Even if there is no real need for additional proof of the success of the efficient marketing procedure adopted by champagne manufacturers over the years, the month of December provides it every year anew. Before you can mumble “Dom Perignon,” the various wine journals and websites are full of articles about the bubbly drink, as though it were the only beverage permitted by law in the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And in a world that offers consumers so much choice that they become confused, that safe slot is exactly what people are looking for. So it’s not surprising that the advertisements everywhere dictate exactly the same rules: In summer you drink rose wine, the cold winter is the time for red wine, with oysters you have to order Muscadet, while for really big events there is only one option – champagne.
Still, you shouldn’t think that the source of champagne’s attraction lies in its name only. If you strip the bottle of the gilded capsule that hugs its neck and the glittering label that decorates its facade, it’s wine for all intents and purposes. And when this wine is produced properly, which is not at all a simple task, it can provide an exciting and invigorating sensual experience, which is worth indulging in more than once or twice a year. It won’t be cheap, of course; after all, champagne isn’t a basic consumer item. But anyone who is familiar with the long, precise process by which it is produced knows that champagne can’t be really cheap and still be good.
So what is the process of champagne production? First the grapes (mainly chardonnay, pinot meunier or pinot noir) undergo an initial fermentation (like every wine), in which the sugar turns into alcohol, and during which the grape juice becomes wine. After the vintner assembles the desired blend, he adds sugar and yeast to the wine and gives the signal for the second fermentation, which takes place in the bottle. That fermentation produces a byproduct – carbon dioxide, which is trapped in the bottle in the form of bubbles.
In the final stage, which is called disgorgement, the vintner opens the bottle to remove the yeast dregs and add the famous “dosage” – the blend of wine and sugar syrup that is supposed to balance and determine the final level of sweetness of the champagne: The driest category (up to 12 grams of sugar per liter) is called Brut, followed by Extra-Sec (12-20 grams), Sec (17-35), Demi-Sec (35-50), and Doux (50 grams and more), which will be very sweet.
In recent years, in accordance with consumer tastes, which consistently moves in the direction of dry wines, most of the quality champagnes, including iconic brands that once had higher levels of sugar, are in the category of Brut. If that’s not enough, there is a new and interesting subcategory with many names, which includes champagnes that are drier than ever before: Extra-Brut, Brut Natural or Brut Zero, which have an extremely low dosage and a sugar level of only 0-6 grams per liter.
The same trend (which I welcome for the most part) towards drier champagnes is certainly also a result of the penetration of the market by grower champagnes. The traditional champagne market is corporate, and as such is dominated for the most part by the prestigious champagne houses producing millions of bottles a year. An example is LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), which owns Krug, Mercier, Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and the veteran Ruinart champagne houses. Most of these houses tend to buy their grapes from growers in the Champagne region and to prepare the desired champagnes from them (including quite a number of remarkably fine ones), which are sold all over the world under a brand name that is no less prestigious than that of the corporation’s bags or watches.
But in the past two decades – in large part thanks to pioneering importers like American Terry Theise – a new movement of small independent producers has broken into the market. They grow their produce by themselves and produce artisanal champagnes in small quantities and of a quality that in many cases is equal to or even better than the champagnes of the major producers.
These small producers offer not only quality, but also transparency regarding the champagne poured into our glass: from which vintages the grapes come, where exactly the vineyards are located and the date when the disgorgement process took place, which to a great extent determines the “real” age of the champagne and its potential for ageing. (NV or non-vintage champagne is usually meant for drinking in the first two or three years after disgorgement.)
Of the grower champagnes available in Israel, here are three recommendations that combine good flavor, enjoyment and good value. It’s important to remember that the inhabitants of planet Earth are divided into two groups: those who love champagne and those who don’t know yet that they love it. So which group do you belong to?
NV Gaston Chiquet Brut Tradition
(Credit: Eran Goldschmidt)
A champagne that is a classical entry into this wonderful world, and this doesn’t mean for a moment that there is any compromise here on precision or meticulousness. What can be found here is freshness, vitality, fragrances of green apples and pears and a wealth of flavors accompanied by minerality, dryness and an enjoyable lightness. There’s a reason why this is the champagne that was poured into the glasses of guests at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony last year. 239 shekels, Boutique de Champagnes (www.fat-guy.net)
NV Pierre Peters Brut Blanc de Blanc Cuvee De Reserve
(Credit: Eran Goldschmidt)
A wonderful NV Champagne that is full of life, produced by the solera method. The basic wine from 2010 joins a blend composed of all the previous vintages starting from 1988. The result is a wonderful spiciness of greenish fruit along with fragrances of roasting and pleasant yeasty aromas. The mouth is wide, contains a substantial presence of fruit, which is combined wonderfully with the layers of the velvety texture, while the mineral end, which is energetic and focused, is also impressive. 289 shekels, Boutique de Champagnes
NV Vilmart & Cie “Grand Cellier”
(Credit: Eran Goldschmidt)
Seventy percent chardonnay and 30 percent pinot noir compose this quality champagne, which comes from one of the brilliant producers of the region. Fresh and refreshing fruit, rich seasoning with elements of minerality, roasting and smoking, together with intensity, juiciness and strength, which don’t harm the elegance at all, put this Champagne high on my order of priorities. 359 shekels, Boutique de Champagnes