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Champagne Reveals a Cellar Master’s Creativity

032315aThere are 349 champagne houses in the Champagne region of France. With their portfolio of champagnes there are more than a thousand champagnes for consumers. Then there are many more champagnes crafted by growers who make their own champagnes, and co-operatives. With so many champagnes to choose from, one may think that many of them taste alike. Not so! I learned in the French Wine Society’s Champagne Master Level course that cellar masters have to be very creative.

Making wine now for eight years, I know that there are decisions to make that will make my wine different than another winemaker’s wine using the same grapes from the same vineyard plot. For example, if we use two different yeasts for fermentation, the wines will be different. Cellar masters in Champagne have even more variables to play with. With 349 champagne houses, the possibilities of making different champagnes seem endless.

The obvious difference is the terroir. Different areas in Champagne have vineyards that will show differences in the same grape varieties. When the grapes reach the winery and are pressed, the first fermentation is started. Most champagne winemakers use cultured yeasts and a few use natural yeasts. The type of yeast used can make a difference. There are hundreds of cultured yeasts available for making wine. There are also other winemaking variables. For example, are the still wines reductive, oxidative or somewhere in between? Some wines spend time in oak, others do not. If in oak, other variables enter the equation including the type of oak, the age of the barrel or cask, how long the wine ages in oak and the size of the barrel or cask.

032315bThen there is the blending of the grapes. Does a house make a single varietal champagne or blend the three most common champagne grapes Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay? Or does the cellar master make a combination of two varietal grapes? Some champagne houses source grapes from many vineyards and make still wines by variety and vineyard location. The cellar master at Louis Roederer has 450 wines to blend into the Brut Premier.

The majority of champagnes are non-vintage. The wine made in a particular year is blended with wines made from previous years. The age of the reserve wines that go into a non-vintage blend is also a factor. Moët & Chandon base wines are around one to two years old. Charles Heidsieck base wines used for blending non-vintage champagnes are five to twenty years old. Add another variable, how much reserve wine goes into the blend? Piper-Heidsleck may use 10 to 15 percent, while Bollinger may use 50 to 60 percent.

Once the wine is blended, there are additional variables that come into play during secondary fermentation. Once again yeast becomes a variable. How long the wine, that is now in bottles, remains on lees is another variable. G. H. Mumm has their Brut NV aging on the lees for about 24 months. Gosset is closer to 48 months. After disgorgement more variables come into play with the dosage. For their Brut NV champagne, Piper-Heidsieck adds a little over 10 grams/litre of sugar, whereas Jacquesson only adds a little over 2 grams/litre.

With so many variables to take into account, even with hundreds of winemakers and cellar masters, the champagnes are going to be different. Some people may group together similar styles of champagne from different houses. So if a consumer really likes one, chances are the consumer will also like others crafted in a similar style. But the two will probably be different. I have always thought that wine begins in the vineyard. The winemaker is an artist who creates a wine from the grapes. There are hundreds of decisions to make that will impact the final product. In Champagne, the winemaking team deals with many more variables than still winemakers. Their creativity is revealed when the enclosure is removed and this beautiful wine fills the glass.

I will have a chance to travel to Champagne next month for the International Wine Tourism Conference in Reims. Looking forward to to the grand tasting of 30 champagnes from ten producers.


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