellared for a minimum of 15 months for non-vintage. I know simply, it's complicated.

We've all seen Champagne in the tiny and giant bottles of celebrations. Only the smallest bottles, or splits, and bottle sizes larger than Jeroboam(4 standard bottles) are allowed to be produced by a method called Transvasage.  Here, standard sized bottles are disgorged into a pressured tank where the wine receives its final dosage prior to a transfer to its final package. Every bottle produced carries a code assigned by the regulatory body, C.I.V.C., designed to identify the type of producer who made the wine. Most large houses are noted as, "NM", or Negociant Manipulant, or a producer who purchases some portion of their grapes or base wine. Grower-producers are labeled as, "RM", or Re'coltant Manipulant, and "CM", Cooperative Manipulant(a producing grower's cooperative) are among the most widely used declarations. Although the overwhelming majority of production is non-vintage, Vintage wines are presumably produced in the best years, where 100% of its content is from that declared year. The finest, most expensive wines that a house can offer are labeled as Prestige Cuvee, and are produced in all styles following additional years of aging.
Not all that sparkles is Champagne!

In the world of sparkling wines, only these refined products from this edge of wine-growing can be called Me'thode Champenoise. Outside this AOC, producers who follow the same production regiment have been EU regulated to identify their wines as, Me'thode Traditionnelle or Me'thode Classique, and within France as Cre'mant. The Champagne region also produces still wines from the same grapes, under the wide regional appellation of Coteaux Champenois AOC and the Aube's Rose' de Ricays AOC. Champagne alone remains the world standard in winemaking that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. It is a place that could not exist as a village or commune, but only a region. A place where the annual harvest on the edge is uniquely situated to artfully blend for those tiny bubbles. Cheers!

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