The wine of celebration, the universal pop-and-sigh of triumph, the glimmer of luxury: Champagne (the king of wines) stands alone as a global symbol of joy and prestige. While other sparkling wines pop and fizz, only Champagne is synonymous with Nobility. The unlikely drink of the Parisian café scene exploded into fame and fortune. I’m Maisie, your favorite wine buyer here at Benchmark Wine Group, and I’m honored to be your guide to Champagne.
Grapes for high-quality sparkling wine endure a similar struggle. Climate, suitable grape varieties, grape growing, harvest techniques, and a complex production method perfected over many generations combine to make sparkling wine a marvel of ingenuity. Champagne’s path from tart, almost ripe grapes destined for mediocre table wine to status symbol and collectible art piece offers traces a marvelous story. Each bottle represents the culmination of generations of wine growing with international trade and global politics. Add to all this the technical ingenuity, scientific advancement, and a region’s passion for sky-high quality standards, and you arrive at the drink of kings in your glass. Long may you reign.
Champagne vineyards make the historical record in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Romans find the landscape from which they mined chalk and built trade routes and cities well suited to the vine. We recognize the Pinot Noir grapes grown here for time immemorial, but the pale pink wine is novel.
Alas, the demise of Rome gives way to the attacking armies of the Vandals, Teutons, Franks, and Huns (in that order). Clovis, King of the Franks, enters the fray and eventually unites Gaul (now modern France). Local legend has it that the Bishop Remi of Reims, keen to convert Clovis to Christianity, strikes the deal. If the Christian god grants Clovis his victory, Clovis will convert. Clovis agrees and Reims Bishop blesses a cask of local wine (at the time, a red wine), and the victorious Clovis enters the annals of history as the first French King.
The city Reims maintains its importance through the centuries and 27 kings are crowned at the Cathedral of Reims. The saying “Champagne is the wine of kings and the king of wines” begins here. Passing years see the local wine as a symbol of success, wealth, celebration, and glamour. But the local pinkish-red, still wine of the time has a long way to go before Champagne truly comes into its own.
Reims’ station as a socio-political icon draws armies to it during every conflict. The Frankish-German War, Hundred Years War, Napoleon’s bevy of battles, and two World Wars. During the Great World Wars (both of them), fighting is so heavy in Champagne that vignerons still find ammunition casings while working their vineyards.
Here, among the chaos and the vineyards, in the early 9th century, the wines of Champagne establish more of their modern reputation riding a wave of textiles and trade routes. Expansive fairs lasting several weeks define the region as a central hub for trade in spices, fabrics, leather, and wool. Amid the textiles, the occasional curious but delightful bottle of errant sparkling wine creates a stir.
Until the 1600s how wines gained effervescence (or didn’t) remains a mystery. The development of stronger glass and airtight cork seals coincide with Medieval times and lead to textile merchants mingling their sales with bonus cases of local wine. This happy pairing causes an uptick in repeat sales (who doesn’t want free goods?) and develops Champagne’s regional wine reputation from that of light, easy-drinking pinkish-red wines to sparkling wines.
Textile merchants read the future and branch into wine production, leading to the proliferation of Champagne houses – many of which we recognize today:
Chanoine Frères (1730)
Moët & Chandon (1743)
Henri Abelé (1757)
Besserat de Bellfon (1760)
Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin (1772)
Louis Roederer (1776)
Heidsieck & Co Monopole (1785)
Piper- Heidsieck (1785)
Jacquesson & Fils (1798)
The King’s legalizes the shipping of wine in bottles in 1728 and kick-starts an oenological revolution. Vins de Champagne emerge on the global wine stage and steal the show. The 17th into 18th centuries see visionary scientific discovery. Vignerons learn how to control the process of sparkling wine and wrestle it to peak perfection.
The fight for ownership of the words Champenois and Champagne begins in 1887 and sadly coincides with the advent of phylloxera. The glamour of Champagne is not to be stopped by mere pestilence – they replant, redefine, and re-emerge as the life of every party.
As the Roaring Twenties dust off dancing shoes around the globe, sparkling wine pours merrily as the drink of choice. The wealth of the belle époque ushers Champagne into a truly golden age. The ensuing success cements Champagne into the international powerhouse we know today. Bottles range in price from the celebratory Tuesday to once-in-a-lifetime toasts. And the drink of kings boasts strong followings from every walk of life – Clovis’ pride is the globe united around the pop-and-sigh of Champagne.
A note for you oenological history buffs wondering why I left Dom Perignon out of this overview: well spotted. The famed monk enjoys full credit for making white wine from black grapes, blanc de noirs, and reintroducing the cork stopper. He also wrote of the fizziness of the local wines a fault…and endeavored tirelessly to find a way to stop the occurrence. So I honor Dom Perignon’s annoyance and ultimate defeat by leaving him out of the history and holding the wines bearing his name in extremely high regard.
Champagne France perches just about as far north as vines can cooperate. The large region sits just south of the 50th parallel, boasting a chilly, continental climate. With a mere 298 feet of altitude, the gently rolling vistas showcase the perfect marriage of humble agriculture to royal reputation. Average annual temperatures of 51.8°F (11°C) can’t ripen grapes for still wines reliably, and the light, acidic wines delivered are PERFECTION for the base wine destined for sparkling wine production.
But it’s the soft, chalk soils just under the vines that set Champagne apart. Easily carved and dug out to create cellars, this chalk landscape retains high levels of water, which warms the soils and creates an incredibly effective humidifier for the vines.
The gentle undulations of the landscape, as it angles towards the sun, define a myriad of microclimates. Each geographic marker plays a powerful role in the development of acidity, ripeness, and character of the region’s three primary grapes: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Meunier.
The Montagne de Reims, where kings were crowned, along with Verzenay, Verzy, and Aÿ, collectively offer a sort of “mountain” wine style with heady bouquets and gloriously firm acidity. The low slopes of Bouzy, famed for its double-entendre in English, produces the last vestiges of still, red Champagne – essential for the production of rosé Champagne. (For the light, tart, still red wines of the kinds of old – seek out Coteaux Champenois.) Vallée de la Marne offers a cascade of sun-catching, south-facing slopes which produce full, ripe, round wines with glorious aromatics. Arriving at Epernay we find Cramant, Avize, and Le Mesnil. The villages famed for their finesse with Chardonnay deliver freshness and vibrancy.
Each plot of vines and every turn of the landscape offers the chance for greatness and grandeur. But at its heart, Champagne is a blended product and the truly great houses and producers seek a style that embodies their relationship to the region. The concentration of Krug and Bollinger stands alongside Dom Perignon’s seductive creaminess. Growers like Egly-Ouriet, Jacques Selosse, and Larmandier-Bernier march proudly towards the individuation of their bottlings and styles.
A wine has to do more than sparkle to earn the title Champagne. It must come from the hallowed chalk landscape, grown and vinified per the regional laws. The language of these laws plays out in oft-heard terms like brut and grower champagne. Here’s a shortlist of the most common:
Blanc de blancs – Champagne made of only Chardonnay
Blanc de noirs – Champagne made of dark-skinned grapes, Pinot Noir and Meunier
Cuvee – a blend, sometimes an elevated style or individual style
Non-vintage (NV) – Champagne made of wines from more than one harvest or vintage
Reserve – often-used term to designate a bottling separate from the entry-level Cuvee
Vintage – wine made from a single year
Brut nature or zero dosage – bone-dry: <3g/l and no sugar additions of any sort
Extra brut – bone dry: 0-3 g/l
Brut – dry: <12 g/l
Extra – dry: 12-17 g/l
Sec – dry-ish: 17-32 g/l
Demi-sec – medium sweet: 32-50 g/l
Doux – relatively sweet: >50 g/l
NM – négociant-manipulant – Champagne maker who buys grapes
RM – récoltant-manipulant – Champagne grower who makes their own wine
CM – coopéritive de manipulation – a co-op
RC – récoltant-coopérateur: grower selling wine made by a co-op
MA – marque d’acheteur – buyer’s own brand
The recipe, perfected here and adoringly marked as Traditional Method around the world, is remarkably successful.
Grapes are hand-harvested and gently pressed in 4-ton lots to deliver a legally prescribes volume of juice permitted for wine (often quite a bit less juice, but never a drop more.) Fermentation starts with gusto and slows if the doors to the cold winter months are opened. Now, the base wines for Champagne ferment to delicate dryness – with bracing acidity and very little varietal character.
The base wines are blended to achieve exacting styles, non-vintage to special vintage cuvees, and rare releases. Rebottled and ready for the creation of the tell-tale bubbles, a second fermentation begins. The still, final base wines get a splash of yeast and sugar to kick start the second fermentation, a crown cap goes on, and the wait begins. Called prise de mousse in French, the bottles lie down for 4-8 weeks until some pressure starts to build. Here, winemakers and Champagne houses make decisions regarding leaving the wine to age on its lees (the particulate matter left from yeast cells and chemicals reactions which lends toasty, bready flavors and quite a bit of body to the finished wine).
Once the wine has slept on its side long enough, the once cumbersome process of remuage begins. You’ve likely heard of riddling, the process of rotating the bottles gradually from their horizontal position to punt-up in preparation for disgorgement. Some cuvees may still get the painstaking, time-consuming hand riddling treatment, but most are now carried out by an automated gyro-palette system which cuts the time and the carpal tunnel down immensely.
Now, punt up and with a plug of lees and particulate matter at the bottle opening, disgorgement, and dosage close out the show. The neck of the bottle is frozen (usually in a tray of freezing solution), the plug is thus secured. The bottles are set upright, the crown caps popped, the plug expelled (a bit messily and usually with some force). The bottles then receive their dosage of wine and sugar syrup to determine the final style. Corked with the proper Champagne cork and secured with a wire muzzle called a cage – we now have Champagne.
Truly a bottle for the Champagne Connoisseur, this iconoclastic beauty is bone-dry, svelte, and a spiritual experience in the glass.
A perfect producer of absolute world-class right through the entire range. It is a loving pleasure to follow David’s journey to the top.
— Richard Juhlin (*****, 5-star)
. . Léclapart’s wines also possess an uncommon complexity and vitality, and at their best, they number among the finest wines of the Montagne de Reims.
— Peter Liem, “CHAMPAGNE”
David Léclapart crafts Champagnes of personality and distinction from his tiny cellar in Trépail.
— Antonio Galloni
The epitome of classical Champagne styling and one of the founding houses of Champagne. The Louis Roederer Brut Collection 242 is precisely the sparkle you need. Debuted to rave reviews, this numbered collection represents a balanced delivery of Roederers’ robust perpetual reserve of wines. More complex, fresher, remarkably expressive – this wine represents another powerful player from legacy producer Louis Roederer.
JS94 – “Aromas of cooked apple, bread dough and lemon tart follow through to a full body with round, delicious fruit and a rich, flavorful finish. Yet, it remains tight and fine with lovely, compressed bubbles. New energy and freshness. Medium-to full-bodied with layers of fruit and vivid intensity.”
D93 – “Softly shimmering straw gold, green tints, with a delicate filigree dancing at will around the glass. The nose is gently authoritative; spring flowers garlanding stone fruit, a hint of hawthorn maybe, then lemongrass. The palate has encyclopaedic depth, the intricacies of the Perpetual Reserve weaving their early magic; almond, sloe, gingerbread and apples; the finish has a pleasing twist of bitterness, courtesy of the small percentage of oak-aged reserve wine.”
WA93 – “This debut release is very impressive indeed, wafting from the glass with notes of pear, peach, ripe citrus fruit, toasted almonds, fresh pastry and white flowers. Medium to full-bodied, pillowy and textural, it’s concentrated and layered, with lively acids, an enlivening pinpoint mousse and a long, sapid finish. Brut Premier was already a very persuasive wine, but the new Brut Collection nevertheless represents a step up.”
V92 – “Whereas Brut Premier was typically a focused, nervy wine that, while consistently excellent, also was not always in line with the Roederer house style, the 242 tastes more like a Roederer Champagne in terms of its complexity. Incidentally, there is no Vintage, Cristal or Cristal Rosé in 2017, so all the best lots went into this bottling. Dosage is 8 grams per liter. Lower than the 9 or so that was typical for recent Brut Premier and much lower than the 12-13 that was once customary. The 242 was also bottled with a bit less sugar than the norm. Which results in lower atmospheres of pressure in the bottle and silkier texture.”
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