Champagne, more than any other wine region or wine, represents a great deal more than the sum of its parts. It’s a cold-climate, usually blended, white (I don’t really want to talk about rosé right now) wine that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. And yet it is the strongest generic wine brand in the world, and there isn’t really a second place. Not only that, but it’s been that way for well over a century. People love bubbles. People love bubbles that show off how discerning in taste they are and buy bubbles with the right labels. They’ve done so for a long time. And so much of the success comes down to the bubbles. Still wines from the region tend towards the relentlessly astringent.
But the success isn’t just about bubbles. Plenty of wines have bubbles. Nowadays, people pointing at Champagne’s underlying brilliance talk about the chalky soil and all the other dreaded “t” word stuff. I’m not really interested in that today. The main reason for Champagne’s continued success the world over isn’t its bubbles or its chalk: it’s the remarkable adaptability of the Champagnois.
Champagne’s stratospheric rise to acclaim came on the shoulders of a much different wine to what we drink today. Yes, there were bubbles, but there was also sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. Champagne was sweet, or at the very least, off-dry. The levels of sugar in the dosage were far higher than today, and were often tailored for specific markets, depending on the sweet teeth of the intended destination. One of the reasons they could do this was the bracing natural acidity of the wines. Champagne can take a lot of sugar.
As tastes changed, so too did the producers. Dosages were reduced. Doux, Sec, Demi-Sec and Rich all gave way slowly to Brut and Extra Brut. There’s no right or wrong to this. Champagne simply changed to something slightly different. Perhaps it’s because, historically speaking, Champagne wasn’t all that wine-y a region. It became a wine region to meet the demand of those buying bubbles. Before that, it was famous for textiles and chalk mines. And as a wine region, it supply always seemed to be chasing demand. It’s a luxury every wine region dreams of. It also doesn’t allow for much dogma.
Nowadays, the ability of these producers to change is being tested in different way. Climate change has accelerated in the last decade and a half, and the cool weather that brought high-acid wines is becoming a thing of the past. The big houses are building new presses closer to the vines - speed to press and reductive vinification is seen as essential to maintain freshness and combat lowered acidity brought by warmer weather. NVs these days are more green apples and lemons than orange peel and marmalade.
Of course, these are sweeping statements. The smaller houses in Champagne are some of the most exciting independent wineries in the world right now. More attention has turned to viticulture than ever, and the result is wines that are redefining brilliance in the region. I’m not talking about gold-clad melchiors or single-Clos Krugs (though the latter are nice too), I’m talking about wines no one’s ever heard of, that I don’t even remember the name of. Tiny little Champagne houses making incredible wines… hipster Champagnes if such a thing could exist…
I’m sorry - I got sidetracked. I was supposed to be talking about the style of sweet Champagne being lost to history, a footnote for nerds to look at in their WSET texts. I remember when I did my advanced, they were unable to name a single Doux cuvée still in production. I’m a nerd. I love footnotes. I also love residual sugar from 0g/l all the way up to PX at 400g/l and Essencia at 650g/l. So when Pete, my resident Champagne lunatic, showed me some of his latest additions to his hilariously overstocked cellar, I said “let’s buy a shitload of pâté and drink some sweet Champagne”. He thought this was a great idea.
I don’t think sweet Champagne is on the verge of making a tremendous comeback. The only sweet wines that seem to succeed beyond the adoration of wine nerds are the ones that lie about their sweetness. Wines for consumers that think they like dry wines but are really drinking cunningly concealed sugar-bombs. It’s a shame, but there you go.
Doyard Le Libertine Champagne Doux
This is really expensive. It was €120 at the cellar door. They wouldn’t tell us anything about it, other than it was bottled in 2008 and dosaged to 135g/l of residual sugar. I’d never had a Doux Champagne before. My closest comparison, in my mind, was sparkling Icewine from Canada. Boy was I wrong.
Rich gold with tiny bubbles that move at their own pace.
Intense, slightly funky nose of candied peaches, baked honey. Earthy at times, and with a hint of beeswax. Very heady once it comes out, but it needs coaxing.
Incredible richness, both ripe and candied fruits. Incredible with duck liver pâté and orange. It’s like plugging it into a socket with food - brings out so much lift and energy. The fatty pâté and delicious goose rillettes bring out spices - cloves and cinnamon. Earthy and surprisingly grippy. Oats and honeyed peaches and apricots rolled with pastry. It fills every corner of the mouth and demands you move your tongue around as much as possible, tracing every complex nuance of sweetness and savoury. I reckon this could age a century, because once that sweetness grabs the food, there’s a bracing, almost brazen, acidity underneath. It’s utterly bloody delicious. And it’s somewhat like tasting a bit of the past. This is what Champagne used to be like. Bubbles and a sugar rush. Amazing.
Pierre Legras Demi-Sec Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
This is not normally sold to the public, but Pete was given the opportunity to purchase it after a half-hour tasting turned into a 3 hour tour/tasting and discussion of all things Champagne. It’s not normally sold because Monsieur Legras likes to drink it himself with his wife, and no one wants to buy Demi-Secanymore. But he likes to drink it, so he keeps back some of his bottles to dosage a bit heavier. This cuvée is a blend of the 1995 and 1996 vintage and is dosaged to 35g/l of residual sugar.
Beautiful, mature gold with speedy, medium-sized bubbles.
Heady, rich nose - honey and and a touch of earthiness. Then there are some biscuit notes and clean, fresh mushrooms.
Rich and complete on the palate. Honeyed, with a bit of hay, a touch of cep. Gorgeous with the food (selection of pâtés) always seeming to lift. There's a touch of that dirty honey sweetness on the finish. It's a pleasing, structured darkness. Very firm at its core, layered, with the flavours quite happy to play off each other’s nuances. They never quite hit the same points twice. It’s exciting to drink with the food, and see what happens next. Quite brilliant.
Tasted somewhere in Fulham, 1 December 2013