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The Making and Marketing of Champagne

I’m full of admiration for the way the Champenois have marketed their bubbles. Nobody else has done a better job. They’ve made it synonymous with luxury, romance, special occasions, and living the good life. Simply put, we’ve fallen in love with their fizz.

The history of Champagne is fascinating. There’s a dispute over who was the first to make it bubbly because originally it was a “still” wine. In the region, Dom Perignon lays claim to being the inventor, but the winemakers in Limoux, an obscure region in southern France, accuse him of riding down on his donkey and stealing their winemaking secret, and then galloping back to Champagne to begin creating the most famous luxury brand in the world.

But it seems certain that it was not the French who were the first to make sparkling wine in commercial volumes. Instead, it was the English who created the glass that was strong enough to withstand the massive amounts of pressure in the bottle. But whatever the case, we do know that the first Champagnes were incredibly sweet, even sweeter than the dessert wine from Sauternes in Bordeaux.

Once it was made, it had to be sold. And the proximity of the Champagne region to Paris was a definite advantage because not only was there a large urban population, but it was also the home of the aristocracy. The Champagne Houses plied the monarchy with free bubbly, and the elite became customers. Monkey see, monkey do. Jean-Rene Moet, of Moet et Chandon, even built Napoleon a mansion in Champagne, just in case he stopped by. So thoughtful.

But it wasn’t just the monarchy and aristocrats in France that sipped Champagne at lavish banquets. The Champenois also managed to convince the Tsars in Russia, and the Royal Family in England, that they too should become devotees. And so, for lack of a better word, the brand of Champagne was established as a luxury product, with prices to match.

But for a luxury brand to endure it has to be consistently high quality and meet customer’s expectations time after time. And on this critical point the Champenois have delivered, at least at the pinnacle of production. Houses like Krug, Roederer, Dom Perignon, Salon, Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon, Laurent Perrier, Lanson, Bollinger, Taittinger, and Veuve Clicquot continue to make a quality of wine that is, generally, unmatched by sparkling winemakers in other countries, and other regions in France.    

The major city is Reims and here you’ll find many of the major Houses, as well as the stunning cathedral. But in fact most of the vineyards are 30 minutes away surrounding the pretty town of Epernay. Driving over the hillside into Epernay is quite breathtaking. You can see vineyards sloping down towards the river Marne and right into the outskirts of the town itself.  

There are three key sub-regions in Champagne to be aware of. The first is the Montagne de Reims, which is a little misleading because it’s more of a large hill than a mountain. This is primarily planted to Pinot Noir, a grape that benefits from the southerly exposure that the hillside provides, in order to help ripen the Pinot grapes in this cool climate.

At the bottom of the hill, and following the river, is the Valle de la Marne, which is predominantly planted to Pinot Meunier, another black grape. The reason is that Pinot Meunier breaks its buds later in the Spring than the other varieties, and so it is less prone to the severe frosts that can result in crop loss. Keep in mind that a major reason for most Champagne being non-vintage (i.e. a blend of several different vintages) is because the Spring frosts can decimate a crop.

Finally, you have my favorite region, which is the Cotes des Blancs, home to some of the most refined wines based on the Chardonnay grape.

In terms of grape-growing, or viticulture, each village in the region has been graded on a quality scale. It ranges from 80% up to 100%, and the classification is based upon the quality potential of the vineyards in that little village. If you own vineyards in a Grand Cru village, rated 100%, then you’re laughing all the way to the bank because the Houses pay a premium for grapes from these terroirs. I love the names of some of the villages, and suggest you make a stop in Bouzy before heading to Dizy. Obviously, if you own vineyards in a village rated 80% then you’re not quite so sought-after.

One of the key aspects of the terroir is the chalky soils, and in many places it is pure chalk, good enough for a school mistress to use. In some places the chalk is so deep that it extends to a depth of 400 feet, although I can’t vouch for that personally. This chalky soil helps reflect light back onto the grapes to assist with ripening, provides excellent drainage in this wet region, provides enough moisture in the summer to keep the vine alive and the grapes maturing, and gives the wines a certain finesses, elegance, and class, that you rarely find outside of Champagne.

Once the grapes are picked in September, which is always done by hand, they are rushed to the press in order to minimize oxidation. There are strict laws regulating the amount of juice you can extract from a press load, because generally the harder you squeeze the grapes, the worse the quality becomes. Other sparkling wine producers in other countries have no such regulation, and should take note.

Once the juice is extracted it is then usually placed in stainless steel tanks, which have largely replaced the oak barrels that were commonplace until the 1970’s. The first fermentation proceeds, generally triggered by inoculation with commercial yeast, and the wine is fermented to dryness.

Now comes the true art of making great Champagne, which is the blending, or assemblage, as they call it. Each House will have a portfolio of wines, which may include a luxury cuvee, a vintage wine, the standard non-vintage, and maybe a Rose, amongst others.

The amazing part to me is that the winemaker, with the assistance of an experienced team, often has over 500 ‘lots’ to work with. A non-vintage will include wines held in reserve from previous vintages, sometimes up to 10 years ago. The potential permutations are endless. A little bit of Chardonnay from this village, a splash of Pinot Noir from another town, some reserve wine from 2, 4 or 7 years ago, 1% of this, 3% of that… and so on.  

What never ceases to amaze me is that the winemakers are able to foresee how these different lots will marry together, and what they will taste like when enjoyed years later. In some cases, the wines will not be released for 10 years. Making a pink Champagne that is destined for long ageing is the greatest challenge of all because it is so hard to get the color right, and hence the fact they are generally the most expensive wines in the luxury cuvee category.

Once the blend is made, the wine is bottled and then a small amount of yeast and sugar is added to trigger the second fermentation, which creates the carbon dioxide that dissolves in the wine. This is kept inside the bottle by sealing it with a crown cap.

And then it is taken down into the underground cellars, which are dug out of chalk, and one of the wonders of the wine world. Some of the largest Houses have several million bottles in stock, all slowly maturing, and the largest producer, Moet, has a staggering 96 million bottles ageing. That’s about $1 billion in inventory value.

After the yeast has eaten the sugar and created the bubbles, plus a tiny bit more alcohol, it starts to breakdown, or decompose. The long ageing time on the dead yeast cells, called the lees, contributes a bready, toasty, biscuit character to the wine which all contribute to the complexity and depth found on the nose and palate. No other sparkling wine region has minimum ageing times as long as the Champenois impose on themselves.

To ensure that what we actually drink doesn’t have any sediment, or dead yeast, floating around in it there is an elaborate process of gradually turning the bottles into a vertical position. This is called riddling, or remuage, and at some Houses it is still done by hand. A riddler can turn about 40,000 bottles in a day, with a precise motion that causes the sediment to gradually slip into the neck of the bottle. This is something to see, and I suggest you visit within the next 20 years because machines, called gyropalettes, are taking over from the human touch.

When the bottle is almost upside-down, and the sediment is in the neck, the bottle is dipped in a freezing brine solution and the sediment is frozen into an ice plug. The bottles are then stood upright, rattle along the bottling line, the crown cap is removed, the sediment shoots out from the massive pressure of the bubbles, and then the final sweetness of the wine is adjusted in a process called dosage. After that the bottle is labeled, the wire muzzle placed over the cork, and a long capsule, or skirt, placed over the neck. And voila, the wine is typically shipped shortly thereafter.

So, what should you buy? Here are some of my favorite brands, always reliable. To taste some of these and learn more about the wines of the world take a course at www.FineVintageLtd.com

Roederer — Cristal — Vintage
Lanson — Noble Cuvee — Vintage
Taittinger — Comtes de Champagne — Vintage
Krug — La Grande Cuvee — NV
Billecart Salmon — Rose — NV
Bollinger — R.D. — Old Vintage
Veuve Clicquot — Demi-sec — NV
Laurent Perrier — Ultra Brut — NV 

MERLOT & the love to hate

In the 90’s it was all the rage. From businessmen to 20-something socialites, everyone loved Merlot. Grape growers planted it like mad, and the market boomed. But then along came Sideways, a Hollywood movie that vilified Merlot, and suddenly the party was over. It wasn’t cool anymore. Just like Chardonnay, it was trendy to hate it. And now it seemed like there was a Pinot lover on every corner. I find all this so tiring.

But Merlot will always be one of the best grape varieties, and true wine lovers remain perplexed by the market’s fads. Its quality potential is up there with the best in the world, showcased by wines like Chateau Petrus. So whilst Pinot Noir is now the current popular choices, Merlot isn’t going to go away any time soon.

Grape growers love Merlot. Surprisingly, it is the most widely planted grape in Bordeaux, and you’ll find plenty of it in the south of France, northern and central Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and both North and South America. It’s even the most planted grape in Romania, and you’ll be able to quench your thirst with it at dozens of wineries in Bulgaria. Can’t wait.

Growers love Merlot because it ripens a week or two earlier than Cabernet Sauvignon. In frost prone areas, or places that can get serious downpours in the Fall, that extra week or two can make the difference between a successful vintage and a wash-out. 1998 in Bordeaux is a good example of this. It’s was a spectacular vintage in St.Emilion and Pomerol, but the Cabernet-dominated vineyards of the Medoc were not so lucky. It started pouring with rain before the grapes were fully ripe.

Another reason for its popularity amongst grape growers is because it can yield a bumper crop. I know that wine is all about the romance to those who drink it, but when you’re trying to make money out of producing it then yield becomes one of the most critical factors. Some varieties, like Pinot Noir, tend to produce lackluster wines when cropped above 4 tons per acre, but not so with Merlot. And as a grower, I want to produce as many grapes as possible, at quality levels suited to my commercial goals.

Merlot is also tolerant of a variety of different soil types, and doesn’t mind being planted in heavy clays. This is the primary reason why it thrives on the so-called Right Bank of the Bordeaux region, which is dominated by clay and limestone. But you’ll also find it producing some superb wines in the silty loam soils of Washington State, and some Okanagan wineries even have it planted on pure sand. So when it comes to soil types Merlot seems to be less picky compared to various other varietals.

So if you’re contemplating planting a vineyard in a warm area then Merlot is often on the list of potential candidates. It’s popular, you can grow lots of it, it’s not so fussy about soil types, and it will even ripen early for you. Hey, it might even turn out to be great quality and sell for big bucks.

But grape growing issues aside, much of the final quality will depend on how it’s made in the winery. At the top estates in the world you’ll typically see it treated to a lengthy maceration of 2-4 weeks, with the goal of extracting plenty of flavor and tannic structure. It takes well to oak, particularly French, and can be matured for 2 years in barrel before bottling. Although it has a reputation for being soft and smooth, high quality Merlot can require at least 5 years in bottle before it comes around to showing its potential quality.

On the other hand, if you are making Merlot for the cheaper end of the market, then you’d typically go for a much shorter maceration, perhaps just one week or so, to limit the tannin extraction. And instead of those French oak barrels that can run you $1,200 a pop, many wineries opt for wood chips, which cost a fraction of the price but don’t give quite the same result. Obviously the marketing department is not inclined to tell you their wine is matured using their finest oak chips. Once it gets into bottle you can open these types of wine immediately, and they are usually more pleasant to drink than a Cabernet of the same age.

You’ll often find Merlot blended with other grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, but also potentially Malbec and Petit Verdot. This can be done for both premium and inexpensive wines, and is the way a winemaker can sculpt his product to the house style, layer in complexity, or adjust it to meet market demands.

So the quality of Merlot can be all over the map. You can buy a bottle at the gas station in the U.S. for peanuts, or you can go a little crazy and load up on a new vintage of Petrus at $3,000 a bottle. But the glut of uninspiring Merlot, along with the impact of Hollywood movies that have slandered the grape has caused its popularity to wane. Despite this current fashion for other varietals, when it comes to truly fine wine, there’s never been any question that Merlot is amongst the very best grapes.

After all, the finest wines can age for over 50 years. True, they don’t have quite the same longevity as Cabernet Sauvignon, but they certainly do have better ageing potential than Pinot Noir and most others. So when it comes to stocking the cellar for the long haul you’ll certainly want to consider the finer Merlots as an option.

So what should you buy? Well, the great wines of St.Emilion and Pomerol on Bordeaux’s Right Bank are still the benchmark. Pomerol is the classic appellation because the wines typically have a higher percentage of Merlot in them, usually around 80%, with just a splash of Cabernet Franc and maybe Sauvignon. These are usually tiny estates, producing a few thousand cases of wine, and hence the prices can be stratospheric. Enter stage left Petrus, Le Pin, Vieux Chateau Certan, La Conseillante and a dozen others. One of my best ever bottles was a 25 year old Petrus. I finally understood what all the fuss was about. It left everyone almost speechless.

But the top wines of St.Emilion are spectacular too. Ausone, Angelus, Pavie, Le Dome, and so many others. These tend to be slightly less opulent than Pomerol, but are always dense and concentrated all the same. If you can wait for 10 years or so you’ll see the deep ruby color turn a shade of brick red, the nose open up to reveal a spectrum of complex nuances that can include fruitcake, licorice, black cherry, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, vanilla, mushroom and wet earth. They’re to die for.

If you are intent on drinking a French Merlot but only want to spend $20 then the south of France is your best option. Since the 1990’s there have been huge plantings of this grape in the so-called Pays D’Oc. But the wines, whilst deep and full bodied, tend to have much less complexity than in Bordeaux and are more suited to a casual BBQ.

In north eastern Italy there is a surprising amount of Merlot, but I wouldn’t be in a hurry to buy these. They tend to be light in every way – color, body and ripeness levels. Instead, buy the Super Tuscans that have a heap of Merlot in them. Masseto and Tua Rita are the benchmarks, 100% Merlot, but expensive. My personal favorite is Luce, which is a blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, and is a very fine wine for around $100.

If budget cuts have you searching for a deal on European Merlot then you probably can’t beat the prices of Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian wines. It’s surprising just how much is planted here, and the prices can be under $10 a bottle.

If I was looking for a high quality Merlot from the New World then I would be heading for the California and Washington sections of the store. Duckhorn in Napa made a mark with some gorgeously rich and plummy Merlots, and now the grape is widely planted in California. These wines tend to have less earthiness than their Bordeaux counterparts, and burst with ripe berry fruit and the warmth of higher alcohol.

In Washington State Merlot is the most widely planted grape, and it typically plays a role in many of the finest wines. These are under-rated by consumers, but not under-priced. The local demand in Seattle for the best wines results in prices being in the high $70’s+ in western Canada.

South America, especially Chile, can produce some exceptional Merlot, both in terms of value for money and absolute quality. Sena is a benchmark amongst the famous labels, but I’m also impressed with the likes of a basic Errazuriz Merlot for just $15.

New Zealand is a sleeper that has recently shown what it can do with Merlot. A few years ago the best wines from Hawke’s Bay on the north island were put up against the finest wines of Bordeaux, and guess what? The Kiwis stole the show. But I’m more inclined to drink Pinot Noir from New Zealand, just like you would be to drink Shiraz from Australia.

One of the nice things about Merlot is that some of them can be drunk without food. They don’t have the astringency of most Cabernet and so they can slip down without much “bite”. But really these go so much better with red meats, and so whether it’s a steak, roast beef, a leg of lamb or a burger you’ll enjoy them much more than flying solo.

WINE — FOOD PAIRING

Chateau Petrus , Pomerol — A nice inheritance

Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Pomerol — Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Chateau Grand Mayne, St Emilion — Steak Frites

Tua Rita, IGT Toscana — Pasta in a tomato sauce

Duckhorn, Napa — Leg of lamb

Woodward Canyon, Washington State — Stew

Errazuriz, Sena, Chile — Bison                                                         

CABERNET SAUVIGNON, The Emperor of Red Wines

If I had to pick a favorite grape, which is like picking a favorite child, then it would have to be Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the final analysis Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. I can hear the mutterings of dissent. So I’ll present my case.

The argument is that Cabernet makes more great wines than any other variety. Aside from Bordeaux and Napa, it’s easy to rattle off famous names like Coonawarra and Margaret river in Australia, some of the great Super-Tuscans, the icon wines of Chile, and you could even make a case for Washington State, pockets of Spain, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, parts of Sonoma, and, wait for it…., Lebanon. The same can’t be said for the other classic red varietals, including Pinot Noir.

Granted, many of these wines are blends of Cabernet with Merlot, and perhaps some Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, or even Shiraz and Sangiovese. But at their core, it’s Cabernet that dominates the blend.

If price is a gauge of quality, then Cabernet Sauvignon holds the world record for the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. When the hammer came down at the Napa Valley Auction, the cult Cabernet from Screaming Eagle went for a whopping $500,000 for a single large format bottle. People will pay more for Cabernet than any other varietal, the rare Burgundy aside.

Still not convinced? The Grands Crus of the Medoc and Pessac in Bordeaux are the most classic wines in the world and dominate the fine wine market. Wine enthusiast’s line just to get their hands on a few bottles of Chateaux Latour, Mouton, Haut Brion, Margaux and many many others. You can’t say the same for any other variety, not even Burgundy to the same degree.

In terms of ageability, the prize goes to Cabernet. Wine critics devote pages of poetic prose to describing the nuances of old vintages like 1961, 1945 and 1929, or perhaps the 1900. There are not too many Pinots, Syrahs or Merlots that can age for 100 years.  

So what is it about this grape that makes such outstanding quality wines? In their youth they are intensely colored, with a very deep ruby that can have shades of blue, black and purple. The nose typically shows intense aromas of fresh blackcurrant, cedar, chocolate, coffee and sometimes mint. The palate is always dry, rich and full bodied, with structured tannins providing backbone. The greatest wines show superb length, with an after-taste lingering for hours. The whole experience can be breathtaking

But it’s with age that Cabernet really shows its breed. The bouquet develops and become more nuanced, with notes of forest floor, wet earth, and sometimes a beautiful spice. On the palate the tannins soften, becoming smoother and more velvety, yet the wines can remain powerful and concentrated for decades.

It’s a cliché, but quality does start in the vineyard. Whilst Cabernet is fairly mobile, being planted in dozens of countries and regions, it prefers warmer climates. If I owned a vineyard in England, northern France or Germany then Cabernet wouldn’t be on the list of possibilities. My Cabernet vines would opt for Napa Valley, where they could bask in the sunshine. The cool nights are important too, helping to retain acidity and freshness.  

Cabernet can be planted on a variety of soil types, but for top quality wines the key is to find sites that have low fertility. The Medoc has a high proportion of gravel. Coonawarra is famous for their red clay soils, known as terra rossa. Poor soils can lead to great wines.

The berry size is small, and the skins are relatively thick. This contributes depth of color and the tannic backbone. When cropped at low levels, such as two tons per acre, there can be immense concentration of flavor. Some of the hillside vineyards in Napa, like Howell Mountain, have such poor soils that the yields are a fraction of the sites on the valley floor.  

The grape also ripens late, usually a few weeks after Merlot, which can be a challenge in areas prone to rain during the harvest. But when the weather stays warm and sunny, this extra ripening time allows for additional flavor development.

In the winery, the great wines usually see extended maceration. The grape juice is pumped over the skins for 3 weeks or more, extracting all the goodies from the berries. One of the great arts of making Cabernet, and all red wines for that matter, is knowing when to stop the maceration because excessive extraction can potentially lead to harsh tannins.

And then come the French oak barrels, although wineries like Silver Oak in Napa have proven that American oak can produce top notch wines too. In Bordeaux the barrel ageing time is usually between 18 to 20 months, although it can go longer. This is a winemaker’s personal preference, and Heitz Cellars in Napa shows that spectacular wines can result from 36 months aging. Some wineries go for 100% new French oak, and others prefer far less. There’s no right or wrong here. It’s just a stylistic preference.

So what should you buy when searching for these classic Cabernets?

The so-called Left Bank of the Gironde in Bordeaux is the benchmark for collectors. In great vintages like 2000, 2005, 2009 and 2010 it’s hard to go wrong. Obviously the 1st Growths are spectacular but expect to pay over one thousand dollars per bottle. But you can buy wines that are much less expensive and arguably just as good quality. My favorites are Ducru Beaucaillou in St Julien, Pichon Lalande in Pauillac, and Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac.

Napa Valley has stolen my heart. It’s not just the wines, but it’s also the wonderful hospitality and beautiful weather from May until September. It’s so difficult to pick out favorites without listing 50 wineries, but Heitz Cellars, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Shafer and Chateau Montelena are on my short list. And if you go to Napa, make sure you visit Spring Mountain Vineyard. It’s like a journey into the Garden of Eden.

Wine critics love to compare Bordeaux and Napa, but frankly they are quite different in style. Napa is more about richness, ripeness, power and concentration, with softer, plushier tannins, and fresher fruit aromas. By contrast, Bordeaux is typically drier, more tannic, not quite as full bodied, and has a more earthy character.

In Coonawarra in South Australia, it’s the fun-loving Ian Hollick whose wines stand out as my own favorites. Coonawarra makes some of the finest Cabernet in the New World. The wines can have very perfumed cassis aromas and minty flavors. They are typically much less expensive than both Bordeaux and Napa, and so they score additional points for their value for money.        

In Chile, it’s the classic Cabernet from Don Melchor, owned by Concha y Toro, which never fails to impress. If you think that only great Bordeaux can age for 10-20 years then think again. This wine proves that Chilean wines can have style, grace, and individuality. You just have to get over the fact that Chile is mainly in the cheap and cheerful category.  

In Tuscany, Sassicaia is one of the benchmark Super-Tuscans. Sassicaia was the winery that started the whole super-Tuscan movement, along with Tignanello, when they made a wine that did not conform to Tuscan wine regulations because it was based on Cabernet Sauvignon. The Italian authorities refused to give it the more prestigious DOCG designation, and relegated it to Vino da Tavola status, making it the world’s most expensive “table wine”.

And then there’s Torres in Spain, whose Mas La Plana can give anyone’s Cabernet a run for their money. Bob Betz in Washington State makes Cabernets that will blow your socks off, and merit the very high ratings his winery consistently receives.

The list could go on. But you’ve probably got enough recommendations to keep you from becoming dehydrated anytime soon. You could call Cabernet the King of wines, and the wine of Kings. But there are others who make this claim, namely the superb sweet wines of Tokaji in Hungary. So perhaps Cabernet is more like “The Emperor” of wines, because at the very pinnacle of quality there’s nothing else like fine Cabernet.

WINE — FOOD SUGGESTION

Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou, Bordeaux — Leg of Lamb

Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Bordeaux — Filet Mignon with frites

Heitz Cellars, Martha’s Vineyard, Napa Valley — Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding

Hollick, Coonawarra, Australia — Aged Cheddar Cheese