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Blending a Grande Marque cuvee

"The conscientious musician must partake of Champagne in order to compose a comic opera. He shall find a frothy gayness therein.
Charles Baudelaire, Paradis artificiels, « Le Vin », 1860.

From Cellar Master to Conductor

Champagne Houses buy grapes from the four principal Champagne AOC growths: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the Côte des Bar. These four regions produce grapes with very different characteristics but they share a common denominator: their exceptional quality.
Champagne vines are meticulously tended to ensure that only the finest raw materials go into the bottle. So it is that every Champagne is an ode to harmony, a fusion of different qualities that come together to create a wine with an unmistakable House style. Every Champagne brand has a very particular signature that must be faithfully replicated from year to year. The person in charge of that task, the keeper of the House style if you like, is the Cellar Master.

The conductor who leads an orchestra is in many ways similar to a Cellar-Master. Both share the same ability to form separate elements into a single harmony. Just as the conductor must play with high notes and low notes, pauses and repeats, so the cellar-master must play with different but complementary wines from different growths, different grape varieties and different vintages. The aim of the blending team is to produce a wine that year after year bears the hallmark style of the House. For them there is no music sheet, just a wealth of knowledge and oenological experience. In their choice of wines, they rely entirely on their nose and palate to select the best of the best.

January sees the Cellar Master and House oenologists conduct a detailed tasting of the wines from each vineyard. Like musicians, they explore different combinations of sensory qualities in their search for perfect harmony: a performance worthy of their House’s reputation for excellence in winemaking. The cuvee that emerges from this process embodies the singularity of Champagne making. Its creation is a testament to the blending team’s ability to predict the aging capacity of the blend based on their appreciation of the wines from which it is composed.

A Cellar Master has a trained nose and palate in much the same way as a conductor has a trained ear. Since the wines vary from year to year, the Cellar Master’s sensory awareness is critical in assessing the year’s production, looking for those signature flavours that must be combined in just the right proportion to create a perfect marriage of aroma and taste. The first step is to create blends of wines from the same growth and sometimes neighbouring growths. The next step is to combine these blends in proportions that bring out certain key characteristics — delicacy, liveliness, vinosity and aroma. The process has to be repeated again and again. tasting and comparing every permutation until the ideal combination emerges. Final production takes place in enormous mixing vats or tanks that ensure the homogeneity of the blend.

With the deftness of a true artist, the Cellar Master assembles a blend that displays three important tasting properties: attack, completeness and length. Three qualities that are owed to the specific characteristics of the wines used to create the blend.

Winemaking: Blending

"Strength in Unity"

This common expression has particular meaning in the making of Champagne. It is the bringing together of wines with different personalities that gives such character to the final blend. This is turn explains the wealth of flavours in Champagne and the varied vocabulary that is employed in its description:

"I expected to find something bold and insolent, but gay, free and vivacious, something with the sparkle of Champagne."
Alfred de Musset, Confessions of a Child of the Century, 1836.

The three grape varieties used to produce Champagne are like the soloists in our orchestra. Each one contributes its particular voice to the ensemble, expressing the inherent characteristics of the Chardonnay, the Pinot Noir and the Pinot Meunier.

The unique taste of Champagne comes from this subtle symbiotic relationship between its different components. By blending together wines with complementary characteristics, the Cellar Master paves the way for that synergy of aromas that occurs after the Champagne has undergone secondary fermentation in the bottle. It is then that the wine sings with one voice.

In most years a percentage of old, reserve wine is added to the final blend. Reserve wines impart softness to the blend. They make a young Champagne more mellow, rounding-off the personality of the year’s wines to produce a taste consistent with House style.

Reserve wines are the wines held over from previous vintages, filtered then stored in vats or tanks that protect them from air. Their addition results in a Non-Vintage or Sans Année Champagne that must spend at least 15 months in the bottle before release —the minimum aging period required by law for Champagne wines.

In exceptional years, on the other hand, the House may decide to bottle a Vintage or millésimé Champagne: a wine made exclusively from the grapes grown in that year. The year of vintage is displayed on the label and also on the cork. By law, Vintage Champagne must spend at least three years in the bottle before release. In the course of this time, it develops a highly distinctive character that largely defies comparison. unlike its non-vintage counterparts which are specifically blended to ensure consistency of taste from year to year.

There are also Blanc de Blancs Champagne wines: light, elegant wines made exclusively from the white, Chardonnay grape. A Vintage Blanc de Blancs is produced from the fruit of a single exceptional year [1] ; a monocru Blanc de Blancs is a single-vineyard Champagne. The origin of the grapes has a big influence on the style of Chardonnay, which may be delicate or relatively robust depending on the vineyard area — whether the eastern reaches of the Montagne de Reims, the Côte des Blancs, the Côte de Sézanne or the Côte des Bar. The aromas too are variable, ranging from nutty to fruity (white flowers, citrus) or floral.

The counterpart to the Blanc de Blancs is Blanc de Noirs: a full-bodied, more pungent Champagne made exclusively from black-skinned, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes. Blanc de Noirs may be a vintage or non-vintage blend, sourced from a single vineyard (monocro) or several vineyards. This is a wine in the image of its terroir, with gamey, animal-like characteristics and aromas of leather and musk.

Rosé Champagne is typically a vintage blend, made in one of two ways:

  • either by leaving black-skinned grapes to macerate in the must until the desired colour has leached out of the skins and into the juice;
  • or by the blending of white and red wines prior to secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Cuvée Spéciale Champagne wines, also known as Cuvée de Prestige, are the ultimate expression of the Brand. These are wines with grand-sounding names (Cristal, Dom Pérignon, Grand Siècle, Comtes de Champagne, etc) often presented in specially-designed bottles (Célébris, Spécial Club, Taittinger Collection, Belle Epoque, etc.) The choice of grapes and vineyard, together with the aging period, puts special cuvees in a class of their own.

As will be clear by now, blending is the high point of traditional Champagne making. It is the stage that guarantees the consistency of taste from year to year, producing a wine with the characteristic flavour profile of the Champagne House in question.

Cold stabilisation

Once blending is complete the wine undergoes cold stabilisation: the process of chilling the newly-blended wine to prevent any cloudiness or instability in the finished product.

Cold stabilisation is essential in the making of Champagne, which like all effervescent wines is particularly susceptible to the formation of tartrate deposits: crystals of potassium bitartrate, rendered less soluble by the wine’s slightly higher alcohol content following secondary fermentation. In some cases these tartrate crystals can be large enough to interfere with remuage and also lead to significant loss of wine and CO2 at the moment of disgorgement. The likelihood of tartrate precipitation increases whenever the temperature of the wine drops below minus three to minus five degrees Celsius (the threshold temperature for spontaneous crystallization). Shipping the wine in cold weather, for instance, or leaving it in the refrigerator for prolonged periods, are typical of the conditions that favour crystal formation. While crystal formation is an entirely natural process, it is definitely best avoided in wine — hence the need for stabilization.

Various methods of stabilizing wine are discussed below.

1-Prolonged stabilization at near-freezing temperatures
A four-step process consisting of seeding the clarified wine with cream of tartar crystals that accelerate crystallization.

  • 1 The wine is chilled to freezing point using a refrigeration and heat transfer system.
  • 2 The wine is held at a very low temperature for six to eight days in insulated tanks.
  • 3 The chilled wine is drawn off the sediment, keeping the temperature down to prevent the potassium bitartrate cystals from re-dissolving in the liquid.
  • 4 The freshly filtered wine is now sufficiently stable to undergo gentle warming, using the energy transferred from the next batch of wine for stabilisation.

2-Contact stabilization
This very rapid method of stabilization uses the combined effect of chilling and crystal seeding: the cold, but not frozen wine, is kept in contact with the tartrate for about four hours, stirring constantly.

3-Continuous stabilization at near-freezing temperatures

The wine is held in a tank and chilled to near-freezing, stirring constantly for about 10 minutes to keep it in contact with its own potassium bitartrate crystals. It is then filtered and pumped through a heat exchanger. Crystallization is accelerated by equipment that allows the wine to be cooled below its normal freezing point.

While all of these methods give good results, the Cellar Master’s input is essential for checking the clarity of the wine and timing the changes in temperature. The results must be constantly monitored to prevent mishaps such as oxidation, loss of CO2 or the precipitation of pigments.

In the beginning we had batches of must from different grape varieties and vineyards. These were then transformed into wine by the natural process of fermentation: the consumption of the grape sugars by the yeast, producing alcohol. That wine was then clarified and drawn off its sediments, leaving us, three months later, with an attractive gold-coloured Champagne ready for blending. The scene is now set for the next chapter: the wine’s development in the bottle or magnum depending on the Champagne in question.

The Land of Champagne : 04 - Winemaking, Partère One