Inaugural Champagne Grand Tasting tour makes a big splash in San Francisco

Bruno Paillard, Chairman of Communication & Appellation Commission for the Champagne Wine Council

The Champagne Bureau, the official US representative of the Champagne Wine Council (Comite Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne, or CIVC),  completed its first official Champagne Grand Tasting tour in San Francisco on Wednesday to a packed audience at the Westin St. Francis hotel.

Over thirty prestigious Champagne Houses poured their best wines to some of the most important members of the West Coast wine trade.  While the CIVC’s successful campaign to communicate the singular message that Champagne only comes from the region of Champagne in France, the tasting highlighted that House winemaking styles are anything but singular.  As Charles Philipponnat said, he makes “firstly wine, then sparkling wine.”

In addition to differences in the mix of authorized grapes of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, styles differ by how the base wines are made before undergoing the second fermentation in bottle (which creates the effervescence), by how long they age in bottle on the spent yeast after second fermentation, and by the final adjustment of sweetness, if at all.

To oak or not

Krug and Bollinger are known for fermenting their base wines in small oak barrel – almost always neutral barrels so as not to impart oak flavor – to gain richness and complexity.  Other producers gradually introduce the percent of new oak from non-vintage to top quality prestige wines as the ripeness of fruit supports it.  Charles de Cazanove on the other hand uses only stainless steel vats to emphasize the fruitiness of the base wine.  Vilmart achieves both by using large oak vats or foudres for their non-vintage Grand Cellier Brut with the larger vat size preserving the fruit but the oak adding richness.  For its finest vintage wines, Vilmart ferments and ages in small oak barrel, part new oak.  While the oak was more forward in the younger 2005 Grand Cellier d’Or Brut, it was seamlessly integrated in the beautiful 2001 vintage Coeur de Cuvee Brut.

Use of Malo

In cool climate wine regions such as Champagne at the 49th latitude where grapes sometimes struggle to ripen, it’s typical to perform malolactic ferment to mellow the acidity in the wine.  Lanson does not use malolactic, saying that non-malo leads to greater intensity, complexity and length in its wines.  It was evident that these wines improve with age as the 1997 vintage Gold Label showed superb balance, clarity and depth of fruit.

Percent of reserve wines

Champagne is allowed to blend in a portion of previous vintage wines leading to 85-90% of all Champagne being “non-vintage” or NV wine.  This is done in part to even-out vintage variations in such a cool climate.  But that’s not the only reason.   Philipponnat said that they use 25 % reserve wines for the complexity that it adds to the wines.  Olivier Gailly of Groupe Thienot added that it’s also a matter of overall balance in the wine.  For example, their brand Thienot which has more chardonnay in the blend benefits from 35% of reserve wines for richness while Canard-Duchene  which has more structure and body from pinot noir in the blend, needs only 20% reserve wines.

Dry or sweet?

The most popular dryness category of Champagne is Brut which allow for up to 15 grams of residual sugar but always tastes dry.  The Champagne producers typically make a range of wines from dry to sweet but Ayala, one of the 18 founding Houses of the 1882 Grands Marques Syndicate, focuses on very dry wines of about 7-8 grams from their non-vintage Brut Majeur to their prestige Cuvee Perle d’Ayala.  Export Manager Raymond Ringeval said low dosage (sweetness) emphasizes the purity of the fruit and the minerality.

Pink out!

The rosé category grew market share in 2009 and 2010, and the US was a major reason for the growth.  Fortunately, there was a lot of rosé to go around at the Grand Tasting with all producers saying they are making more of it.  Gailly said “it’s not a ladies wine anymore, rosé is always dry” and therefore appeals to more consumers.

More to come

Bruno Paillard, Chairman of the CIVC Communication and Appellation Commission, said he hoped to make the US tour an annual event.  We’re counting on it!