“Style” is one of those words we’re not supposed to use when we write about wine because it means different things to different people. But, like it or not, champagne has style and if you taste enough, or simply pay attention to what comes your way over the years, you too will come to recognize that the “style” of Pol Roger is different from the “style” of Veuve Clicquot.
It’s the subtle distinctions that form the basis of all comparisons in the Champagne region. Ultimately, the nuances establish a champagne producer’s “house style”, be it light and ethereal, rich and robust, the heavy toasted/biscuity style, or fresh, mineral citrus offerings.
Blending is at the heart of any champagne’s style and it begins with the fruit. Three major grapes are used in champagne and it’s the mix of the trio that ultimately defines every house style. When pinot noir dominates the blend the wine is noticeably richer. The extra body and weight that stems from the power of pinot noir also lends the sparkler the ability to age longer in the bottle, further increasing the complexity and power of the wine.
If chardonnay is the focus, the wines tend to have a leaner structure that’s often lighter and creamier in the mouth. Elegance and finesse are the hallmark of exceptional chardonnay and, with few exceptions, this style is often better appreciated when young, at least here in North America.
Pinot meunier is the region’s swing grape. In essence, it’s the fruit component that, while never as prominent in champagne as it might be in sparkling wines from the United States or Australia, plays an important role in the final assemblage or blend.
It’s only days from the 30th Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where organizers have designated sparkling wine as an underlying theme. Since all champagne is sparkling wine and many will be poured, I thought it might be useful to explore the broad category of champagne known as non-vintage brut (“brut” means it’s dry).
Interestingly, the somewhat derogatory term “non-vintage” is an expression many champagne houses are moving away from, preferring instead to describe these sparkling jewels for what they are: multi-vintage, multi-blended wines containing different grapes from scores of vineyards that more often than not contain one or more years of reserve wine.
It’s the flexibility to add older wines and draw from a diverse range of vineyards that allows each champagne house to reproduce a consistent taste and/or house style year in and year out — not unlike a fine cognac or blended whiskey.
In the case of non-vintage champagne, aging is not normally recommended, but for the bigger wines such as Bollinger Grand Année, Veuve Clicquot and the Heidsieck, another year or two in the cellar always helps.
Here’s a tip. When you purchase non-vintage champagne, use a felt marker to record the purchase date right on the label. That way the next time you’re in the cellar looking for a bottle of bubbly you can be sure your guests will get the oldest aged bottled every time.
What follows is a review of some of the more popular non-vintage blends in the market with a brief comment about its style. No matter what your choice is, expect to be pleasantly surprised by each wine’s style every time you pop the cork.
Multi-Vintage Brut Champagne
Bollinger Special Cuvée, $76
Bollinger is a big brut of a sparkler. Firm acidity and a restrained almost oxidized character signals liberal use of reserve wines. Its big mouth-filling flavours are a sure sign of pinot noir in the blend. Serious stuff, not for beginners.
Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve, $55
The Heidsieck brut is one of the richer styles of non-vintage bubble thanks to a serious re-tooling in the late 1980s. With approximately 40 per cent reserve wines from the previous six to eight vintages this is the real thing.
G. H. Mumm & Cie Cordon Rouge, $62
Fine aromas and flavours of green apples, melon, citrus with a light toast edge. Cordon Rouge has undergone some fine improvements in the last decade including upping its reserve portion to 10 per cent.
Gosset Grand Reserve Brut, $70
Chardonnay makes up 46 per cent of the Gosset non-vintage with its creamy, baked apple fruit that is a bit fatter and toastier than a vintage style. It has additional mouthfeel or texture due to about 12 per cent barrel-aged reserve wine.
Lanson Black Label Brut, $50
Lanson Black label is a blend of 50 per cent pinot noir, 35 per cent chardonnay and 15 per cent pinot meunier. Look for a brioche and baked pear with floral, citrus honey notes. The finish is crisp and dry.
Laurent-Perrier Brut L.P., $61
Another lighter, elegant style that is perfect for those about to explore champagne. Neither too dry nor aggressive in the mouth, which should appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers.
Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial, $65
Moet is always a well-balanced bubbly that should appeal to a wide audience. Look for green apple and bread dough aromas with soft, creamy, fruity textures.
Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Premier Cru Réserve Particulière, $56
Feuillatte Brut is all about the fresh, elegant style with pear, baked apple and creamy, nutty flavours. An attractive pre-dinner style you can serve solo or with appetizers.
Pol Roger Cuvée de Reserve Brut, $60
One of the lightest, most elegant expressions of fizz in the region. Restrained fruity nose that mixes citrus/apple-like fruit in a light, creamy aftertaste. A classy, all-purpose sparkler.
Pommery Brut Royal, $60
This is fun, sipping bubbly with a honey and toasted nut nose with a racy underbelly of citrus-flavoured green apple fruit and just a wisp of minerals.
Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut, $65
A rich toasty brut with some 25 to 40 per cent reserve wine in each edition. We love the fruity, toasty aromas and the yeasty almost malty/peaty flavour on the mid-palate.
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home at the southern end of the Sea to Sky Highway in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com