Champagne. A name that evokes luxury, refinement, mystique, and joy. It feels as though Champagne is timeless; it has always been, and will always be. However, in the world of wine, Champagne as we know it – the glamorous sparkling wine from the eponymous region in France’s most northern climes – is a relatively recent arrival, emerging as recently as the 19th century.
And while Champagne may seem steeped in tradition, it is in fact, quietly innovating. The proliferation and embracing by sommeliers of grower Champagnes and boutique houses; the gradual move to dryer, fresher, and more complex wine styles; and a liberation of how and when wine drinkers enjoy Champagne – these are symbolic of Champagne today.
The Champagne region in northeast France was named by the Romans after Campania in southern Italy. The rolling hills reminded them of the rural region south of Rome. They began making wine in the 5th century, and winemaking continued through medieval times with the Benedictine monks.
Proximity and accessibility to Paris via river made the wines commercially convenient, though the region’s cool, marginal climate ensured the wines were fairly weak and thin. Dom Pérignon did not purposely produce any sparkling wine, but did lead the pursuit for quality and, in particular, the blending of varieties, vintages, and regions that smooth out the vagaries of climate and typifies Champagne today.
Champagne’s cold climate meant that fermentation would stop before being complete, then the wine would begin re-fermenting the following summer, causing the flimsy bottles of that time to explode. It wasn’t until strong English bottles that could withstand the pressure of a double-decker bus tyre were developed, and a growing demand from English consumers for wine with bubbles that sparkling Champagne emerged as a wine style.
The major Champagne houses were born in the early 19th century, collectively responsible for the metamorphosis of Champagne from caterpillar to the butterfly of the wine world.
Fast forward a mere 200 years and Champagne is synonymous with luxury. It is impossible to think of a world without tantalisingly effervescent Champagne. But the Champagne scene continues to develop. The traditionally renowned Champagne brands are made by large houses who buy grapes from a multitude of small growers.
It is impossible to think of a world without tantalisingly effervescent Champagne.
Today, there is a proliferation of growers, who are now making Champagne themselves from their own vineyards. These Récoltant Manipulant (identified by the acronym RM on the label) are commonly known as grower Champagnes and can be as distinctive as the single cru wines of Burgundy. An archetypal RM is Champagne Henri Giraud. Farming 10 hectares of Ay Grand Cru, Giraud ages their reserve wines in barrels made from oak from the Argonne Forest, resulting in rich, complex Champagnes.
Another development is small, boutique, quality-focused houses – while the large houses focus on expensive marketing, these boutique houses concentrate on making exceptional Champagne. The perfect example is Champagne Billecart-Salmon, still owned by the original family since 1818. Characteristic of the best boutique houses, Billecart-Salmon sources most of the fruit from its own holdings. Meticulous winemaking, including using its own yeast strains and long, cool fermentations, results in wines renowned for their elegance and harmony. Its rosé is considered a benchmark of this style.
Another classic boutique house is Ruinart, the oldest established Champagne house which was founded in 1729. While owned by luxury goods giant LVMH, Ruinart is managed separately, producing small quantities of exemplary Champagne. Most notably, its Dom Ruinart Blanc de Blanc, from 100 per cent grand cru Chardonnay, is celebrated for its finesse and delicacy.
Into Its Own
Throughout Champagne – among RM, boutique houses, and large houses alike – the production methods and styles of Champagne are evolving. The pervasive trends are eco-friendly viticulture, greater use of reserve wines, a more interesting array of base wine fermentation and maturation vessels, and longer tirage times with recent disgorgement and declining dosage levels. The result: Champagnes that are gaining more depth and complexity with greater richness balanced by refreshing dryness.
The way we drink Champagne is also changing. No longer are we limited to celebrations or art gallery exhibitions, drinking ubiquitous Champagnes from tall skinny flutes that accentuate bubbles and de-accentuate flavour. Today, we are appreciating Champagne as a fine wine, capable of expressing place, vintage or variety – or at least the skills of the winemaker.
The CEO of Krug likens drinking Champagne from a flute to listening to music with earplugs.
Fine Champagne is best enjoyed in a white wine glass. The CEO of Krug likens drinking Champagne from a flute to listening to music with earplugs. From a Cinderella region – conveniently close to Paris, but inconveniently cold – Champagne has finally found its place in the world of fine wine. Champagne worthy of introspection and savouring was the exception – it is now becoming the norm. The butterfly is well and truly spreading its wings.
Matt Deller is one of just 47 Masters of Wine in the US and an internationally respected wine judge, panelist and speaker