There’s so much more to champagne than you might imagine, but how do you learn about it all? Sometimes you just don’t know where to start.
There certainly is a lot to learn but in fact this is one of the things I find most interesting about champagne - the seemingly endless number of champagne makers and the diversity of the wines they make.
This may sound surprising to many people because the only time most of us break out the champagne is on high days and holidays to share a toast or to bring some extra sparkle to a party and on those occasions we don’t usually stop to give more than a brief passing thought, if that, to what we’re drinking. The result is that most people think that all champagnes are pretty much the same, but in reality that’s far from being the case.
For one thing there are 4 distinct areas of Champagne: La Montagne de Reims, La Vallée de La Marne, La Côte des Blancs all of which are close to the main towns of Reims and Epernay ; then there’s La Cote des Bars which is 100 kilometres south of Reims and actually nearer to Chablis than to the rest of Champagne. Each area produces wines that have their own character and if you take things a bit further there are some 20 sub-regions and so you can quickly see that things can start to get complex.
A secret way through the maze
As with any complex topic a useful thing to do is to break it down into smaller bits and a good way to do this in terms of champagne is to focus on one area at a time and learn about the wines from there before moving on to learn about another region. Fortunately there are a few ways to do this.
One is an association of champagne makers called Secraie – it’s a play on words between Secret and Craie which is French for the ‘chalk’ in the soil which has a significant influence of the wine.
There are 12 members of Secraie and they come from 12 villages in the area known as Le Sézannais.
It’s a ridge that running north east to south west that’s centered on the town on Sézanne and it’s a sort of extension of the more famous La Côte des Blancs to the north where the finest Chardonnay grapes in Champagne are said to grow. Le Sézannais too specialises in Chardonnay but here there’s just a little more sunshine than further north and Le Sézannais has a reputation for producing champagnes that are softer, rounder and easier to enjoy than those from La Côte des Blancs.
Secraie held a tasting day recently and I was amazed to find such a variety of champagnes even within the group: the colour of the wines ranged from pale lemon to rich gold; there were young champagnes and old vintage champagnes, champagnes made in oak barrels and in acacia wood barrels as well as champagnes made using stainless steels vats and each variation on these themes produces a champagne very different from the next.
The more you taste the more you understand and the more you appreciate the subtle differences. You can find out more about Secraie including the list of members on this web site.
When you’ve earned a bit about Le Sezannais you can move on to other regions and in particular to another similar association called Verzenay Grand Cru de Champagne; it’s even more focused than Secraie because all the members comes from just one village: Verzenay which we can look at in another article.
So perhaps champagne isn’t quite as bewildering as you might have though and perhaps Mark Twain got it right when he said:
“Too much of anything is bad, but too much champagne is just right.”