Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why is Champagne so Expensive?

Tasted at my recent
WSET Level 2 Class
Have you ever stopped for a moment in your local bottleshop, staring whistfully at the one or two Grandes Marques Champagnes in their elegant bottles, then begrudgingly letting your eyes slide past the exorbitant price tags to a $20 bottle of nondescript bubbly? Your thoughts: "At least it's over $10 and hopefully everyone will have a few and not remember what it tasted like anyway"... 
Been there done that.

Personally, I have found in the past that part of my dilemma was feeling that I was just paying for a name. Not being someone who gains satisfaction from flashing around brand labels (clothing, wine or otherwise), I found the ramped up prices hard to swallow. But over the past year or so, an improved understanding of traditional sparkling wine production methods and exposure to high quality examples has opened my eyes to the story behind the fancy labels.

Now, for the purpose of the discussion, I acknowledge that a significant portion of the inflated price of a well-recognised Champagne (especially any that are from one of the Grandes Marques) is based upon reputation.  But I want to take you beyond this one factor and provide you with an overview of the technical reasons that Champagne costs more.

Production Methods

All wines start their life as grape juice.  The difference with sparkling wines is that the grapes need to have higher acidity and lower sugar (potential alcohol) levels to stand up to not one, but two stages of fermentation. 

For this reason, exceptional sparkling wines must be produced from cool climate grapes and, as has been shown time and time again, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, sometimes with a splash of Pinot Meunier are the most successful varieties. In fact, the aforementioned grape varieties are the only three that are allowed to be used in any wine that is to be designated as Champagne.

Don't get me wrong - the Glera grape, used to make Prosecco, and the Muscat grape, used in the Asti DOCG region of Italy, are just a few other examples of grape varieties that are very suitable for sparkling wine production.  The difference is that they tend to be used to produce fresh, fruity wines that are best consumed young.  

This is achieved using the Tank Method, where the second fermentation occurs in a sealed tank and then the wines are filtered and bottled under pressure to keep the carbon dioxide bubbles dissolved in the wine.  This production method is efficient and does not require very much manual intervention. For the record I love Prosecco and am in no way trying to discount the merits of this wine, simply demonstrate that the production method is less involved.

Champagne Flavours
Comparatively, the bottle fermentation method is much more labour intensive. Basically, a mixture of yeast and sugar is added to a dry base wine, which is then bottled, sealed and stored. I am sure you can appreciate the number of bottles for which this process has to be conducted to reach the equivalent volume produced from one tank.

As the fermentation proceeds in this sealed vessel, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and ends up dissolving into the liquid. Once all the sugar has been consumed by the yeast cells, they undergo a process called autolysis (cell death), which releases certain flavours into the wine.  These autolytic flavours are often described as biscuit, bread or toast aromas.


Now the process does not end there.  The minimum legal period for yeast autolysis in Champagne is fifteen months.  This means that Champagne houses must have a large storage area to keep all these ageing bottles a period of years.  Storing wine at a controlled temperature is a costly exercise, both from floor space and temperature control perspectives. Some lucky Champagne houses have old Roman chalk quarries as their cellars which provide ideal conditions for extended ageing at consistent temperature (how convenient!).

Once the ageing period determined by the Chef de Cave (equivalent to chief winemaker) has been reached, another labour intensive process begins. The bottles are slowly twisted on an angle over a period of days or weeks to encourage the dead yeast cells to slide down into the neck of the bottle.  Traditionally, this is conducted by hand a few times a day in a process called 'riddling'.  Some Champagne houses still employ staff whose soul responsibility over a period of time is to turn hundreds and thousands of Champagne bottles in this manner.  Of course, with modern technology, there are now machines called 'Gyropalettes' which have been designed to riddle upwards of 2,000 bottles at a time.

A Traditional Riddling Rack
The purpose of moving the yeast cells into the neck of the bottle is so that they can be frozen into a 'plug' in readiness for the process of 'disgorging'. Perhaps the most dramatic stage of the Champagne production process, disgorging involves dislodging the frozen plug from the bottle as it is unsealed.  The trick is to do this without letting too much of the precious contents flow out at the same time! Not an easy feat.

Finally, the gap left by releasing the plug needs to be filled with some more wine. Often, a small amount of sugar is added with the wine ('dosage') to counterbalance the high acidity, with the amount determining the sweetness of the end product. Then, finally, the champagne can be corked, caged and labelled, ready for sale.


Ever wondered what the difference is between Vintage Champagne and Non-Vintage Champagne? 

The majority of wines are Non-Vintage, which means that the base wine can be sourced across different vintage years. Due to the fluctuating weather events experienced in the Champagne region from year to year, blending wines from different years together allows the winemaker to produce a more consistent style.  In some cases, there can be in the order of seventy base wines combined to produce the final product. This is how champagne houses amass a dedicated following of loyal buyers - once people find the house style they like, they can feel secure that their purchases from year to year will remain in a consistent style - no nasty surprises.

On the other side of the coin, Vintage Champagne must be made up of grapes from a single year's vintage.  For this reason, many champagne houses only produce this level of wine in good years. Also, Vintage Champagnes are more likely to have been aged for a longer period of time, developing far greater complexity and additional aged flavours such as honey and nuttiness. 

So, for those special occasions that call for something unique, Vintage Champagne is the way to go. I would, however, recommend that you always conduct some research into the producer's style and check the vintage reports for that year prior to forking out. For example, 2012 and 2002 were regarded as outstanding vintages in the Champagne region, whereas 2011 was rather disastrous. You will also want to give some consideration to how long the wine spent on yeast, as this will have a large impact on complexity and flavour profile.

The Method without the Label

Champagne is really a very tiny patch of land, in the big scheme of things.  As such, there is obviously a critical mass of grapes that can be grown in the area. Champagne has high demand and limited supply.  This is another reason for high prices, just like any other luxury commodity.

Made like Champagne,
Tastes like Champagne
There are other regions in France, and other wine producing regions around the world, that produce sparkling wine made in the traditional Champagne method. If you love the yeasty nuances of a bonafide Champagne but do not love the price tag, this is where I recommend you turn your attention.  

From France, you can find wines labelled Cremant. Also, look for 'Methode Traditionale' or 'Methode Champenoise' on sparkling labels from New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and California.  Your best bet are those that are also made from the traditional grape varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier.

In Australia, I find the current host of Tasmanian sparkling wine to be outstanding.  Labels such as House of Arras, Freycinet, Jansz and Heemskerk already have an excellent reputation for consistently producing sparkling wines with depth, quality and longevity. Go Tassie!

Please note, some sparkling wines are not disgorged in the traditional method but, instead, the bottles are emptied into a tank under pressure and then filtered, dosaged and rebottled.  Although the wine you buy ends up in a different bottle to the one in which the second ferment occurred, there is generally not a huge decrease in quality from this method - but definitely a decrease in production costs.

Hopefully you have now learnt a few tips to assist you in making a more informed decision when buying a bottle of bubbly.  This should allow you to weigh up the aspects of production method, ageing potential and complexity and come to a decision on whether or not you are willing to pay for these aspects. Armed with your new-found knowledge, perhaps you will even discover a bargain!