What makes champagne taste champagne-y?
There are two main things which I think makes champagne taste champagne-y. (You can head over to YouTube (see links below) if you like to watch more than you like to read).
Time ‘on lees’
It’s a requirement for non-vintage champagne to be cellared on lees for a minimum of 15 months.
During this time on lees, flavour is imparted to the wine during a very unsexy-sounding process called autolysis (read more here).
You will find most large houses cellar their NVs for up to 3 years, more than twice as long as is mandatory, which does increase the flavour factor significantly. Smaller houses and growers struggle a bit with longer time on lees because they are smaller, have less storage capacity and – because they produce less wine each year – they have to operate on different business model were turnover matters more.
Region of origin which (more or less) = terroir and climate
And there are 5 different districts in the champagne region, which all have different soil and climate characteristics.
- The Montagne de Reims (montagne is french for mountains) is directly north of Epernay and produces mostly pinots (red grapes), predominantly pinot noir (38% of plantings) but also some meunier.
- The Vallée de la Marne is found to the south of Epernay and is renowned for its abundance of meunier grapes.
- The Côte des Blancs, south of Epernay, is chardonnay country.
- Côte de Sézanne produces chardonnay grapes and is an extension of the Côte des Blancs…. the marshes of Saint Gond divide the two districts. The sub-soil has some pockets of chalk but contains a lot of clay and silt which imparts an influence on the wines.
- The Aube / Côte des Bar was new to the Appellation at the start of the 20th century and accounts for nearly a quarter of the Champagne region. It is a Pinot Noir region mostly used to blend in non-vintage champagnes. The Aube doesn’t contain any grand cru villages but is the only district in France to make wines under three different appellations – Champagne and two still wines, Rosé des Riceys and Coteaux Champenois.
As you can imagine, across the 25,606 km² region, the soil and climate vary. The amount of limestone in the soil and the amount of rain and sunshine in each area affects the flavour the soil imparts to the grapes.
So ‘where did it come from?’ is the first thing I consider for the champagney-ness of a champagne.
And it’s not just me who thinks that way…
In fact, there is an entire commercial eco-system in Champagne that it is built on it!
Across the 5 regions there are 318 villages which are actually rated from 100% – 80% under an historic system called the Échelle des Crus (which literally means ‘ladder of growth’).
The system originated from times when growers and houses needed a way to fairly set the grape price per kilo the houses would pay growers for their grapes. While many houses own their own vineyards, they also still buy grapes from growers to meet demand. There are 17 Grand Cru villages which are rated at 100% and would be paid 100% of the price per kilo of grapes set by the Committee for that harvest. All the grand cru villages are in the three most highly regarded districts – nine in the Montagne de Reims, six in the Côte des Blancs and two in the Vallée de la Marne.
Then 44 Premier Cru are rated 90-99% (and paid at that rate) with the remaining 257 villages in Champagne are rated between 80 and 89%.
The system is controversial with many experts arguing there is more to a high quality champagne than the village the grapes are from AND you can get wide variety of soil and grape quality even within a Grand Cru village but the system still stands. And I to find that from Grand and Premier cru villages do usually taste more ‘champagne-y’.
Santé happy champers!
Bubble & Flute promotes the responsible consumption of alcohol for individuals of legal drinking age in their country.
PS – I say pretty much the same thing in my YouTube video AND you get the bonus of hearing my standout champs for under $50!