“Style” is one of those words we’re not supposed to use when we write about wine because it means different things to different people. But, like it or not, champagne has style and if you taste enough, or simply pay attention to what comes your way over the years, you too will come to recognize that the “style” of Pol Roger is different from the “style” of Veuve Clicquot.
It’s the subtle distinctions that form the basis of all comparisons in the Champagne region. Ultimately, the nuances establish a champagne producer’s “house style”, be it light and ethereal, rich and robust, the heavy toasted/biscuity style, or fresh, mineral citrus offerings.
Blending is at the heart of any champagne’s style and it begins with the fruit. Three major grapes are used in champagne and it’s the mix of the trio that ultimately defines every house style. When pinot noir dominates the blend the wine is noticeably richer. The extra body and weight that stems from the power of pinot noir also lends the sparkler the ability to age longer in the bottle, further increasing the complexity and power of the wine.
If chardonnay is the focus, the wines tend to have a leaner structure that’s often lighter and creamier in the mouth. Elegance and finesse are the hallmark of exceptional chardonnay and, with few exceptions, this style is often better appreciated when young, at least here in North America.
Pinot meunier is the region’s swing grape. In essence, it’s the fruit component that, while never as prominent in champagne as it might be in sparkling wines from the United States or Australia, plays an important role in the final assemblage or blend.
It’s only days from the 30th Vancouver Playhouse International Wine Festival, where organizers have designated sparkling wine as an underlying theme. Since all champagne is sparkling wine and many will be poured, I thought it might be useful to explore the broad category of champagne known as non-vintage brut (“brut” means it’s dry).
Interestingly, the somewhat derogatory term “non-vintage” is an expression many champagne houses are moving away from, preferring instead to describe these sparkling jewels for what they are: multi-vintage, multi-blended wines containing different grapes from scores of vineyards that more often than not contain one or more years of reserve wine.
It’s the flexibility to add older wines and draw from a diverse range of vineyards that allows each champagne house to reproduce a consistent taste and/or house style year in and year out — not unlike a fine cognac or blended whiskey.