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Assemblage de Champagne: Le Savoir-Faire Artisanal Explained

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Champagne, an emblematic region of France, is famous for its vineyards and wine production, and has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Blending, a key element in the creation of Champagne, underlines the region's unique craftsmanship, highlighting the nuances and complexity characteristic of this prestigious wine. The art of blending in Champagne, or "assemblage art", plays a vital role in defining the aromas, texture and identity of each cuvée.

This article explores the traditions and techniques that define Champagne, from the beverage's richhistory to the evolution of blending, highlighting the importance of terroir, natural viticulture, and the meticulous process of cellar aging. Current innovations and trends in Champagne savoir-faire will also be discussed, offering insight into how blending and other practices continue to shape Champagne's future in the world of wine.

The history of Champagne and its evolution

The term "Champagne" is reserved exclusively for wines produced in the Champagne region of France, from Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes. This appellation d'origine contrôlée is the fruit of a rich history, beginning as early as the 1st century with the planting of the first vines by the Romans, and evolving through the centuries under the significant influence of the Church in the development of winemaking know-how.

Historical evolution:

13th century: Popularity of still Champagne throughout France and Europe.

17th century: Dom Perignon invents the méthode champenoise, marking the beginning of sparkling wine production.

1662: Christopher Merrett describes the process of creating sparkling wine, prefiguring a controversy over the origin of Champagne.

Champagne has known periods of prosperity and hardship, notably with the phylloxera crises of the early 20th century, the winegrowers' riots, and the impact of the world wars. Despite this, the region has managed to reinvent itself, committing itself to sustainability as early as 1982 and being recognized in 2015 by UNESCO for its Outstanding Universal Value. This historic journey, marked by innovation and the protection of its heritage, underlines Champagne's unique place in the world of wine.

Key stages in Champagne production

Champagne production is characterized by a complex and meticulous process, involving several key stages to guarantee its exceptional quality. This process begins with the cultivation of the vines and the harvesting of the grapes, extending from pre-picking in November to hand-picking between August and October, scrupulously respecting the natural cycles and traditions of the Champagne region.

  • Pressing and settling: After harvesting, the grapes are quickly and gently pressed into whole bunches. The first press, called vin de cuvée, and the second, called taille, are carefully separated. The resulting must is then left to settle naturally during the settling process.
  • Fermentation and blending: The wine undergoes a first fermentation to transform the natural sugar into alcohol, followed by a meticulous blending process, the art of assemblage, where different wines are blended to create a cuvée with specific characteristics. The addition of liqueur de tirage triggers a second fermentation in the bottle, essential to Champagne's effervescence.
  • Maturation, riddling and disgorging: The bottles, enriched with yeast and sugar, rest in the chalky cellars for a minimum of 15 months, allowing for optimal aging. Riddling helps to collect sediment, which is then removed during disgorging, before the final addition of liqueur de dosage to balance acidity and carbonation levels.

Each step reflects traditional and innovative know-how, contributing to Champagne's worldwide renown.

The Role of Terroir and Natural Viticulture

In Champagne, each district produces champagnes with distinct characteristics, influenced by the unique terroir of each region. Terroir, shaped by environmental factors such as soil, climate, location and sun exposure, plays a crucial role in determining the aromatic qualities of the wines. The 34,000 hectares of the Champagne region, spread over 319 communes and subdivided into 280,000 parcels, are planted mainly with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. These vineyards, located on slopes for optimum sun exposure, benefit from a limestone subsoil that offers ideal growing conditions for the vines and perfect storage conditions for the wines.

Soil management and viticultural practices:

Soil maintenance: Use of sustainable methods such as grassing and row cultivation.

Disease control: Adoption of natural methods and complementary vine treatments.

Climatic risks: Meteorological hazards, particularly frosts, represent a significant risk for Champagne vineyards.

Organic, biodynamic or naturalviticulture is often considered a key element in the creation of terroir wines, underlining the importance of preserving this living heritage. The latter comprises a complex interplay of natural and human factors that influence the character and quality of the wine. Harvesting, carried out by hand to preserve the integrity of the berries, and pressing, a key stage in the strictly regulated production process, are decisive moments that reflect the know-how and commitment to quality that characterize champagne.

The Art of Champagne Blending

The art of blending in Champagne is a meticulous practice that begins immediately after the harvest and continues until the first day of January. This crucial process aims to create unique characteristics and signature styles in the wine, reflecting the daily work of the teams. The palette of nuances for blending includes around 300 wines, including 100 different Chardonnays, 100 reserve wines, and around 50 lots of Pinot Meunier. Each step involves tasting and grouping the wines, requiring concentration and precision to ensure consistency and the preservation of the house style.

  • Grape Varieties and their Contributions:
  • Chardonnay: Finesse with floral and mineral notes, ideal for ageing.
  • Pinot Noir: Structure and power with red fruit aromas.
  • Pinot Meunier: Rapid evolution, bringing roundness and intensity, adapted to clay soils and difficult climatic conditions.

The Maître de Chai plays a crucial role in blending, using wines from different vintages, grape varieties and parcels, as well as reserve wines. Blending is a balancing act that takes time and involves tasting sessions with a small team of specialists. Reserve wines can be used in blends to compensate for deficiencies in the current year's wines and help maintain a house's identity. Blending must respect the Champagne tradition while conveying the soul of the house and vineyard.

The Importance of Cellar Ageing

Cellar aging is a crucial stage in Champagne production, where time and method contribute significantly to the quality and complexity of the final product.

Impact of aging on lees:

Aromatic development: Prolonged aging on lees greatly influences the bouquet of Champagne, favoring the emergence of secondary and tertiary aromas such as brioche, hazelnut and cream.

Complexity: Dead yeast releases compounds that enrich the wine, adding texture and complexity.

Key steps in the process:

Remuage: Gentle rotation of the bottle to gather sediment towards the neck.

Disgorging: Expulsion of dead yeast, clarifying the wine without altering its intrinsic qualities.

Dosage: Adjustment of the Champagne's sweetness, essential for defining the wine's final style.

Storage and ripening:

Storage conditions: A cool (between 12 and 15°C), dark and stable environment is vital for optimal Champagne aging.

Aging potential: Vintage Champagnes and prestige cuvées benefit from superior aging potential, extending over several decades, developing richer, more complex flavors over time.

This meticulous process underscores the importance of patience and expertise in creating exceptional Champagnes, where every step, from riddling to dosage, plays a decisive role in crafting a memorable and distinctive wine.

Innovations and Current Trends in Champagne Savoir-Faire

In today's Champagne landscape, innovation and the trend towards more diversified and experiential consumption are manifesting themselves in a number of ways:

Production types and methods:

Blanc de blancs and Blanc de noirs: Two traditional mainstays, made from white and black grapes respectively.

Rosé Champagne: Obtained either by blending red and white wine, or by short maceration of black grapes, illustrating a creative and flexible approach.

Natural Wine Movement:

More and more Champagne winemakers are adopting biodynamic and natural winemakingprinciples , seeking to minimize human intervention. This trend underlines a growing commitment to sustainable, environmentally-friendly practices.

Consumer trends:

The sparkling wine market, including Champagne, is booming, with growth forecast to reach 51.7 billion USD by 2027. Creative marketing initiatives, such as Moët & Chandon's cocktail bartender engagement programs, aim to deconstruct stereotypes, promoting Champagne not just for celebrations but as a relevant choice for various drinking moments. The increased presence of prestige cuvées and concept stores, such as Veuve Clicquot at Selfridges, testifies to a strategy geared towards creating value and enhancing the consumer experience.

These elements underline an evolution towards a broader and deeper appreciation of Champagne, where tradition and innovation meet to meet the expectations of a new generation of consumers.

Conclusion

In this article, we explore the rich heritage and meticulous practices that characterize Champagne blending, testifying to the region's exceptional craftsmanship. The importance of terroir, the precision of blending, and the crucial role of cellar ageing underline the complexity and unrivalled quality of Champagne, honoring centuries of tradition and innovation. These steps highlight the commitment of Champagne winemakers and houses to preserving the unique character and identity of their cuvées, while meeting the most stringent quality standards.

The constant evolution of the sector, driven by current innovations and trends, indicates a desire to adapt Champagne know-how to the expectations of a new generation of consumers, while respecting the environment and sustainability. The balance between tradition and innovation remains essential to the development of Champagne, offering an authentic response to contemporary challenges. The future of Champagne, rooted in a rich heritage, looks not only promising but reflects a deep commitment to excellence, inspiring new paths for the entire wine world.

FAQ

What is the art of blending in the creation of champagne?

Champagne blending is the delicate art of combining various elements - such as different parcels of land, different grape varieties, and different types of soil and subsoil - which can be more than 130 km apart. This technique produces wines with unique characteristics.

What is the ideal composition for an exceptional champagne?

Grand Cru Champagne, renowned for its excellence, is made from the finest plots of land. The grape varieties of choice for such a blend are Pinot Noir, which brings red fruit aromas and unparalleled finesse, and Chardonnay, which is distinguished by refined notes of citrus and white flowers.

Which grape varieties are traditionally used to make Champagne?

The three grape varieties traditionally used to make Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. These grape varieties play a crucial role in defining the taste and quality of Champagne.

What is the méthode champenoise?

The méthode champenoise is distinguished by a second fermentation that takes place directly in the bottle, unlike other techniques that prefer stainless steel tanks for this stage. It is this in-bottle fermentation that is responsible for the creation of champagne's emblematic bubbles.