All around the world sparkling wines are connected to moments of joy and celebration, but in France they are also connected to the art of living and luxuriousness. Brands such as Dom Perignon, Bollinger and Veuve Cligot have the ability to make even the most common person drinking it, feel like a millionaire. The best champagne – obviously – comes from the Champagne area. But does the highest price also equal the highest quality? We think that sometimes the highest quality is found in the smallest brands.
Text: Jeroen Kuypers/Photography: Mieke Faes
Over the past decades, local producers of the sparkling wine have defended their exclusive rights to the term champagne with everything they’ve got. Last century a Spanish competitor tried selling their sparkling wine as champagne. The French sued them for it and were placed in their right by the international court. Since then the Spanish sparkling wine is known as ‘Cava’. Even the sparkling wines that are made in the Elsas, a neighboring area, are not allowed to be sold as champagne and are therefore named ‘Cremant’.
The region Champagne is very clearly defined, but because of commercial pressure each year a couple of thousand hectares are added. Especially in foreign countries, the demand for ‘real’ champagne is large. French wine producers had to give in on their market share to countries like Chile, South-Africa and Australia, but the champagne producers are still standing strong. They are by far the biggest seller of sparkling wines in the world.
The soil in Champagne is rich in lime, making it ideal for growing grapes. The climate however, is actually a bit too cold. A late and severe frost regularly led to a failed harvest. In order to arm themselves against this, farmers started experimenting centuries ago with planting grape varieties that are braced best against the cold. This resulted in a selection of mainly Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunieur and Chardonnay.
For many centuries, the wines that came from Champagne were slightly sparkling but not the bubbly wines as we know them now. Their taste was nonetheless already very much appreciated. Especially at the French court, where the wine was consumed in large quantities. This turned out to be an excellent advertisement for these wines as well in France as abroad, for example in England.
Through British tradesmen, the medieval Champagnards got glass bottles, which enabled them to retain the carbon dioxide in their wine for a longer stretch of time. Therefore the sparkling character of the wine gradually became as important as its taste. This brought winegrowers and wine merchants to look for ways to evolve their special, but simple sparkling wine into what we now call the ‘real’ champagne. The monk Dom Perignon played an important role in this, as did the widow Cliquot. She managed to dispose the primitive drink from its sediment via a sophisticated rotation mechanism now known as the remuage.
The history of Champagne is not only one of technical progress, but also of social misery and political and business interventions. Grape diseases and severe winters put lots of farmers in desperate positions. In 1911 the government accepted a new law, which would especially benefit the large land owners. This was enough to make the dissatisfaction escalate. The Champagne region came to an uprising. For several days a red flag was floating around the top of every church and city hall in the area. This was until the French army made a violent end to this protest. The large land owners, on the other hand, felt like Paris was counteracting their needs too. When Napoleon decided on a trade boycott against Russia, widow Cliquot simply sold her entire stock to the Russian tsar behind the ruler’s back. After all, the Russians were her biggest customers! War and trade conflicts have never been for the Champagnards. After all, both the higher and lower layers of the regional society make their living of the trade in champagne. The higher layer exists of the ones who own big champagne houses such as Bollinger, Heidseick and Krug.
You may have noticed that a lot of these big houses have German names. This is because the French owners of the first houses that exported did not speak German and therefore took on German company managers to conduct the negotiations with foreign countries. They soon saw how indispensable they were. A lot of these managers ended up marrying the boss’s daughter and later took over the business. A generation later, their sons gave the business their own name.
The larger champagne houses all have their own vineyards. Whenever you drive on the south side of the large hill between Reims and Epernay – the so called Montagne de Reims – you’ll see signs saying Moët & Chandon every couple of kilometers. Still most houses get their grapes delivered by independent wine farmers. These farmers sell about half of their harvest to large champagne houses. The other half they use to make their own champagne. These bottles hardly ever leave the region. The smaller houses usually produce for local trade only. When you go to a restaurant in the region and order a bottle of champagne, chances are significant that you’ll get a bottle with a label of an unknown brand. But does that mean it is of lower quality? Not at all! Even though the quality of the large houses is incredible, it is usually not superior to the quality of the smaller houses.
“You have to realize that at least a third of the price of a bottle of an international champagne brand, consists of marketing costs.” says Sebastien Higonet (director of Vinotilus Voyages, a travel agency specialized in champagne and wine tours to Epernay). “As a buyer you pay as much for the name as for the taste. At least with a standard champagne. It’s no different than perfume for example.” Wine tourism is popular, discovered the former representative of the champagne industry in Prague and Amsterdam. Especially rich, foreign collectors opt for a week of customized touring. “In addition, they do not only learn a lot about the beverage, they can also get their hands dirty.” Higonet and his staff bring their guests to the estates, cellars and castles of big brands (largely belonging to the same multinational: LVMH), with highlights such as the tomb of Dom Perignon in the abbey of Hautvillers and the castle of the Veuve Cliquot (her grave is a lot further, on the northern cemetery of Reims). But also to independent winegrowers who, according to him, own interesting French market brands.
One of these small houses is Domaine Nowack in the town of Vandières, on the right bank of the Marne. Though Nowack does not sound very French, the family has been located in the region since 1795. The year Jean Baptiste of the current Czech Republic came to the region around Reims to work as a brick baker. In some houses the name Nowack is still found on bricks or roof tiles. His grandson, Fernand, devoted himself full-time to the viticulture. Fernand’s grandson, Bernard, still leads a farm with vineyards, a campsite and workshops. “We deliver huge pallets of our champagne to the gastronomy throughout France,” says Bernard Nowack, “but I’m equally proud of our small exports to Italy and Switzerland.”
It is confusing that the name Nowack also decorates the facades of other champagne houses in the village. Bernard shrugs: “They are all cousins who are in the same business.” Of course he thinks that no other Nowack champagne tastes as good as his, but that goes without saying.
The domain Delouvin-Nowack is located on a proverbial stone’s throw away. There another Bernard has his own champagne brand, which is also doing well. Perhaps even a bit better, as Delouvin-Nowack even sells in Canada and Japan. Some bottles remain in the cellars for an extra long time. For example the Selection 2011, which is a blend of 80% Chardonnay and 20% Pinot Meunier. The fact that the Nowack champagne use a mix of grapes that is very common in this region, shows that the finishing touch is just as much a matter of raw materials as of human labor.
The country roads and streets of the Champagne region are dotted with signs that go to domains, cellars and shops. Tourism is therefore an important source of secondary income, but there is no mass tourism. It’s mostly individual travelers, who fill their trunks with crates full of champagne. People consume a lot of champagne in the region, but always in small amounts and there is hardly any hard drinking. The majority of those interested are gourmets, people who want to see the barrels and cellars or are looking for one specific champagne house. A trip through the Champagne region can easily take the character of a wine pilgrimage, a quest with a champagne coupe as a holy grail at the end of the journey. After all the statue of Urbanus the Second, which is visible from miles away, is there for a reason. From here, the pope gave the starting sign for the first crusade in 1096.
Those who drive several hundred kilometers to the east, end up in Alsace. This region is also known for its white wines. One of the larger producers is Dopf. Dopf is located in Riquewihr, a medieval-looking town at the foot of the Vosges. Julien Dopf visited the world exhibition in Paris together with his father in 1900. With admiration and jealousy, he saw how his colleagues from the Champagne region stole the show. Dopf was convinced that the naturally bubbling pinot blanc they used in Alsace could serve as the basis for champagne as well as the Chardonnay and Meunier planted in the Champagne region. He took an internship in Epernay to study the production methods and to later apply them in Riqhewihr. Two years later he had mastered the intricacies of the ‘remuage’ and started experimenting on the family domain. His attempts were successful. Not only did he create a bubbly drink that was unmistakably similar to champagne, he also decided to bottle it in a flute bottle. This bottle later became the characteristic of Alsatian wines.
What many big names such as Perignon, Cliquot and Moët did for the champagne industry, Dopf did for the Cremant. The Cremant d’Alsace – there is also a variant from Burgundy – is made and uncorked in the same way as champagne. The French themselves can really appreciate the drink. It is after champagne the most popular sparkling wine in the country and accounts for 13% of the total Alsace harvest. Yet there is a difference.
Cremant is made of a different grape mix, namely Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. Depending on the Pinot subspecies used, even the “Blanc de Blanc” or the “Blanc de Noirs” is mentioned. And of course there is the name. As the Champagnards are very protective, the name champagne was out of question. Though for every wine enthusiast the taste pallet is unmistakably the same. Though in the end it’s simple: every region has its own name for exactly the same wine.
As you now very well know, champagne is a special drink that needs to be treated with care. Take a look at our champagne openers, coolers and servers!