We often wonder if Champagne is out there in its own category or if it is a wine like any other. I guess the first step to defining anything is to look it up in the dictionary: France's reference dictionary Le Littré, defines Champagne as "a French province which produces a renowned sparkling white wine". Luckily, the majority of our answer is included in that short definition: Champagne is a wine that sparkles and, more importantly, comes from a very specific area in France.
If we continue to look at it strictly based on the evidence, Champagne is made from grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier - that undergo fermentation, can be blended, have the ability to age and produce a wide variety of styles, flavours and tastes. So far so good - this is almost a textbook definition of wine.
So why is Champagne always considered to be separate and distinct? The two main differences that set Champagne apart from its contempories in the still wine world are the bubbles that appear after a second fermentation in the bottle (that still wines don't undergo) and the blending of not only different grape varieties, but different vintages to create unique cuvées. These cuvées are the result of grapes harvested from particular soils at particular times, blended together to achieve the finest expression that terroir and period can offer.
While a vintage cuvée is the purest expression of what a remarkable year can achieve, non-vintage Champagne is a blend of several years, the ideal combination of younger and older wines expressing the essence of a distinctive land throughout time. This is often the most important wine in a Champagne house's portfolio as it is their benchmark of consistency and house style. It's no exaggeration to say that winemaking in Champagne is an art, with winemakers painstakingly blending many different wines into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Vintage Champagne is very different as the grapes all come from the same year, making the flavours, aromas and potential for aging distinctive for each individual year. Recently I tasted very different vintage Champagnes, from Salon 1990 to Krug 2000, Godmé 1995 and Bollinger 1990. Each of those bottles had an individual personality derived from the year they were made and, whether they were Pinot Noir-dominant or exclusively made of Chardonnay, they performed fantastically: structured, complex, aromatic, combining freshness and mature flavours, with an incredible length on the palate.
When describing young Champagne, we often refer to the floral bouquet of acacia, herbal tones of rhubarb, crisp freshness of apples, citrus, strawberry or the mellowness of exotic fruits. As we tend to drink Champagne early rather than letting it age, we often miss out on more complex aromas that come with development and maturity: buttered toast, freshly baked bread and biscuits coupled with flavours of roasted nuts. A top tip is to write on the label the month and year you buy a bottle so you can measure the development as you work your way through the case - if you have the willpower to wait!
Being the singular product of a region, with the notable ability to age and improve through time, Champagne is not all about fizziness - it is undoubtedly more complex and exciting if one knows how to be patient!
Is Champagne a wine? Yes. Like any other? Definitely not!
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