What to drink…
Master of wine Richard Hemming enjoys a taste of French champagne
Glass of champagne? It must be the hardest offer in the world to turn down. Surely one of France’s most famous creations, champagne is something that everyone knows of but very few know much about. Here’s a quick crash course in the essentials.
The Champagne vineyard region is east of Paris, and only sparkling wine made within its boundaries can use the name. The main grape varieties grown there are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the closely related Pinot Meunier. Most champagne is a blend of the three, but some may use only one of the varieties – for instance, anything labelled Blanc de Blancs is 100% Chardonnay.
The key to champagne quality relies not just on grapes but on production techniques. The signature sparkle is created by re- fermenting the wine within the bottle, causing carbon dioxide to dissolve into the liquid. Once the yeast has died, the wine is then left in for at least 12 months, during which time a process called autolysis takes place. This transfers flavour from the yeast cells (‘lees’) into the wine, adding distinctive pastry and biscuit flavours.
It’s a costly and complicated method, but one which is vital for quality. The final stage is to add a small amount of sugar to provide balance against champagne’s notoriously high acidity level. Most champagnes are classified as brut, which tastes effectively dry.
Now, why not toast your new-found knowledge with one of these classic examples.
Louis Roederer, Brut Premier NV champagne (from £28.50, widely available) One of the better-known brands, Roederer is one of the most reliable champagne houses. Nonvintage champagne is blended from multiple years to give complexity and consistency. This wine has three years of maturation on lees before release, giving it mellow, ripe apple fruit and fresh bakery aromas.
Moët et Chandon, Grand Vintage Brut 2006 champagne (from £39, widely available) The brand leader of champagne fully deserves its place, managing to produce high volumes of great quality fizz. Their Grand Vintage is a very serious champagne, and the 2006 is a great example – toasty, rich, full-bodied and opulent.
Benedick, Lea & Sandeman Rosé Brut NV champagne (£25.95 Lea & Sandeman) Full of peach fruit with a nicely nutty character too. Blended from Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay, this is classic pink fizz with impressive concentration. It’s rare to find pink champagne this enjoyable at under £30.