The Cellar Master is to Champagne what the composer is to music: the hand behind the masterpiece. Every year, the Cellar Master creates a blend of wines from different grape varieties and vineyards (plus reserve wines from previous vintages) that faithfully replicates the signature taste of the brand.
In December the House Cellar Masters conduct the pre-blending tastings: preliminary assessments of wines from different vineyards, vintages, grape varieties (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir/Meunier) and localities (commune, hamlet), looking to form a clear idea of the proportion of wines that are required to produce a blend with the desired characteristics.
Up to two hours’ tasting a day
"I taste all of the wines from the year’s harvest and also previous vintages, imprinting their individual characteristics on my mind so I have just the right word to describe them."
Pre-blending tastings are an essential first step towards blending itself, which takes place the following January. Every day Cellar Masters spend up to two hours sampling more than 25 wines, trying out various permutations in a bid to strike exactly the right note. By combining wines from different vineyards (and sometimes different vintages) they are looking to create a cuvee that clearly belongs in the brand portfolio — a task that requires intense concentration.
For the three to four weeks it takes to complete the process, Cellar-Masters shut themselves away in their offices with a metaphorical "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
"I revisit the previous year’s blend and compare it to the contents of this year’s tank. Then I create the blend on paper — 10% of the wine from here, 1.25% of the wine from there — before bench-testing it in the laboratory."
Using samples collected from the winery, the Cellar-Master then puts his theory into practice.
"The first draft is rarely any good."
You have to combine literally dozens of wines.
"I can try out as many as nine combinations before arriving at the blend I have in mind — a wine that reflects my particular vision and bears the signature of our Champagne House."
The Cellar-Master of a Grand Marque Champagne House must create a different preliminary blend for each Champagne in the brand portfolio. Those blends must then be approved by a panel of experts consisting of the Head of the House, the Management Board and the House oenological team — tasting the blends as still wines. It is barely a few months since the harvest and the wines have only recently undergone primary alcoholic fermentation. The skill lies in predicting the results of second fermentation and cellaring — a leap into the future that calls for long experience of wine tasting. Once all of the preliminary blends have been approved, the Cellar-Master can give the go-ahead for full-scale blending, which takes place in enormous tank mixers that ensure a perfectly homogeneous mixture.
The Cellar-Master’s responsibilities do not stop there, however. They cover the overall process of Champagne making, starting with the grape harvest. For three weeks, Cellar-Masters are on present in the vineyards, checking the quality of the yield from independently-owned and House holdings alike. In the course of this time they travel several thousand miles and personally visit all of the pressing centres that supply the House with grape must.
They also provide the grape growers with good advice.
"It’s an ideal opportunity to talk things over with growers, find out about any diseases in the vineyard and hear the latest weather forecast."
When they are not in the vineyards or beavering away in the laboratory, Cellar-Masters are to be found in the winery tank room. They inspect the premises every morning, reviewing their instructions and checking the log book for any new comments since the previous day’s visit.
"I keep a record of the volumes of wine processed at each stage: tirage (the addition of the sugar and yeast solution that kickstarts second fermentation); bottling; and final labelling with the coiffe (foil wrapping) neck band and front label. I also make a note of any problems — any faulty equipment awaiting replacement, any hiccups in the batch fermentation process."
This is when Cellar-Masters put on their manager’s hat and tour the shop floor, meeting the production line operators and identifying new equipment needs.
Deciding when a Champagne is ready for release is also up to the Cellar-Master.
"Sometimes you have to argue your case with sales, convince them that the Champagne just isn’t ready, that to release it before its time would be a big mistake — particularly with the British who tend to like their wines on the older, drier side."
But whatever the production process, whether harvesting, blending, fermentation or marketing, the Cellar-Master’s overriding concern is always to produce the very best wine possible.
"For every bottle of Champagne, there will be people celebrating. Disappointment is simply not an option."
CHAMPAGNE HOUSE CELLAR-MASTERS