The evolution of Champagne can be traced back to Benedictine Monks in the late 16th century. Legend has it that Dom Pierre Pérignon, the cellar master at the Abbey of Hautvillers, invented the Traditional Champagne Method, exclaiming, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!”
While this story is very charming, it’s not actually true. There was evidence of sparkling wine years before Dom Pérignon even stepped foot into the Abbey. It took nearly two centuries for winemakers to fully understand and control the process of the second fermentation, carried out by adding sugar (liqueur de tirage) to fermented base wines.
The wines in Dom Pérignon’s time were only slightly fizzy. In fact, Dom Pérignon considered the bubbles to be a flaw. While we can’t credit him for creating the Champagne Method, Dom Pérignon did invent two very important processes still used today. He was the first to make a white wine from black grapes (Blanc de Noirs). He was also the first to blend wines from different grapes and different regions together to create a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Another early key figure in Champagne, The Widow ‘Veuve’ Clicquot, created the riddling process of removing yeast sediment from the bottles. She did so by storing bottles sur pointe, or upside down on their necks, so that the yeast settled in the neck of the bottle where it could be removed through disgorgement. She was able sell large volumes of clear wine without the cloudy sediment. She is credited for creating a singular global brand and in doing so became one of the richest business women of her time.
As time passed, winemakers refined the style and grape varieties for Champagne. In the 1800s, it was a sweet wine typically consumed after dinner. Today, it is much dryer and usually enjoyed as an aperitif at the start of a meal.
Modern day trends in Champagne include bone dry styles, called Zero Dosage with less than 3 g/l residual sugar. These styles are growing in popularity for their food-friendliness and refreshing character.
Try this Extra Brut with only 2.5 g/l of residual sugar, yet still balanced and rich:
NV Jacquession & Fils Champagne Cuvee N° 741 Extra-Brut $69.99
Pronounced aromas of dried red fruits, apricot, hazelnut, toast, and baked bread. Flavors of dried raspberry are balanced by zippy acidity and citrus.
Other trends include an increasing focus on grower-producers. These growers or, Récoltant manipulant (RM on wine labels), grow all of the grapes on their own property and carry out the winemaking in their own facilitates. These tend to focus on single vineyard wines, offering a distinct personality and singular expression of regional characteristics. The growers benefit from managing all of the farming themselves through sustainable viticulture, but undertake much higher risks from weather hazards like spring frosts, hail, and botrytis. Growers are not permitted to buy grapes so if there is a bad vintage, they risk loosing their entire crop.
Grower-producers (RM) to try: NV Bertrand Delespierre Enfant de la Montagne Brut $49.99
Didier Bertrand and Chantal Delespierre are grower-producers farming 24 acres in the Montagne de Reims, the heart of Champagne. A wonderfully light and elegant aperitif style Champagne. Complex lemon, lime peel aromas on the nose, with light toastiness and subtle honeysuckle flavors.
NV Jean Laurent Blanc de Blancs $49.99
Jean Laurent is a grower‐producer in the tiny village of Celles‐sur‐Ource in the Côte des Bar. Third‐generation owner, Jean is committed to sustainable agriculture, carefully limiting his vineyard treatments. This elegant 100% Chardonnay wine offers rich and yeasty aromas and bold flavors of lemon, bruised red apple, hazelnut, and brioche.
In addition to growers, Cooperatives and traditional Maison are the two other types of Champagne producers. Coopérative de manipulation (CM) are a group of growers that market wines under their own label from members’ grapes. Coops are a wonderful source of value Champagne with a focus on quality. Look for CM on wine labels as an indication.
Cooperative (CM) to try:
NV Charles Clement Brut Tradition $32.99
Created in 1956 by 22 growers, the Coopérative Charles Clément, named after one of the founders, now has more than 60 members from 7 villages in the Côte des Bar. The Brut Tradition is a wonderful example of entry level Champagne that won’t break the bank. Loaded with aromas of fresh lemon, lime, and tart green apple, followed by flavors of white flowers and bread dough on the long finish.
The traditional Maison, or Négociant manipulant (NM on wine labels), buys grapes, to make Champagne under their own label. All the big Champagne houses belong to this category.
Negociant (NM) to try:
NV Ruinart Blanc de Blanc $79.99
An elegant expression of Chardonnay with bright Meyer lemon, green apple, and prickly pear aromas. Delicate and feminine flavors honeydew melon, biscuit, and toast.
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