I know that the sparkling wine known as Champagne must come from Champagne, France, and that the three Champagne grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. It’s also true that Blanc de Blanc Champagne must be 100% Chardonnay while Blanc de Noir (meaning white from black) is made from either or both of the other two grapes; that pink champagne is not silly; and that second fermentation in the bottle brings on those delightful pin-prick bubbles (called mousse). I’m aware that Champagne labeled extra-dry, in fact, contains some sweetness (Brut is drier) and that Champagne is the best celebratory wine (it can even turn washday into a joyous occasion.) And, I know for sure that for caviar, for tiny briny oysters—and even for popcorn doused in butter–champagne is a must-have.
The prominent champagne houses (Grandes Marques) are prized for a signature “house” style. I cannot resist Taittinger’s delicate charms, bold and beautiful Bollinger, or Krug’s handsome profile. I’m enamored always at how Pol Roger, Billecart-Salmon, and Roederer balance power and finesse. There are 24 Grandes Marques so I could go on.
The masterful art of blending different wines from different harvests from different vineyards guarantees that each champagne house maintains a consistent taste and quality. (Krug, for instance, brings 50 wines to a marvelous conclusion). Sophisticated and savvy marketing also perpetuates Champagne’s luxurious image. (In 2013, Ferrari paired up with Veuve Cliquot for classic car shows.)
In April, I attended the 2015 International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINEWTC.com) in Reims, France, trotting through the heart of Champagne (the cellars, the region and the wine). Our merry troupe discovered there’s a lot more to the bubble business than glamor, fizzy frivolity, and Dom Perignon.
Chalk it up
The Champagne region’s northerly cool, damp climate can be downright unfriendly to wine vines. If it weren’t for porous limestone soils, vineyards couldn’t exist here. Luckily, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier like to dig their roots deep into chalky earth. Throughout the summer the vines’ foliage and fruit enjoy basking in the warmth reflected by the stony terroir. Chalk also underpins Champagne’s hallmark racy character. And Champagne’s network of underground caves ensure that the thousands upon thousands of tightly stacked bottles in those “crayeres” (craie is French for chalk), remain fresh, stable and effervescent—in many cases, for decades. (Taittinger Comte de Champagne Blanc de Blanc 2005’s creamy texture, yet racy mousse and crisp finish is proof in a glass of the crayeres’ good work.)
Trouble and Strife in Champagne
Champagne’s history is not all wine and roses. Since Atilla the Hun invaded Gaul, Champenois, the hearty people who live in this part of France, have endured some tough times. In the the 20th century, a string of disastrous vintages from 1898-1910 led to The Champagne Riots of 1911. Boundary disputes and bringing in wines from outside the Champagne area created havoc among grape growers and winery owners.
Just as things were getting sorted out, WWl came along. Four years of trench warfare devastated Champagne’s vineyards. During the conflict, locals retreated into the chalky caves where they lived and work– often for months. Above ground, struggling producers kept growing wine where and when they could.
In 1917, the Russian Revolution put a stop to shipments of French bubbly to the champagne-loving Russians. The stock market crash in 1929, Prohibition, and the Great Depression crippled sales. 1939 saw a disastrous vintage and the outbreak of WWll. Hitler and his crew confiscated a couple of million bottles of champagne, among them the stellar 1928 Salon vintage. Still, the Champenois and their sparkling wine endured.
The Rise of the Cooperative
Simply put Champagne cooperative vinifies (makes wine from) grapes from member growers.
The Cooperative General de Vignerons (CoGeVi), Champagne’s oldest cooperative, was formed in 1921 in order to protect growers and winemakers from fraudulent practices. Today, “Maison CoGeVi” gives over five rooms to CoGeVi memorabilia. A video, including archived film footage of the looting and rioting in 1911, marks grape growers’ triumph over adversity.
We head for the Coop’s stunning Art Deco reception hall. We hail Champagne’s cheerier heydays over bottomless coupes of CoGeVi Champagne Collet Esprit Couture, and endless canapés (which include frog’s legs in cream and coddled eggs). I feel like I should have been sashaying about in a Gatsby-esque dress and pearls instead of clumping around in leggings and boots!
Pinot Meunier has its place
Champagne Dom Cauldron is named for the generous and forward-thinking priest who, in 1923, encouraged 23 growers to pool their knowledge and resources. The cooperative lies in the village of Passy-Grigny, a convenient drive from Paris and smack in the middle of the Marne, which is Meunier country. (Locals refer to Pinot Noir simply as Pinot and Pinot Meunier as Meunier.) Meunier, usually used to plump up Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in a blend, takes center stage at Dom Caudron.
Our affable host tastes us through several styles of Meunier. I’m impressed. Prédiction is a firm yet fleshy fizz, while Épicurienne, fashioned from 50-year old vines, captivates with its opulent texture and fleshy fruit. Barrel-fermented Cornalyne tastes of biscuits and honey. Meunier meets Chardonnay half way in the delicious Sublimite 50/50. And only a French winery could describe a Rose, in this case the delicious Dom Caudron Fascinante, “as a perfect aperitif or for any moment of seduction.”
Our luncheon spread of pates, quiche, roast beef, heirloom tomatoes, charcuterie, cheeses and creamy desserts was an eye-opener for Meunier’s versatility with food. If you are only going for one type of bubble at a dinner party, and you’re not able to find a single Meunier bottling at your wine shop (Better shops may carry the very fine and widely distributed Egly-Oriet)—run with one with a good dollop of Meunier in the blend. (You could dig deep into your pocket and purchase Krug’s stellar cuvee!)
CoGeVi and Dom Caudron convinced me that wine cooperatives were borne from struggle. These days the fizz in the bottle is hardly plonk (cheap wine). Growers increasingly focus on quality wine growing and their marketing is better. (Nicholas Feuillatte, a fine fizz with an upmarket image, is a coop champagne).
I like the famous champagne-making boys (and gals!) as much as the next bubble nut—but my pocket book doesn’t always. I am certainly more open to buying a bottle of cooperative champagne than I was before my visit to these two fine wineries. I think you should be too.
Next time we’ll explore Grower (Estate-grown) Champagnes and The Aube, Champagne’s lesser-known area.—Story and photos by Julie Pegg, RFT Senior Wine & Spirits Editor
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