Among the many steps necessary to craft Champagne wines, one is of paramount importance: the assemblage.
Assemblage, or blending, is both the synthesis of all preceding steps and the expression of an irreversible choice. In the assemblage Champagne makers blend together different base wines to create another wine, far superior in quality to the sum of its components. Known as the cuvée, the new wine is ideally suited to develop a sparkle in the bottle.
The Climate Factor
In order to better understand this mystery, it is necessary to examine the natural factors at play, as well as the skills and artistry of those who know how to master these elements and use them to craft wines with a unique style and personality.
The natural elements include the Terroir (soil) of Champagne, climate, and grape varieties. The human touch to the process comes through the experiences, memory and creativity, which work together in the quest to harmonize and balance the natural elements. Encompassing vines growing on different parts of its slopes, with different exposure to the sun, soil, drainage and microclimates, the terroir of Champagne is quite diverse. As a result, the grapes and wines that it gives birth to display varied aromas and structures, characteristic of each growing site.
These sites are organized according to geographic areas, such as the Montagne de Reims, the Vallee de la Marne, the Cote des Blanes ad the Cote des Bar.
They are also known by the cru they belong to: Ambonnay, Verzy, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Cramant, Tours-sur-Marne, Ay, Hautvillers, Suzanne, etc. There are 312 of them. Each cru encompasses a mosaic of plots of vineyards, known as galipes in the Champagne language. There are more then 300,000 of them, divided among 19,000 owners. Many have names of their own, such as Les Mazeaux, Les Briquettes, Le Clos de Goisses, La Cote aux Enfants, Les Bertines, etc. Sometimes mysterious, these names reflect local history and lore.
The northern latitude of La Champagne (49 N) is a playing ground to the constant clash of oceanic and continental climates. The region's climate is unique to France with it's continually changing sky, annual average temperature of around 50 F, which is borderline for growing grapes, and fewer hours of sunlight. These particulars lend themselves in explaining Champagnes' unique characteristics and freshness. Consequently, these variations caused by the interactions between landscape and climate are magnified and contribute to the individuality of each and every vineyard site. Moreover, climatic conditions vary a lot from year to year. As a result, the characteristics of the grapes and hence, of the wines, enormously effected by the dangers of frost in winter and spring, on the amount of sun, heat and rain at all the crucial times of the vineyards life.
- Pinot Noir
- Pinot Meunier
Faced with variable harvests, in quality and quantity, the Champagne producers figured out that they could protect themselves from nature's vagaries by constituting reserves in good "vendanges" or harvests, made of a portion of the year's better wines. These reserved wines are then used to compliment the wines of future years when the wines are blended together. They become the guarantor of a producer's persistence of taste, character or style. The diversity in Champagne wines also stems from the grape varieties. Three are grown today exclusively, which have demonstrated their adaptation to Champagne's environment: black Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier for 74% of the vineyards and white Chardonnay for 26%.
Pinot Noir gives aromas of red fruit to the wines; it also gives them body and power. Pinot Meunier is supple and fruity; its bouquet is intense. It matures faster and gives roundness to the wines. Chardonnay is the grape of delicacy and finesse. It gives floral and fruity aromas when young; it matures slowly and contributes ideally to the aging of Champagne wines.
Now that the natural factors have been laid out, let's examine how the Champagne "assemblages" strive to master and transform the elements into a work of art.
In this pursuit, Champagne makers sometimes assemble together dozens of wines. Combinations are numerous; there is not one assemblage but many, yet each one is completely unique. Those who make them are creators, artists. Year after year, the artist's objective is to craft a wine that reflects a vision or perpetuates the vision of his predecessors. In doing so, a house-style emerges that can be recognized, and that shines through its diverse expression, be it a classic Cuvée, a Rosé, a Blanc de Blancs, a vintage or a Prestige Cuvée.
To be successful, our Champagne artists need three qualities:
- An intimate knowledge of the vineyards, of the characteristics of the grapes from different sites and their complementarity
- an impeccable tasting memory, penetrated of the style of the house
- the experience of several generations and creativity
Tasting after tasting, from November to March, the color, the aromas, the structures, the balance and the evolution of the wines are recorded. First the wines of the previous harvest are tasted over and over between November and March, then the reserve wines. Sensations are memorized, notes taken envision the development of the wines beyond assemblage, beyond second fermentation and beyond cellar-aging. Assemblage can take between a few days and several weeks. Tests are made, opinions are gathered, and finally irreversible blending takes place. It will reflect the character and the traditions of the house or the grower who has created it.
Whatever these may be, most cuvées involve several crus, several grape varieties, several vintages. However, in very good years, some producers will decide to focus on one vintage only. In this case, no reserve wines are included in the assemblage. Others will opt for a Champagne Blanc de Blanes, or Blanc de Noirs. The former is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes, the latter from black Pinots. Others still will showcase the characteristics of a single cru, rarely a single vineyard site, a clos. The Champagne makers have transformed assemblage into an art form, akin to creating perfumes or conducting an orchestra. With it they have transformed Champagne's fickle nature, its austere climate and chalky soil into a magic gift.
Since they are made with a greater proportion of black grapes, Pinot Noir and/or Meunier, then their light gold counterpart brut Champagnes, rosé wines tend to be fruitier, albeit just as dry. Often their aromas evoke red fruit, strawberries, raspberries, red and black currants. Some rosés are made exclusively with black grapes, others contain up to 50% Chardonnay wines.
Two methods are used to produce rosé Champagnes. The first method adds some red wine from Champage to the cuvée or assemblage at blending time.
The red wine is made from Pinot Noir from villages such as Bouzy, Cumires, Ambonnay, Ay. The second method uses maceration of the black grapes. The grapes are esteemed and left to macerate in the must until the desired shade of color is obtained. Then the must is racked and fermented. Like other brut Champagne, rosé wines will vary in style from one producer to another. Some will be light bodied and others fuller, in keeping with the producers philosophy.
Accordingly, rosé Champagnes too can be successfully paired with a variety of foods. A light rosé will make an attractive aperitif, while a full, mature, vintage rosé Champagne will easily accompany a rack of lamb, with string beans and roasted garlic. Another suggestion would be to serve a soft, fruity and spicy rosé with a light dessert, such as a raspberry charlotte, a strawberry shortbread or a simple and refreshing fruit salad.
Flag & Shield Telling A Story
The label on a bottle of Champagne is too often taken for granted. It is a way to communicate and attract the attention of the buyer, a true vehicle of promotion and marketing, unique to Champagne.
But it was not until the middle of the 18th century that embryonic labels appeared in the region, and elsewhere for that matter. They began as small bits of paper pasted on bottles with a few handwritten comments.
The first true etiquettes, similar to our familiar modern labels, started to be issued by Champagne houses around 1820. Soon producers vied to outdo one another in originality and imagination. As they developed labels for special events and remarkable personalities, the Champagne labels became mirrors of history and culture.
Today, the label in a consumer informant: it is a guide and a protection against fraudulent imitations. For Champagne producers, it is a flag: it tells the identity and origin of the wine.
The following must appear on all Champagne labels:
- Appellation of Controlled Origin
Marque differentiates the wines of different producers
- Degree of sweetness
Extra-brut, driest wines; brut, very dry (most wines are brut); extra-dry, slightly sweet; see, sweet; demi-see, very sweet.
- Town where the wine was made
- Country of origin
True Champagne only comes from the Champagne region, in France
- Alcohol Content
Varies between 10.5% and 13%; 11% is the minimum from vintage dated wines
- Volume of Bottle
- Trade Registration
Each producer is given a registration number by CIVC (the Trade Organization for Champagne Producers). When the producers owns the brand, the following initials will be found:
.NM negociant-manipulant, shipper, a Champagne house
.CM cooperative de manipulation, a cooperative of growers
.RM recoltant-manipulant, a grower who independently produces Champagne wines with his/her own grapes
.RC recoltant-cooperateur, a grower who produces Champagne with the help of a cooperative
.MA marque d'acheteur, when the brand is owned by a third party who is not a producer
- Winemaker, elaborateur
- Champagne house, grower or cooperative responsible for making the wine. This indication is either spelled out of coded. Name of the U.S. importer
Other indications on the label are optional, including:
- Vintage year, millesime
If wine is exclusively made from the grapes of one vintage
- Reference to the grape variety used
Blanc de Blanes for Champagne wines from 100% Chardonnay grapes; Blanc de noirs from 100% Pinot noir and/or Meunier grapes.
- References to the cru
Grand Cru or Premier Cru refer to the best rated villages of Champagne. There are 17 Grands Crus, including Ambonnay, Avize, Aye, Bouzy, Cramant, Le Mesnilsur-Oger, Tours-sur-Marne, and 41 Premiers Crus, including Chouilly, Hautvillers, Marceil-sur-Ay.
Large Format Bottles
Why do Champagne's large-format bottles have biblical names?
No one is exactly sure of the reasons why larger format bottles were given biblical names. But, according to the Champagne expert Francois Bonal, winemakers in Bordeaux had been using the name Jeroboam for the four-bottle size since 1725. (It's presumed they selected Jeroboam, the biblical founder of Israel who ruled from 931-920 BC because he is referred to as "a man of great worth," as were the larger sized bottles). Bonal also explains that a Champagne Medieval poet, Eugene Destuche, mentioned several of these names in his poetry. The region of Champagne adopted the Jeroboam size and followed suit with larger format bottles developed in the 1940's, continuing the practice of selecting biblical kings and patriarchs.
- Half Bottle (375 ml)
- Bottle (750 ml)
- Magnum (2 bottles)
- Jeroboam (4 bottles)
First king of Israel: 931-910 BC
- Rehoboam (6 bottles)
Banned by US and EU regulations
- Methuselah (8 bottles)
Biblical patriarch who lived to the age of 969
- Salmanazar (16 bottles)
King of Babylon: 539 BC
- Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles)
King of Babylon, 605-562 BC