With all the stories in the press about Prosecco from Italy and our own home-grown English sparkling wines, of which I am a huge fan, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the original celebratory wine - champagne.
I say ‘celebratory’, whereas in fact champagne and other sparkling wines are now consumed at any time rather than just being reserved for celebrations.
In the words of Madame Bollinger: “I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory”. The quote continues, but the message is that there is no occasion when champagne is not appropriate.
But it is worth remembering that ‘champagne’ is not just a generic product, but comes in a tremendous variety of different styles, producing a wide range of aromas and flavours, each with their own personality and appeal. I was reminded of this again recently when I was judging champagnes for this year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition. The wines are all tasted ‘blind’, that is only knowing that they are from champagne and what are the grape varieties. There are three main grape varieties for making champagne, which are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The latter two of these are black grape varieties, but it is only the skins that have colour, the juice being white. Thus the majority of white champagnes are actually made with black grapes as well as the white Chardonnay.
The wines arrive to be judged in what are called ‘flights’, where similar wines are grouped together for judging. A particularly interesting flight consisted of no less than 14 different champagnes which were Blanc de Noirs. These are white champagnes, but made only from black grapes (no Chardonnay) and these were made mainly from Pinot Noir. This style of champagne generally has more fruit character and has a particularly appealing elegant, fruit style. When well made, it is a great favourite of mine and this flight showed some outstanding examples. Our panel awarded many medals, including a gold outstanding (very rare), 2 silver outstandings and others, underlining the tremendous quality achieved by many producers in the champagne region.
Champagne made only from Chardonnay grapes is another contrasting style, known as Blanc de Blanc (white wine from white grapes). These tend to have more body and fuller flavour and can develop great complexity. All champagne has to be aged on the lees (the yeasty deposit in the bottle from the secondary fermentation) for a minimum of 18 months, but longer ageing tends to give far greater quality, depth and flavour. The winemaker thus has a massive array of methods and techniques at his disposal to produce different styles - different blends of grape varieties, different soils, different ageing, use of oak or not for ageing the base wines, and many other elements.
As Madame Bollinger observed, champagne can be consumed on any occasion, but it is also a wonderful food wine. With so many different styles to choose from, a match can be found for almost any dish. Again, for me, Blanc de Noirs comes up trumps for food matching, and delicious examples can be found for around £25 per bottle or less, the best being made purely from Pinot Noir, such as that from champagne Barfontarc in the Cotes de Bar. Naturally there are more expensive bottles available and to really push the boat out, try a bottle of Bollinger’s Vielles Vignes Francaises at £530 a go. arundel wine society sussex wind academy wine wyse