Nothing says celebration like the pop of a Champagne bottle. It's guzzled at New Year's and sprayed liberally at victory parties. And it's remarkably easy to finish a bottle, ironic considering Champagne is in fact one of the most labor- and time-intensive wines to produce.
Behind the scenes, a crucial aspect of Champagne production is blending the vin clairs, or base wines. I recently revisited this key element with a tasting of five base wines and a final blend, conducted by Régis Camus, chef de caves of Champagne Piper-Heidsieck, based in Reims, France.
Like all wine, Champagne and sparkling-wine production begins with harvest of the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes allowed by the appellation, followed by crushing and fermentation. This first fermentation results in highly acidic still wine known as base wine. Champagne houses typically vinify each grape variety from the crus of individual villages separately. Piper-Heidsieck owns land or buys grapes from more than 70 different villages, resulting in hundreds of base wines that are tasted each year as possible additions to the final blend of the house's different bottlings.
We tasted a 2014 Chardonnay from the village of Avize, a 2014 Pinot Noir from Verzy and a 2014 Pinot Meunier from Ecueil, as well as two reserve wines, a 2009 Chardonnay Avize and a 2008 Pinot Noir Avize. Most non-vintage Champagnes are produced primarily from base wines of the current year, 2014 in this case. But a percentage of older reserve wines—base wines that were saved in previous years for their unique characteristics—are also a part of the blend.
"For me, I see it as a puzzle," says Camus. "The first piece of the puzzle is constructed of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the next of the different crus [villages] of Champagne. The final piece is the reserve wines, which we put in place to finish the picture."
We also tasted the final blend, which contained all of the base and reserve wines of our tasting, as well as many more. Although still acidic, it was more harmonious than the individual components, combining the minerality of the Chardonnays from Avize, the structure of the Pinot Noirs from Verzy, and the freshness and crunchy texture of the Pinot Meunier from Ecueil.
This final blend will be bottled along with a mix of yeast and sugar, known as the liqueur de tirage, which fuels a second alcoholic fermentation and the creation of the bubbles. After aging in the Piper-Heidsieck cellars, the wine will be disgorged to remove any sediment that may have accumulated during aging, then corked, caged and ultimately sent to the marketplace beginning in 2018.
Making all wine is a labor of love, but Champagne takes it a step further. So the next time you pop a celebratory bottle of bubbles, raise your glass not only for the occasion but also for all of the hard work that went into it.