Written by: Sara Underdown
The true art of champagne making lies in its blending; largely because of the difficulty associated with producing a good and balanced wine from a single location and grape variety. Climate irregularities (producing poor vintages), house style and volume needed to meet sales demand requires wine to be blended from different locations, grape varieties and vintages.
Reserve wines are a necessary and integral part of blending non-vintage champagne every year. They are produced by becoming base wines – undergoing the first fermentation – and then stored (in a tank, bottle or barrel) and used to blend the champagne at a later stage. The act of blending reduces vintage variations (ensuring consistency) and adds complexity in the production of non-vintage champagne.
Importantly, this ensures that champagne producers are able to achieve their house style year after year as well as making young champagne drinkable; imparting depth, roundness, toastiness, oak characters (if stored in barrels) and complexity as well as restraining the very high levels of acidity naturally present in the wine.
Having a large collection of reserve wines is imperative for the Chef de Cave (chief winemaker) to successfully blend a wine to overcome vintage variations and achieve house style. Therefore, wine must be developed from many different locations right across the Champagne region. Champagne Houses use their large buying capacity and network of growers to gain the very best access to grapes in order to produce a large library of wines that can be stored as reserve wines. By way of example, Bollinger’s Special Cuvee uses 120 different parcels of land across 30 crus from the Vallee de la Marne; around 80 per cent of which are of Grand Cru and Premier Cru quality. It is generally considered that the more wine that is blended together from different and geographically diverse parcels of land, the more complex and better quality the resulting champagne will be.
The amount of reserve wine used in each blend is at the discretion of the Chef de Cave and varies (typically between 10 and 50 per cent) according to vintage conditions and the requirements of house style. Some Champagne Houses, like Louis Roederer for example, are known for using generous amounts of reserve wines (up to 12 per cent) to create their signature toasty, rich and complex non-vintage champagne. At their premises in Reims, they have 150 oak barrels used exclusively for reserve wines. Kept in their year of vintage, there is enough wine for 1.3 million bottles – the largest collection of reserve wine in Champagne. Of course, this large collection of reserve wine could not be possible without excellent access to the precious grapes that afford such a bountiful supply. Louis Roederer is the largest owner of vineyards in Champagne; guaranteeing them 75 per cent of their required production levels each year. Having access to the best grapes in significant quantities year after year has enabled Roederer to develop excellent reserve wines that have consistently produced very high quality non-vintage champagne year after year (irrespective of vintage conditions), and a strong and identifiable character. The greater the percentage of reserve wine added to the final blend of champagne, the better quality and complex it will be.
Lastly, the more the reserve wines used in a blend, the less dosage is required to smooth out vintage variations. By way of example, the very hot 2003 vintage produced many inconsistencies in grape quality across Champagne. Champagne Houses that used a high proportion of reserve wines were able to successfully smooth out these inconsistencies and produce drinkable, quality champagne that is quite dry on the palate.
So it would seem that using increasingly higher amounts of reserve wine not only improves the overall quality of champagne, it is also a key point of difference that separates champagne from other sparkling wines around the world.
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