Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ten Things You Should Know About Champagne

Since my return from the Champagne region of France, I have had some time to reflect upon my experiences, to consider the Champagne industry. The press trip was sponsored by Le Comité Interprofessionnel Du Vin De Champagne (CIVC), an organization which brings together all of the Houses, Growers and Cooperatives of Champagne. Thus, the sponsors have no financial incentive to promote any specific producers over any others. Instead, they appeared to present us an overview of the region, from large Houses to small Growers. I believe this provided a more balanced view of the region, its issues, differing philosophies and more. In addition, I have done some additional independent research and reading into Champagne.

My time in the Champagne region was compelling and intriguing, enjoyable and exciting, as well as tasty and delicious. My understanding of this wine region and its sparkling beverage has also been expanded and enhanced. I have already written several Champagne related posts and you can look for even more in the near future. At this time, I want to present a list of Ten Things You Should Know About Champagne, to give you a foundation of some important matters to better understand this region and its wine. Though many people feel they have a basic understanding of Champagne, there are definitely nuances that they may fail to grasp.

But before getting into my list, let me start with some figures and statistics, so we better understand Champagne's place in the U.S. In 2010, the Champagne region produced about 319.6 million bottles, with France itself purchasing about 58% of that production. The largest export market is the United Kingdom, which purchased 35.5 million bottles, and the U.S. is in second place, having purchased 17 million bottles. In comparison, in 2008 (latest year I found data), Americans consumed 98.7 million bottles of domestic sparkling wine, nearly six times as much as they did Champagne. In addition, Americans consumed over 28 million bottles of sparkling wine from other foreign countries besides Champagne.

So, Americans are actually drinking only a small percentage of Champagne, much preferring domestic sparkling wines as well as sparkling wines from other countries besides France. So, in some respects, Champagne is an underdog in the U.S. market. There are probably a number of reasons for this and possibly more education would be beneficial. For instance, there are some people in the U.S. who believe they are drinking Champagne when they are not, simply because the label states it is "Champagne." I hope to correct some of these misconceptions.

1)  Real Champagne is only produced in France.
The term "Champagne" refers not only to a region in France but also refers to the sparkling wine produced in that region. It is a legally protected term, and there are ongoing efforts to support, enhance and enforce that protection all over the world. As I mentioned yesterday, the term Champagne also refers to more than just a place, and includes numerous regulations which are generally directed toward creating a high quality product. If you see a sparkling wine that uses the term Champagne, but it was not produced in this region of France, then it is not true Champagne. They might be legally permitted to use that term, by a loophole in the law, but that does not make it just. And there is no guarantee either that such a pretender followed any of the regulations that restrict the Champagne region and which help to enhance the quality of their product.

2)  Champagne is highly regulated.
In order to better enhance the quality of Champagne, numerous rules and regulations have been put into place. Though many of those regulations are constant, changes to these rules do sometimes occur. For example, the amount of permitted yields sometimes varies.  The regulations are fairly comprehensive, covering matters including which grapes can be planted, if new plantings can be made, planting density, pruning, pressing, aging, alcohol limits, harvest dates, and much more. In the U.S., you won't find most of these regulations, or similar rules, in the production of sparkling wine. In fact, you will find very rules at all.  The heavy regulations help to differentiate real Champagne from the pretenders.

3)  Champagne has a fascinating history.
The history of the Champagne region extends back a couple thousand years, to at least the time of the ancient Gauls. It is a fascinating history, including some of the most important individuals in European history, from Attila the Hun to Jeanne of Arc.  For a more detailed view of the early history of Champagne, up to the time of Dom Perignon, check out my three-part series. The regions's more recent history is equally as compelling and you can find several excellent books out there, such as The Widow Clicquot. The history of the Champagne region, which has seen numerous destructive wars and calamities, presents the resilience of the region, its ability to rebound from any disaster, similar to that of the Sherry region. Knowing this history can give you a deeper appreciation for Champagne, and how it became what it is today.

4)  The CIVC is a unique organization, helping to unify Champagne.
Le Comité Interprofessionnel Du Vin De Champagne (CIVC) was established in 1941, an effort to unify the Champagne industry against the Nazi occupation. The Germans appointed Otto Klaebisch to be their Champagne Führer, and it was his duty to provide Germany with all of the Champagne they desired. He primarily dealt with Count Robert-Jean de Vogüé, the head of Moët et Chandon, who realized that Champagne would have great difficulty supplying the Nazis' demands.  Thus, in April 1941, Vogüé brought together the Houses and Growers to provide a unified front, forming the CIVC.  The CIVC has continued to operate into the present, and is an unique organization for any wine region, bringing together both growers and producers. It has accomplished much for the Champagne region, without any government subsidies, from technical research and development to the protection of the Champagne name. Without the CIVC, the Champagne region might possibly be very different, and more likely in a negative way.

5)  The major Houses control much of Champagne.
The Champagne region is basically divided into Houses, Cooperatives and Growers, each with their own regulations and rules. Approximately 90% of the vineyards, broken down into about 280,000 plots, are farmed by about 15,000 independent growers, and most of them do not produce Champagne, simply selling their grapes. At least 2/3 of those grapes are then purchased by a handful of large Champagne Houses, who often own little, if any, of their own vineyards. Houses are known as a Negociant-Manipulants (NM), and that designation will be displayed on the Champagne label.  In terms of production, probably the largest House is Moet & Chandon which produces about 26 million bottles each year. What makes it even more significant for the U.S., is that the large Houses account for approximately 90% of all Champagne exports. Thus, most of the Champagne we will find available in local wine stores will have been produced by large Houses.

6)  Grower's Champagne is a potential revolution.
Growers, also known as Recoitant-Manipulants (RM), must harvest their own grapes and are only allowed, in limited circumstances, to purchase up to 5% of their grapes. In 2010, the Houses produced about 69% of all Champagne but Growers produced about 23%, with Cooperatives producing the rest. During the last ten years, these percentages have changed little, maybe by 1-3%. The problem is that most of the Grower's Champagne remains in France. In the U.S., only about 3.7% of the Champagne we import is from Growers. Italy imports the most Grower's Champagne, about 9%, of any market outside of France. Grower's Champagne is often seen as more terroir driven, and less often consistent from year to year, each year instead offering its own unique taste. It may also be seen as more artisan Champagne. Terry Thiese, the famed wine importer, has done much to raise awareness of Grower's Champagne in the U.S., and it stands poised to be the next big revolution of Champagne.

7)  Champagne is a single AOC.
Basically, the Champagne region is a single Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC), a controlled designation of origin. Technically though, there are two other AOCs in Champagne, including Rosé des Riceys (Pinot Noir based rosé produced in Les Riceys in the Aube) and Coteaux Champenois (still wines produced anywhere in the region). Back in 1927, the Champagne region was defined and delimited and received official AOC status in 1936. The 34,000 hectares of vineyards cover 319 villages (crus) of which 17 are designated Grand Crus and 44 as Premier Crus. Plus, within that area are five main growing regions: Montagne de Reims, Vallee de la Marne, Cote des BlancsCote des Bar and Côte de Sézanne. The fact that Champagne is a single AOC de-emphasizes the role of terroir, as it does not really differentiate between the quality of the various subregions. For comparison, the Côte d’Or in Burgundy, which covers only about 8,450 hectares, has over 110 AOCs.

8)  Champagne has seven legal grapes.
Most people know that Champagne generally is produced from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. About 50 clones of those three grapes are used within Champagne, and the region is planted with approximately 39% Pinot Noir, 33% Pinot Meunier and 28% Chardonnay.  Much of the promotional material for Champagne mentions only those three grapes but four other grapes are actually legally permitted to be used in Champagne.  These other grapes include Arbanne, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, though those grapes constitute less than 0.3% of all plantings. Aubry is one of the Growers which produces Champagne using these four rare grapes. If you get a chance to taste Champagnes using these less common grapes, I strongly urge you to do so.

9)  Blending is vital to Champagne.
The key element to most Champagne is blending, allowing for a consistent taste year to year. Non-vintage Brut constitutes about 84% of all Champagne and it is a blend. Even Vintage Champage, only about 2% of all production, is usually a blend of different grapes and vineyard sites. Non-vintage Brut might be a blend of as many as 250 different component wines, including various vintages, reserve wines, different vineyards, and more. Rather than change a long standing blend, a producer might instead decide to create a new cuvee. Blending is said to have originated with Dom Perignon, who would receive tithes of grapes from the locals, which would then be blended together to make wine. Bruno Paillard, owner of a relatively new House, stated that blending is a "composition," a way to express your style like an artist. He feels that a Champagne label refers to a person not a place, as it is the person who has control over the blend, and governs the outcome of the Champagne.  Others feel blending elevates the "process" over terroir, and thus some producers are seeking to produce single vineyard Champagnes.

10)  Champagne is becoming more eco-friendly.
Protecting the environment, becoming more sustainable and reducing their carbon footprint are all vitally important in the Champagne region. The CIVC is helping to lead this battle and Champagne was the first wine region to undergo a carbon footprint analysis. For example, 33% of carbon emissions were found to be due to packaging and only 14% from transport. So they have created a new standard bottle for non-vintage Champagne, which is 2 ounces lighter, and which helps to reduce carbon emissions. Using a baseline of the year 2000, their goal is to reduce their carbon footprint by 25% by 2020 and 75% by 2050.  In addition, they have been working on waste management. Currently 92% of their waste water is treated while 75% of their waste products are recycled, with a goal of 100% in about five years. These programs should serve as a model for other wine regions who should also be very concerned about these same issues.

1 comment:

In and Around Town said...

I read The Widow Clicquot and learned so much about the history of champagne - sounds like an amazing trip.