A fine bead of Champagne styles

By Louise Johnson
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The allure of Champagne is universal and a fine bead of bubbles is an accepted symbol of celebration.

A highlight of the tasting program at the 2009 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, the Champagne tasting explored the differences between the Grande Marques and the emergence of Recoltant Manipulants, or grower producers. Winemakers Pierre and Sophie Larmandier of Larmandier-Bernier in Champagne presented wines produced on their 9.5 hectare biodynamic vineyard in Vertus along with the Mornington Peninsula’s Moorooduc Estate marketing manager (and Dame Chevalier) Kate McIntyre.

“When we talk about champagne we are talking about wine from a small region in France not sparkling wine made anywhere else in the world. There are strict rules governing every part of the production method, from the vineyard until it hits the shelves, and unless a winemaker follows these rules their product cannot be called ‘champagne’,” says Kate.

Champagne, as a region, is almost not warm enough to ripen grapes, which is why they get such a distinct style with high acidity, delicacy and elegance to them, she says.

“If you try the base wines the high acid content almost burns a hole in your tongue – with its high acid and low sugar when picked and fermented. The base wines are also low alcohol and one of the reasons winemakers re-ferment in bottles is to add bubbles and also to raise the alcohol level to 12 percent.”

The quality of champagne includes many factors. When you taste and compare champagne you are not only looking at a multi-variety wine, but often also a multi-regional blend. Blends are also non-vintage, so may incorporate base wine from a number of harvests. Most big houses in Champagne, such as Moet, buy their fruit from all over the region to blend to their precise house styles. 

The skill of these cellarmasters is amazing. Each year they take different ingredients and blend them to create the same style, even though they often can’t compare to the previous year’s base wine, which requires incredible palate memories. 

“Viticulture is an imprecise science and every year you get variation ... but when you buy Bollinger in any year it’s going to look pretty much the same.

“It’s a recipe, its remembering the recipe and bringing different flavours each year back to the same distinct house style,” she says.

Grande Marques such as Moet & Chandon, Charles Heidsieck and Bollinger operate at a brand level, with image and taste expectations. However, there has been a re-emergence of grower-winemakers in Champagne who are producing wines that, like other fine wines, reflect the terroir of the sites and personality of their winemakers.  Pierre and Sophie Larmandier presented their hand crafted wines alongside the Grande Marques.

“As growers we want to show another part of champagne where we think the grapes and the way you make the grapes into wine is important. You can smell the grapes and ripeness in the glass. We are not obsessed by the test of our houses, our wines are not always the same, but they are consistent and represent the season,” says Pierre.

The Larmandier vines have an average age of 35 years with some of the oldest vines nearly 75 years old. They are grown using biodynamic methods, which in Champagne is very rare.

“In our village we are alone in this practise. We try to do what we can and we are very proud of the life we have in our soil.”

Converting their vineyard to biodynamics took a few years, but Pierre says they immediately saw the wine come alive, with more energy and more freshness. In 1999 they decided not to buy yeast and let natural yeasts make the fermentation.

“Yeast is part of terroir and has made more character in our wines.” 

Tasting Notes

When tasting Champagne, Kate says you should look for the same characters as in table wine. “You are looking for bubbles with a consistent bead that make the wine dance on your palate. A good wine will have creaminess.”

On the nose look for more restrained aromatics and the characters of the dominant wines – citrus, stone fruits and tropic fruits for chardonnay dominant wines and berry fruits in pinot noir dominant wines.

Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve,  NV (Reims)
A classic blend of all three main varieties, this house is one of the few to mention bottling dates of its NV on the back of the label. A highly consistent, reliable and respected house, with a long and colourful history.

Larmandier-Bernier Brut Tradition 1er Cru, NV (Vertus)
A blend of 80 percent chardonnay from the Cote des Blancs and 20 percent pinot noir. Handpicked from predominantly 2005 vintage with one-third reserve wines from 2004 and 2002, 5gm dosage (i.e., extra brut).

Louis Roederer Brut Premier, NV (Reims)

Ages for 3 ½ years, this NV is built on a core of pinot noir. Up to 20 percent is made up of wood aged reserves with malolactic fermentation prevented for most of blend (though the exact proportion varies).

Moet and Chandon Brut Imperial, NV (Epernay)
Instantly recognisable as one of the largest and commercially successful houses that produces millions of bottles per year while maintaining consistently high quality.

Vazart-Coquart Brut Reserve, NV (Chouilly)
Domaine grown, family owned Champagne from the Cotes des Blancs. A ripe-fruit style using 100 percent chardonnay with full malolactic and extended lees age.

Larmandier-Bernier Blanc de Blancs ‘Terre de Vertus’, NV (Vertus)
100 percent old vine chardonnay from the vineyard plots of Les Barillers and Les Faucherets, situated mid-slope in Vertus. One terroir and one vintage.

Larmandier-Berneir ‘Rose de Saignee’ 1er Brut, NV (Vertus)

The grapes (100 percent pinot noir) are allowed to macerate for several days before the juice is drawn off and it is this “soak” that gives the colour and much of the body and flavour to the wine. This technique is now extremely rare in Champagne where most rose is made by the addition of a little red wine. No dosage is added.

Ruinart Blanc de Blancs, NV (Reims)
A blend of 100 percent chardonnay from premier cru vineyards, Ruinart consider this to be their flagship wines.

Egly-Ouriet Blanc de Noirs ‘Vielles Vignes’, NV (Ambonnay)
100 percent vinification in barrique from the 1999 harvest. The fruit is sourced from a single vineyard known as “Les Crayeres” where the vines were planted in 1947.

Bollinger Special Cuvee, NV (Ay)
A distinct style of Champagne thanks to a number of factors. There is a dominance of pinot noir in the blend, five to 10 percent of the reserve wines are kept in magnums under cork, and vineyards are predominantly premier or grand cru vineyards (80 percent) from the Marne.
 

Regions

  • France - all (FR)

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