The Champagne Revolution
Champagne holds a timeless and special place in the universe of wine, and it is a wine with which so many milestones in life are shared and measured. For hundreds of years the unique sparkling wines of these rolling hills east of Paris have captured the imaginations of artists and courtiers, and the world has been a richer place for the addition of a bit of bubbly. Champagne as the sparkling wine that we know today really only dates back to the late seventeenth century, despite the history of viticulture in the region dating back to Roman times. As many wine lovers may be aware, it was the Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, who revolutionized and institutionalized the making of wine in the region. Amongst the many accomplishments of Dom Perignon, who was cellarmaster of the Benedictine Abbey at Hautvillers from 1668 until 1715, was the art of blending wines from different areas of Champagne to add to the complexity of the finished wine, and mastering the clarification process of the wine during the initial fermentation. This allowed a white wine to be made with the inclusion of red grapes (today’s Champagne is generally a blend of one white grape, chardonnay, and two red grapes, pinot noir and pinot meunier). He also developed the adaptation of cork as a closure for the bottled wine that would allow the preservation of the carbon dioxide gas in the wine that gives Champagne its sparkle.
Originally, the bubbles in Champagne were thought to have occurred naturally from time to time because of the cold winters in the relatively northern clime of the region. The young wine would stop its fermentation during the onset of winter, with still a bit of grape sugar remaining that had not yet been converted into alcohol. Often this wine would be bottled during the spring, before the temperatures in the cellars had risen sufficiently for that last bit of sugar to finish fermenting. When it finally started up again, the carbon dioxide gas given off during the fermentation would be trapped in suspension in the bottled wine, giving birth to Champagne as a sparkling wine. These effervescent wines became the most prized in the region, and once Dom Perignon had perfected the use of cork to seal up the bottles, Champagne as a sparkling wine was off and running. By the early eighteenth century Champagne had gained a fashionable hold on the elite of Europe, and many of the best-known and most-loved houses that we associate Champagne with today got their start during the eighteenth century. Among the houses that began in the eighteenth or very early nineteenth century are Moët and Chandon, Dom Ruiiunart, Louis Roederer, Perrier-Jouët, Taittinger, Bollinger, and Veuve Clicquot.
Today these Champagne houses (along with firms such as Pol Roger, Krug, and a handful of others) are known as the Grandes Marques, and are the labels that most people associate with this glorious sparkling wine. They are the largest and most prestigious firms in the area, and their wines are exemplary. In many ways the Grandes Marques have towered over the Champagne landscape for the last two hundred years; buying grapes and wine from thousands of smaller growers, and blending and marketing their bubbly to a thirsty and appreciative world. However, the 1990s witnessed a sea change in how Champagne was made and marketed, and the Grandes Marques now find themselves in competition with many of the same smaller growers and “petits maisons” from whom they formerly bought the production. Rather than upsetting the apple cart with the new market realities in Champagne, the influx of new names on bottles of bubbly simply affords the savvy wine lover with a myriad of new options. Many of these are truly superb in their quality and can offer noteworthy value vis à vis the Grandes Marques. There has never been a better time to range beyond the tried and true names in the Champagne section, and taste across a broad spectrum of these less well-known, but equally outstanding, producers.
Amongst the smaller Champagne houses that are offering brilliant wines these days, I would certainly single out the houses of Billecart-Salmon and Gosset. Both are illustrious small houses that have long histories, but have somehow remained relatively unknown to many Champagne lovers. Billecart, whose non-vintage rosé is widely recognized as the gold standard for this bottling, offers up a fine array of different cuvées, with their white Champagnes beautifully balanced for aging. The house of Gosset has the distinction of being the very oldest in the region, as Pierre Gosset, then the mayor of the important wine-producing village of Äy, sold his first sparkling wine in 1584. The Gosset line of wines is outstanding, with both their rosé and non-rosé bottlings superb. The Gosset house style is for bigger and richer wines that remain marvelously light on their feet and focused because of their zesty acids, and which many tasters compare stylistically to the house of Krug. Another small house making brilliant wines today is Jacquesson, whose toasty and complex bubbly offer superb value. The house of Jacquesson also has the distinction of having been the place where one Joseph Krug began his career in the 1830s before starting his own house, Krug, in 1843. One of my favorites of the smaller houses is Duval-Leroy, whose beautiful, elegant wines are only recently represented in the United States. They too make a brilliant rosé Champagne, and among the house specialties are their Blanc de Blancs bottlings made from one hundred percent chardonnay.
In addition to the smaller houses, Champagne has also witnessed an explosion of smaller growers who have begun to bottle and market their wines on their own. I have tasted dozens and dozens of brilliant bottles over the last few years from small, independent growers who formerly sold off their entire production to the Grandes Marques. Among my favorites currently in the market, I would look particularly for the beautiful wines from Camille Savès, Paul Berthelot, Bernard Brémont, Fleury Père et Fils, Godmé Père et Fils, François Hemart, Larmandier-Bernier, and Vazart-Coquart et Fils. All of these are refined and elegant wines that perfectly capture the magic that is Champagne, but often with an added attribute of hailing from a single village, and hence offering up a singular expression of terroir from their small vineyards. Any of the bottlings from the above list are scintillating in quality and are guaranteed to satisfy even the pickiest of Champagne palates.
Of course one of the nicest ways to really get an idea of the changes that are afoot in Champagne is to plan a visit to the region. The venerable city of Reims and its breathtaking cathedral make a perfect jumping off point. All the major villages in the appellation can be easily reached by car during the day, and dining options in the city include the three-starred Boyer “les Crayères” (and its amazing Champagne list) and no less than three other one-starred Michelin restaurants. The Grandes Marques offer visitors tours by appointment, but perhaps the best way to really get a sense of Champagne today is to visit with some of the smaller houses or growers listed above. The reception rooms may not be quite as tastefully appointed, but you will taste a wider and deeper selection of the very best wines that the grower or small house produces. Let one of these smaller producers know how happy you are to now be able to find their wines in the United States and how much you have enjoyed them. Chances are good that you may very well get treated to one of the 20 or 30 year-old treasures resting in the cellar.