Champagne is still one of the world’s truly great drinks. Scotland might argue that whisky is a world-beater, even Portugal punches above its weight with Port, but for wine lovers a bottle of Champagne is one of the truly great experiences. It’s rare to hear someone say they are going to buy a bottle of iced tea to celebrate an exam pass or a birthday – Champagne is the one true celebratory drink.
The really good news is that we have a new parcel of Champagnes arriving from Paris, and we are offering a discount of 5% on pre-orders up until 11.30pm on May 16 2021. Simply make your selection from the table below, use the code champagnemay21, and claim your discount.
Champagne legends - fact or fiction?
It is such an historic drink that legions of stories have grown up around it – and some of them are actually true. Marilyn Monroe claimed to bathe in it, Coco Chanel said she only drank it on two occasions – when she was in love, and when she wasn’t - and when asked why he drank it for breakfast Noel Coward replied “doesn’t everyone?”. Winston Churchill said the Allies weren’t just fighting for France, they were fighting for champagne – and Napoleon insisted his troops saluted every time they marched past a vineyard.
Louis Roederer’s Cristal is in clear glass bottles rather than the usual green because it was made for Tsar Alexander II of Russia, who insisted he could see the colour of the wine, and also insisted the bottom was flat so no-one could place explosive in it and assassinate him. The 2002 Cristal (£360) still comes in a clear glass bottle.
English wine geeks will point out that sparkling wine was almost certainly ”discovered” in England – Christopher Merret gave his famous paper about it to the Royal Society in 1662, some six years before Dom Perignon arrived at the Abbey of Hautvillers in Champagne and told his fellow monks “come quickly, I am drinking stars.” The people of Limoux also staked a claim, but while Perignon may not have “invented” Champagne, as many people declare, he certainly studied and refined it, and worked out that different blends of grapes produced different tastes. Eventually Champagne houses, or producers, started to be established, the first of which was Ruinartin 1729. This was followed by nine more to make up the famous 10, including names such as Taittinger.
Champagne is made either of Chardonnay grapes (Blancs des Blancs), Pinot Noir or Pinot Meunier (Blancs des Noirs) , or a blend of all three. Our Egly-Ouriet, Les Premices for example has a numerically perfect 33% blend of all three grapes.
Meunier translates as ‘miller’, and the grape is so-called because the underside of the leaves are covered in what looks like white dusty flour. A few Champagnes are made from 100% Meunier but this is relatively rare.
There are also some producers who make Champagnes from the lesser-known – and grown – grapes. Agrapart et Fils for example makes one from Arbanne, Petit Meunier, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc (£58).
The importance of chalk
The grapes are grown within a designated area, a region that is famous for its soil. It is predominantly chalk, which turns out to be perfect for growing the grapes that go into Champagne. Its minerality, draining properties and heat retention give the grapes their distinctive characteristics, along with the fact Champagne is north of Paris, so its growing season is very long. The weather there is similar to England, so the grapes take a nice long time to ripen, giving them distinct flavours and ageing potential.
There is now an increasing emphasis on organic and biodynamic vineyards , going pesticide-free and some producers even insist on ploughing their vineyards using horses. Some houses also insist on transporting their bottles by sea or land, instead of by plane, to reduce their environmental impact. Ruinartis one example of this (from £69.99).
As well as three different main grape varieties, there are three different classifications of the areas where the grapes are grown. These are Cru, Premier Cru and Grand Cru, and these will to some extent dictate the price of the finished champagne. There are only 17 Grand Cru vineyards. Some Champagne houses will only make their wine using grapes from a Grand Cru vineyard, and some will only make their wine if the growing conditions are perfect for that vintage, for example our Dom Perignon 2008 (from £165). Pol Roger is another example of a wine made only with Grand Cru grapes from the Cotes des Blancs.
Once the grapes are harvested in the autumn they are put through a system called double fermentation – it's this that turns them from a still wine into a sparkling. The grapes are pressed very gently – don't forget, Pinot Noir and Meunier are black grapes – and then fermented, either in a tank or a barrel to make a still wine. Billecart-Salmon (£50) for example use steel tanks, and keep the temperature cool to preserve the wine aromas. Geoffroy Purete use stainless steel and enamelled tanks, but put a part of the reserve wine in oak.
The wines are sealed with a cap and placed in a cellar. The yeast cells slowly die off and drift to the bottom of the bottle, but are left in place to give the wine its characteristic biscuity, yeast flavour. This can take up to five years, and is called lees ageing. Leclerc Briant (£53) for example is aged on the lees for nine months, while Ulysse Collin (from £110) has three years of ageing on the lees before release.
To get rid of the deposits that have built up the bottles are turned upside down and ‘riddled’ - slowly turned and agitated - to make the yeast cells drop to the neck of the bottle. This used to be done by hand, now it is done by a machine called a gyropalette.
Eventually the neck of the bottle is filled up with sediment, which is removed by freezing the bottle neck and removing the cap. The pressure of the wine forces out the plug. The bottle is then topped up with a liqueur de tirage – and the amount of sugar in this mixture will dictate which style of Champagne is produced, from extra-brut (dry) to doux (sweet). There are also an increasing number of Champagnes made with ‘zero dosage’- no sugar added at all - for example Ulysse-Collin 'Les Maillons' (£110). The liqueur is a closely-guarded secret within each Champagne producer. The bottle is then quickly corked and its wire clasp added – the pressure in a bottle of Champagne is surprisingly great, and a lot of bottles used to explode in the cellar before glass technology gradually improved. Some producers, such as Agrapart er Fils, use jus de raisin for the second fermentation instead of added sugar. (Experience Grand Cru Blancs des Blancs £227)
After a set period of ageing the wine is declared ready to drink and released onto the market – which is really good news for drinkers, because when you buy them they are ready to enjoy. There is a huge range of styles, and the price range is massive, so try as many as you can and discover your favourite from our new parcel delivered in May 2021. And remember, if this drink is good enough for Winston Churchill and the Tsar of Russia, it’s good enough for anyone. But take our advice and don’t do what Marilyn did – it makes a much better drink than it does bathwater.
Here is our new parcel of Champagnes, you have until 11.30pm on May 16 2021 to claim yourdiscount of 5% on pre-orders. Make your selection from the table below, use the code champagnemay21, and claim your discount. One use per customer, normal delivery conditions apply. Prices below are pre-discount.