Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Decoding champagne

We all know that champagne is the drink of choice when a celebration is in order. You might even know that a champagne isn’t champagne unless it comes from the specific region of Champagne in France. But actually this fizzy wine is much more nuanced than you might imagine, as we discover by talking to Singapore Airline’s Wine Experts Michael Hill Smith, Oz Clarke and  Jeannie Cho Lee.

Champagne region
An amazing view of the Champagne region in France. Photo credit: Hesam Sanaee/Shutterstock.com

1. It doesn’t get better than prestige cuvée

A prestige cuvée champagne is considered the finest champagne available. Made from the highest-quality grapes grown in Champagne’s leading vineyards, it’s rare and exclusive, with only a limited quantity available for purchase.

A perfect example is Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, which is only produced during years’ when the harvest is deemed of exceptional quality. It is made exclusively from Chardonnay grapes grown in five Grand Cru vineyards (the highest classification for a vineyard) in the Côte des Blancs region. What’s more only juice from the first pressing (when grapes are first pressed right after harvest, resulting in the purest juice of the pulp, also called the cuvée) is used to give the final product a guarantee of quality.

Then under careful watch of the cellar master the wine endures a long maturation period of between eight to 10 years, where the champagne stays in bottles stored away from sunlight in chalk quarries beneath As a result of the length and complexity of the process there are a limited number of bottles produced. To date, only 35 great vintages have been produced since the first cuvée in 1952, making it a rare and celebrated wine.

Another prestige cuvée champagne is Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, arguably the most famous. It’s a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that is always vintage dated – meaning it’s made from grapes of a specific year. There’s also Krug, another honoured House, which produces champagne made from all three primary champagne grape varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Pinot Meunier. Interestingly, its Krug Grande Cuvée – consistently rated one of the world’s best champagnes – is actually a non-vintage. It’s a blend of over 120 wines coming from 10 or more different vintages, and is recreated year after year to incredible precision.

2. Vintage vs non-vintage — which is better?

Non-vintage champagnes are a blended product of grapes from multiple vintages, while vintage champagnes are composed of 100 per cent of the grapes harvested from that specific year. The latter usually happens when grapes from that particular year are of exceptional quality.

When discussing the perception that non-vintage is a lesser product, Singapore Airlines wine expert Michael Hill Smith explains that “non-vintage champagnes will always taste pretty similar because it’s all about consistency of house-style”. He continues: “On the other hand, vintage reflects the conditions of one specific year, so some people might find this to be more intellectually interesting because it varies from year to year.”

Furthermore, because of the longer ageing requirements (vintage wines must be aged for a minimum of three years in the bottle, as opposed to 15 months for non-vintage champagnes) as well as the fact that vintage champagnes are made from grapes from the best sites and by producers who have their own estate vineyards, the quality of vintage is usually assumed to be superior, notes Master of Wine and Singapore Airlines wine expert Jeannie Cho Lee. “The only exception of a great quality non-vintage is the Krug, whose prestige cuvée is a non-vintage,” she says, adding that this is because Krug has a huge library of reserve wines and an expert master blender.

Taittinger's Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs

3. The taste varies

Although champagne is made the same way, it can taste differently because each House has a different approach. For instance, grapes can come from a single vineyard or single region, some can come from Grand Crus vineyards only, some are fermented in old oak barrels while some are in stainless steel, and some might go through malolactic fermentation — a process after primary fermentation, in which the tart-tasting malic acid in the wine is converted to softer-tasting lactic acid, reducing overall acidity and creating an impression of smoothness –while others don’t, explains Hill Smith. All these factors can affect its tasting notes: and result in a champagne that can be either  fruity or toasty, weighty or light.

Because the Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs is made entirely of Chardonnay grapes, aromatically it smells like Chardonnay, he adds. “As they get older, they become more toasty, like top white Burgundy. So you get this aged Chardonnay character, which is lovely but held together by really tight linear acidity. They present quite differently in the mouth.”

He adds that people usually describe Krug champagnes as the king and Dom Pérignon as the queen, because “Krug is fuller and more powerful, while Dom Pérignon tends to be very fine, delicate and poised. And then you have Comtes, which is just a wonderful expression of Blanc de Blancs. Each has its own personality, he says, but adds that a blended champagne does not mean it is a lower quality; rather, it’s “just a different face of the best of champagne”.

The temperature champagne is served will also affect its taste, adds Singapore Airlines wine expert Oz Clarke. “While the optimal taste of champagne will express itself when it is served at a temperature of 8 to 10 degrees, some like really cold champagne that’s straight out of the fridge, which is more refreshing than about its taste,” he explains. Lee says the simple rule of thumb is: “The higher the quality of champagne, the higher end of temperature you’d want it; the lower the quality of a bottle of champagne, the cooler you’d want it.”

Champagne region
Champagne pairs well with caviar and seafood. Photo credit: Lisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock.com

4. It’s versatile when it comes to food

For Hill Smith, champagne is the ultimate aperitif and should be enjoyed right before a meal. On the other hand, Clarke says shellfish, fish and caviar all work well with champagne, thanks to its light, bubbly nature.

But Lee says she particularly loves having a glass after a meal of spicy food, because the high levels of acidity works as a great palate cleanser. Her label of choice? The Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, because the 2007 vintage has a tinge of sweetness and roundness that she feels complements the piquant flavours a little better. “But ultimately, what you enjoy pairing it with comes down to personal preferences,” she adds.

5. Know your labels

An important thing to note when you’re looking at a bottle of champagne is its level of sweetness. This is indicated on the label:  Brut Natural (the driest of the dry, where little to no sugar has been added), Extra Brut (made with extremely low levels of sugar, resulting in a bone-dry style), Brut (which tastes quite dry on the palate), Sec (a dry or lean style that is slightly sweet), Demi-sec (which literally means “half-dry” or semi-sweet and Doux (“sweet” in French), which is used to denote the very sweetest of champagnes.

“For those which contain no sugar [Brut Natural], what you get is a drink that has no roundness, it’s really tense, high in acidity and sharp. And some people appreciate that,” explains Lee. “But most of the non-vintage commercial brands are Brut or Extra Brut; they fall in that category of dryness and sweetness.”

Singapore Airlines is now serving the Taittinger Comtes de Champagne for its First Class passengers. It joins two prestige cuvées already being served onboard — the Dom Pérignon and Krug Grand Cuvée. 

To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com

SEE ALSO: Great champagne is for all occasions, according to Master of Wine Jeannie Cho Lee

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