Around the world, Champagne is revered for its ability to create memories, inspire people to share and add magic to any occasion. Much like the distinctive pop of the cork, the characters, history and legends of this most famous of French wines, provide a sense of exhilaration, as well as an alluring heritage. Today it is no longer considered the drink of the rich nobility, with 300 million bottles consumed globally each year.
The Champagne region of France is located at the northern edges of the wine-growing world. Winters here are harsh and at a first glance would not appear to provide ideal conditions for producing a wine. Champagne is a carefully selected mix of three grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. The key to a successful blend, is to marry climate and soil for each grape variety. Master Champagne makers - Champenois - juggle with this palette, expertly combining flavours to produce Champagne’s inimitable taste. The secondary fermentation in the bottle - méthode champenoise - provides the necessary service of introducing sparkle, turning what would be a rather dull little wine into something altogether more vivacious.
The first sparkling Champagne was created accidentally; its pressure led it to be called ‘The Devil’s Wine’ (le vin du diable) as bottles exploded, or the cork jolted away. Even when deliberately produced as a sparkling wine, Champagne was, for a very long time, made by the méthode rural, where the wine was bottled before the single - and only - fermentation had finished.
The Benedictine Monk, Dom Perignon, did much to develop advances in production of the drink. It was rumoured that he devised a wire collar (muselet) to hold the cork in place - providing a hermetical seal, that could also withstand the fermentation pressure; although it is now known that Adolphe Jacquesson was in fact its inventor in 1844. Champagne did not utilise the mÃ©thode champenoise until the 19th Century and advancements in this period saw an explosive growth in production, as the rest of the world discovered the unique pleasure of this glorious elixir.
The Champagne region’s location has helped develop its uniquely French character and terroir. Close proximity to Paris promoted the regional wine trade’s economic success, but also put the villages and vineyards in the path of marching armies on their way to the French capital.
Today, while Champagne is enjoyed the world over, only the local French producers can legitimately use the name. Champagne’s viticultural boundaries are legally defined, split into five districts: the Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims and Vallée de la Marne.
Must be made from a blend of grapes from more than a single vintage, and matured for at least 15 months on its yeast lees. The oft stated aim of blending multiple vintages and parcels is to deliver a consistent house-style regardless of vintage variability. The best examples of Non-Vintage Champagne are fresh and lively, yet offer power and complexity.
Must come from a single vintage and be matured for at least three years. The most respected houses only produce Vintage Champagne in the best vintages. As with all wine, each vintage expresses itself uniquely in the wine. The finest examples of Vintage Champagne, well stored, can mature beneficially for years – even decades.
The increased appreciation of Champagne internationally has also witnessed a greater wareness of the smaller prestige producers, whose size and well-defined vineyard sites – often including an impressive proportion of 1er Cru and Grand Cru fruit – results in distinctive house-styles. Duval Leroy’s (est.1859) house-style, for example, produces Chardonnay-dominant cuvées of elegance, with an underlying power.
Perhaps the most important development in Champagne of the last century is the emergence of the Grower-Producer. Growers, who historically sold all their fruit to cooperatives or established Champagne houses, now make and market their own wines. There are estimated to be over 5,000 such producers. Most significantly, the style of Champagne typically produced is a departure from the multi-appellation cuvées for which Champagne is most famed, with each wine produced reflecting a unique terroir within Champagne rather than the broader region.
Larmandier Bernier is considered to be one of the very finest producers in Champagne, Grower-Producer or otherwise. Pierre Larmandier’s winemaking is more akin to Burgundy than Champagne, adopting biodynamic principles in the vineyard and a minimal interventionalist approach in the winery. The vineyards are old and low-yielding, located in some of the most exceptional sites in the region.
While Champagne’s reputation as the ultimate luxurious aperitif or party starter suits its ‘celebrity status’, it is often too easily discarded before serious food arrives.
A number of brighter, elegant, non-vintage styles make an excellent match for lighter dishes and seafood. While those with more character - driven toasty, rich vintage champagnes - pare well with hearty mains. There’s no need to put aside your favourite drink just before you’re seated for dinner.
The beauty and effervescent magic of Champagne is perhaps best summed up in this quote from the incomparable Madame Lilly Bollinger:
“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it when I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it – unless I am thirsty.”
Historically there are six grape varietals permitted in the Champagne region, however the three most typically found in use today are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.
Méthode traditionnelle simply refers to the traditional bottle-fermented Champagne winemaking process invented in Champagne, France. The first fermentation follows much the same process as still wine production; it is during the secondary fermentation, in bottle, where the ‘magic’ happens.
The 1998 La Grande Dame is a wine of pure beauty and power. A majority blend of Pinot Noir, the vintage conditions are clearly visible in the glass with flavours of peach, apricot and touch of brioche and nuttiness.
The outstanding 2002 vintage is captured in this most wonderful Cristal Rosé. It exudes the perfect equilibrium between concentration and finesse, richness and freshness, intensity and refinement.
Dom Pérignon is the most famous name in the world of Champagne. It’s iconic history has permeated into global popular culture, yet still retains it’s standing as the pre-eminent producer of Champagne. This 1998 Rosé has been considered the ‘lovers’ champagne with the fine rose hue and subtle, sensous and elegant palate.
Lanson has all the history and experience of 250 years behind it to produce this truly remarkable vintage Champagne that delivers more for your dollar than any other vintage Champagne on the shelves. Wonderful linear acidity that is as taut as a high-wire complimented by a rush of citrus blossom.