Champagne has become such a universally known drink that it’s understandable, in a way, that many people think that all champagne is pretty much the same. Moët & Chandon, or Taittinger, or Piper Heidsieck are much of a muchness they would say.
However, if you’re a regular champagne drinker, or if you take the time to really pay attention to what you’re drinking, you’ll realise nothing could be further from the truth and that applies just as much to the small grower champagnes as to the big brands. In fact champagne is one of the most complex and diverse wines in the world and in this short article and the video below you’ll discover a little about why that is so.
You see, champagne is almost always a blend of many different wines, made from different grape varieties, grown in different villages and picked in different years. When you start to think about the number of possible permutations the mind starts to boggle, so in this article let’s just focus on the different villages or crus as they are sometimes referred to.
Even though Champagne is divided into several large sub-areas that are generally considered as having the same sort of characteristics: La Montagne de Reims, La Côte des Blancs, La Vallée de La Marne and La Côte des Bars, within each area you still get significant differences.
Why is that? Well, there are some 320 villages where grapes are cultivated and you can imagine that no two villages have exactly the same characteristics: the soil varies; the micro-climate is unique to each location. In one village the slopes face south towards the sun, and give ripe grapes with a high sugar content, whilst another village may face north which means the grapes will take longer to ripen and the juice will be a little more tart, or fresh as they say.
La Côte des Blancs provides a good example. This is a ridge of hillside that stretches south from Epernay for about 30 or so kilometres. Most of the vineyards face south-east, but there are folds and dips in the land so it’s impossible for all the slopes to face exactly in the same direction. Some vineyards are at the top of the slope and some at the bottom where the air may be a degree or two cooler. In some villages the chalk subsoil is really close to the surface to give a pronounced mineral quality to the wines, whereas in others the chalk lies deeper under a thicker covering of top-soil. All these things have an influence on the wines made in each village.
This diversity of grapes and the base wines made from them (base wines are still wines made in the first part of the champagne-making process and before there are any bubbles) means that the winemaker really has to know what he or she is doing when the time comes to blend the wines together to produce the final, distinctive style and taste they are looking for.
If you are one of my Facebook contacts you’ll remember that just before Christmas I said that I had been down to La Côte des Blancs to visit Charles Gimonnet at Champagne Gimonnet-Gonet and to taste some of their base wines. I promised that I would soon post the video of the visit and I’m happy to say that you can now view it below this post.
Charles takes us through a tasting of base wines from 4 of the most famous villages in La Côte des Blancs: Oiry, Oger, Cramant and Le Mesnil sur Oger, and describes the characteristics of each one. It’s a real insight into the art of blending.
There’ll be more chances soon to take a look at the different crus in some of the other parts of Champagne, so do come back soon. Meanwhile…