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Champagne: a basic primer for a sophisticated wine

“Champagne! In victory one deserves it, in defeat one needs it,” Napoleon Bonaparte famously advised.1 With such generous encouragement, no wonder many of us enjoy drinking this delicate bubbly wine. In 2016, more than 21 million bottles of champagne were exported to the United States, and the number is on the rise.2

While most people consider it a celebratory drink, many collectors recognize that champagne is actually a very sophisticated wine which emerges from mercurial conditions and labor-intensive wine-making. Under the right circumstances, a good bottle can leave the drinker feeling like they are drinking the stars, to paraphrase a quote often attributed to Dom Pérignon, a monk living in the 17th century provinces of Champagne.3

The best examples of this sparkling wine are highly sought after by wine enthusiasts. A rare magnum (double bottle) of 1985 Krug Clos du Mesnil recently sold for $5,187 at an Acker Merrall & Condit auction.4 More sophisticated champagne options at wine bars, a spurt in grower-producer champagnes and gatherings like Fête du Champagne are also fueling the bubble bonanza.

 

Bubbly basics + complexities

 

Though the term is used commonly, the drink you are calling champagne may in fact just be sparkling wine! Champagne refers only to the sparkling wine produced in the eponymous named region 90 miles northeast of Paris. Around 15,800 growers sell grapes to the 300 champagne “houses” in the region.2 This territory is deemed so culturally significant, it was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 2015.5

Champagnes are usually made from a blend of the three most common grape varietals grown in the region: pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay.2

  • A blanc de blancs is made with any white grape authorized to be grown in the region—usually chardonnay.
  • A blanc de noirs is a “white” champagne made with at least one or a combination of the red pinot noir or pinot meunier grapes.
  • A rosé champagne is also made with at least one of the pinot grapes, but in this champagne the dark color of the grape transfers to the juice during fermentation with extended skin contact.

Another unique aspect of this coveted bubbly is that most champagnes are blended wines. After the grapes are harvested, the head wine-maker of every house faces the challenge of blending not only grapes from different vineyards parcels together, but also adding in juice from prior vintages. After the blending in the spring after harvest, the blends are mixed with yeast and a liqueur de tirage (a mixture of sugar and wine), and the bottles are then laid to rest for at over a year. In Champagne, the law states that a non-vintage wine must be aged for a minimum of 15 months, and a single vintage bottle at least three years. This complex secondary fermentation process—during which natural carbon dioxide gas is trapped inside each bottle—gives champagne its signature bubbles.6

 

Vintage, or non-vintage?

 

Most champagnes on sale in stores are non-vintage, which explains why there isn’t a year printed on the label. Most champagne houses produce a signature style that is blended by the chef de cave, the head of the winemaking team. This blend is usually made with grapes from various vineyards and various years, so “multi-vintage” may be a more apt description. The winemaker’s goal is to achieve a consistent taste with their house style—so the Ruinart, Philliponnat or Bollinger champagnes that you drink today should taste similar to one you might enjoy two years from now.

Vintage champagnes are a rarer breed. Many of the well-known houses make single vintage champagnes only in the years when the harvest is considered exceptional. They are still blended wines, but crafted only from the harvests from one season. The most exceptional bottles of bubbly are the prestige cuvées. They are made at the houses’ discretion, usually with grapes from the best vineyards, from a superior harvest, and are priced accordingly. At Roederer, the prestige cuvée is Cristal; at Veuve Cliquot, it is La Grande Dame, in honor of the house’s founder, Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin.

Piper-Heidsieck’s prestige cuvée, Rare, has only been bottled in eight vintages since its first cuvée in 1976. Brand ambassador Jonathan Boulangeat elaborates on the important role of the chef de cave in creating these exceptional wines, “With each Rare vintage, our winemaker Régis Camus selects and blends the vineyards according to their expression rather than their rank in the Scale of Premiers and Grand Crus. For instance, Rare Millésime 1976 is born from an exceptional heat wave, Rare Millésime 1985 from a terrible black frost. Camus’ time and expertise unveiled nonstandard champagnes in these challenging circumstances, gifted by a distinctive character and an endless longevity.”

Serious wine collectors covet this liquid labor of love, talent and dedication in the single vintage and prestige cuvées of their favorite houses and vignerons.

 

Producer-growers

 

While most grape growers sell their harvest to other houses, some choose to make wine from their own grapes. These “small-grower” champagnes are considered artisanal, as the winemakers have only their own grapes to blend. As a result, their wines are more likely to reflect their soil than a particular house style.

This concept of terroir is well known among oenophiles—reaching fetish status in Burgundy, where collectors salivate over villages, vineyards, subplots and soil types.

However, focusing on the minutiae of villages and vineyards is a relatively new concept in Champagne. Anselme Selosse, a winemaker based in Avize, a village within the Champagne La Côtes des Blancs, was among the first to stop selling his grapes to others and concentrate on producing his own champagne. His wines reflect the unique chalk and clay soils of their Grand Cru vineyards—not to mention Selosse’s own austere style.7 A true pioneer, Selosse has become a darling of avant-garde sommeliers, and influenced a new generation of winemakers.

In essence, what these winemakers want to create is a champagne that is more of a wine than a bubbly. As the wine critic Eric Asimov noted in a recent article on grower champagnes, they tend to be “specific, individual and occasionally quirky, rather than smoothly consistent.”8

Whether you are intrigued by quirky or consistent, a good sommelier or local wine merchant can guide you on the path of discovering the breadth and depth of this fascinating winemaking region.

 

Collector considerations

 

Champagne—like all wine—needs consistent temperature and humidity, whether you want your bottle to age nicely or be good to pour tomorrow. Ideally, it should be kept around 55°F and at 70% humidity. A wine refrigerator can be set to these specific conditions. Champagnes in particular are sensitive to UV light, which is why they are bottled in dark glass, so a cool basement may also be an option.

For added protection, you can insure your wine collection. As most wine collectors consume and replace their bottles with frequency, a blanket option is often best (read more about the difference between insuring items on a blanket or scheduled basis). You can simply pick an average value of your collection (e.g., $60,000) and, under most blanket collector policies, a limit per bottle will apply. At Berkley One, a Berkley Company, we offer a $10,000 per bottle limit. This can cover most bottles—even that 1985 Krug.

Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art, Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One.

 

For more information on Berkley One’s collectibles coverage for wine, visit us here.

3Liem, Peter. Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region. Ten Speed Press, 2017, CA, pp. 19.
6MacNeil, Karen. “Champagne.” The Wine Bible, 2001, Workman Publishing, NY, 2001, pp. 161-181.
7Liem, Peter. Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region. Ten Speed Press, 2017, CA, pp. 102-105.