Saturday, January 12, 2008

Preview: Our First Champagne Tasting

Champagne! The word dances off the tongue...light, airy and magical, capturing the essence of the region. It is this magic that our tasting group hopes to capture tonight at our first ever Champagne tasting.

Despite the legendary name and its status as the spiritual home of sparkling wine, Champagne accounts for less than 10% of worldwide sparkling wine production. The region covers 34,000 hectares in the north of France, with approximately 29,000 hectares under vine. When you consider that the 34,000 ha number includes area covered by homes, roads and schools, it is obvious that virtually all of the suitable land is under vine (a topic addressed here).

There are three major grapes in Champagne: Pinot Noir (~38%), Pinot Meunier (~35%) and Chardonnay (~27%). According to The Oxford Companion to Wine there is also some Petit Meslier, but I don't have any stats on that one. Most of the wine is a blend of grapes and different vintages, with 80% of the wine being non-vintage (NV). Vintage champage comes from particularly good years, on average 4 or 5 times per decade. Most champagne is a white wine, but there are also rosés (generally made by adding still red wine), "blanc de blancs" (white, but only Chardonnay) and "blanc de noirs" (white champagne from the black grapes). There are also limited quantities of still red, white and rosés. Champagne is the only major wine region in France with just one appellation, and the only appellation where producers are permitted to omit "appellation d'origine contrôlée" (or AOC) from the label.

Approximately 70% of production comes from the 7 big champagne houses, with the balance coming from growers and co-ops. (see Brooklynguy for great comments and reviews of "grower" champagne). There are nearly 20,000 growers in Champagne, with the vast majority (~14,000) selling their grapes to the big houses. It is interesting to note that 2/3rd of champagne is sold in France. For those of us residing outside of France over 90% of champagne comes from the major brands, but within France the grower and co-op champagne accounts for 50% of sales.

What will make tonight's tasting interesting is that no one in our group seriously collects or tastes champagne on a regular basis - I bet half the group doesn't even like the stuff! (all in the quest for knowledge...) Combine limited cellar selections with a competitive spirit and I expect we'll see some last minute shopping, likely to be focused on the global houses (whites and rosés). While Neil has made a strong case for "grower champagne", with a limited selection available on short notice I doubt any of these will make an appearance - Neil and I will have a rematch someday...

Unfortunately, I don't know how we are going to blind the event, and given our lack of knowledge I think we will stick to an unblinded format, as per our first large white tasting last September. Stay tuned for the results!

PS - my brief stop in Champagne last summer...

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