Turning wine into Champagne

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

This is what the Wizard of Oz cries in desperation as he is unmasked as a mere mortal, issuing instructions to the inhabitants of the Emerald City from behind a curtain, his “magic” and might no more than a loudspeaker.

Champagne houses have traditionally been keen to keep the curtain raised between us and them, keen to preserve the mystery surrounding the process of turning the very ordinary still wines the region produces, into the sparkling nectar of the Gods that is Champagne.  Maybe they thought if we knew the prosaic truth, if we glimpsed the man behind the curtain, then the magic would be gone and Champagne’s image would suffer.

Personally I find the truth much more fascinating and think Champagne producers impress more when they share the details of the skill, hard slog and dedication needed to make their sparkling wines.  Tasting vins clairs (the still base wines which will be blended together in order to make the final cuvée) with with various Champagne Chefs de Caves over the years I am constantly reminded just what a skilful job blending wines for Champagne really is.

Floriane Eznack
Floriane Eznack

Floriane Eznack of Champagne Jacquart has a more complex job than many in Champagne, perhaps, as she is responsible for a brand that draws on wines made by three different wineries, which work together under the Alliance Champagne Co-operative.  In total, Floriane and her three cellar-master colleagues have 1,200 different wines to taste from October to December following the harvest each year.

vins clairs
Vins clairs

And what wines.  These are the vins clairs, still wines made from just ripe grapes whose main characteristic is their screamingly high acidity.  Tasting them could not be described as any kind of pleasure.  And yet she and her team must evaluate each one with an eye to how it will marry with the many other elements of the blend, including reserve wines from previous vintages – as well as the small matter of envisaging how the whole shebang will taste once it emerges from the “prise de mousse”, the process of being made to sparkle.

vins clairs in glasses
Wot no bubbles?

After four months of work deciding on the blend, the wines will be bottled with yeast and sugar and put into the cellars for their second fermentation, which will result in the all-important sparkle.  Floriane still has years to wait, though, before she – and we – can judge whether her hard work has paid off.  The wines rest on their sediment, or lees, for a minimum of 3 years following fermentation before the removal of the sediment and the emergence of the final wine takes place.  Even then, though, more patience is required:  the wine understandably goes through a period of shock following the process of disgorgement needed to remove the sediment and needs time to recover and taste as it should.  For the cellarmaster, nerves of steel as well as skill are required.

Interestingly, Floriane told me that creating Jacquart’s Cuvée Alpha prestige blend took only a couple of hours, compared to four months for the regular Jacquart Brut Mosaïque NV.  A wine produced in small quantities, made from the best of the best, I suppose, tends to make itself.  It does make me wonder, though, what Richard Geoffroy of Dom Pérignon does for the other 364 ½ days of the year.

I tasted vins clairs from the 2012 vintage, which, if they did go on to form part of Jacquart’s Mosaïque Brut, may be part of the blend on the market now, in 2017. In the meantime, Floriane and team will have gone on to taste and blend three or more releases.  Everyone involved has to have a high level of confidence that they are getting it right – it will be too late to go back!

Jacquart Champagnes are available from Great Western Wine and online at http://www.greatwesternwine.co.uk.

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