This is part 2 to ‘Champagne’s Dirty Little Secret’ where we questioned the higher prices of Champagne sparkling wine and discussed marketing practices. If you would like to read that first, click here
Is it worth it for us to spend the extra money on a bottle of Champagne?
Champagne does indeed have a unique terroir – the soil, the climate, and the complete natural environment – is unlike anywhere else.
The marginal climate is wrought with frosts and fungal diseases and the grapes just barely ripen during long, cool seasons that create this region’s calling card . The high diurnal temperature fluctuations between daytime and nighttime help to maintain the steely, mouthwatering acidity that Champagne lovers crave and which allow the wines to age for decades in a cellar. Veritably, grapes intended for bubbled Champagne would not taste good if made into a still wine. They are too austere; too lacking in flavour; too acidic for any other kind of wine. Therefore, as high yields cause dilute, uninteresting wines in other regions, here it works beautifully. The purpose for great bubbles is to avoid concentrated flavours. Therefore, as the CIVC (Comité de Champagne) sets the yields each year to ensure that there is never an overproduction of wine – as opposed to them setting a limit to maintain quality – fits in Chamgapgne as the bar for quality remains high. As Tom Stevenson points out, it is ‘ripe acidity’ that is the perfect result of Champagne’s climate.
But critics are correct to point out that the question of ‘terroir’ for Champagne can be easily debunked. Most Champagne’s are blended; from different villages, across from the five major districts, from various grape varieties and often from different vintages. In fact, Krug has over 200 separate wines that it draws upon to produce its non-vintage brut. The purpose here is to produce the same consistent house style from year to year, devoid of vintage variation, and it seems to follow that it is therefore, devoid of terroir. Furthermore, the style of each Champagne is just as dependent on what the winemaker does to the base wine, blurring the footprint of terroir further. As my friend argued, Champagne is defined mostly by winemaking techniques.
And yet, there is just something about Champagne…!
No where else can you achieve such racy acidity (if this is what you like, and I do!).
Realizing the expense and effort that goes into each bottle is worth mentioning. The wines are held back for a long time before being sold. Even the non-vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of 15 months before they are disgorged and rebottled. Have you seen the way that the bottles need to be spun a quarter turn every day until they are upside down (sur pointe)? Pol Roger has 5 people who do this every day by hand during the ageing process. Others must buy a gyropalette, a massive machine that mimicks this process.
Here is a selection of some of my favourite Champers…
Delamotte Brut Champagne $62.99
Gloriously creamy and crisp and lasts forever in your mouth. The style is elegant; the brioche, and macademia nuts are enveloped in lemon juice and white flowers and finishes crisp and long. In fact, if you ever see any Delamotte on the shelves, it’s worth picking it up. Their vintage Champagnes are only made in the lesser years. Why? Because in the good vintages, it’s bottled as Salon, one of the most sought after Champagnes for sommeliers.
Pol Roger Cuvee de Réserve Brut Champagne NV, $65.99
This is more widely available than the Delamotte but offers that same crisp lemon juice finish. One of the amazing feats of Pol Roger is they still riddle their bottles by hand to move the lees to the top of the bottle. Pol Roger is another elegant Champange with a crisp finish as the one above.
If you prefer richer, more toasty Champagne’s, buy Louis Roederer Brut Premier featured on the right. $67 in BC Liquor Stores
Larmandier-Bernier Latitude Extra Brut
This is a grower’s Champange (not owned by a large negociant house who buys grapes from other producers) and a husband and wife team who farm their vineyards biodynamically (organic and then some). Taking a large step away from commercially produced Champagne, this couple keeps yields down to a measly 50hl/ha which is less than half of what the maximum yield is in Champagne. This is also a 100% Chardonnay. It is leaner and has less bubbles than the previous two Champagnes (because there is a lower dosage (Extra Brut) it. For those people whose stomachs can’t take all of the persistent bubbles of Champagne, this could be for you (Shawna L – I’m talking to you!).
And as Champagne is not in everyone’s budget. Here are some amazing bubbles at more affordable prices.
For those of you fortunate enough to live in British Columbia Canada, I have an even better option for you.
Blue Mountain Sparkling wines. I can’t believe the consistent quality the Mavety’s produce. Their family owned vineyards in Okanagan Falls have a large temperature range (diurnal) between daytime and nighttime leading to this incredible mouthwatering acidity throughout all of their wines. Most of their sparklers sell out each year and top restaurants and wine shops who have formed long term relationships with the Blue Mountain vineyards get an ‘allocation’ each month or year.
Thank goodness they released the Gold Label Brut last year (pictured on the right), the only non-vintage wine in the lineup with higher production levels so you are more likely to find this wine in private liquor stores in the province (think Liberty Wines and Marquis in Vancouver or Blackcomb Cold Beer and Wine in Whistler). Excellent crisp sparkler without the intense toastiness of other wines (yet still aged for 24 months before release) and for $30 it is an amazing find.
For those who prefer ‘vintage’ wines that have longer ageing and more of that toasty, brioche complexity search out their other bubbles. They carry a Vintage Blanc de Blancs (crisp, lemon curd, creme brulée and toast made with Chardonnay and the 2009 was their last release) and ONLY $40 – can you believe it?! The Vintage Brut Reserve (currently the 2009) is actually still available to buy online so snatch it up!
Brut Rosé RD 2013
My favourite! The Rosé is aged on on lees (dead yeasts) for 36 months (not as long as the Blanc de Blanc and Brut Reserve). So a little less brioche and toast and slightly more fruity. If you find this, buy it!! If you can’t find it, the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler sells this by the glass year round. Or go and sabre a bottle in their wine cellar.
Is it worth it to spend the extra money on Champagne? If you have it to spend. Otherwise, seek out other wines that are every bit as delicious and easier on the pocket book too.