The theoretical quality
The theoretical quality of a Champagne is determined by the following four main factors.
- The fundamental quality of the vineyard
- The quality of the year of harvesting
- The availability of a sufficient supply of reserve wines
- The quality of the producer, his team and the means he utilises.
Fact is that some vineyards, due to a more favourable position and/or a better soil yield better grapes than others. This is what I call the fundamental quality of the vineyard. This is indicated in a Cru percentage. (See below). The quality of the grapes as related to the fundamental quality (cru) may show substantial differences per year. The most important difference is determined by weather conditions between the months of February and September. Sun in summer is all right as long as there is sufficient moisture in the soil. Rain in the end of summer is bad because it makes the grapes too mushy. Too much rain is always bad because it drowns the whole lot.
The quality of the year is reflected in the so-called Vintage Charts. Wine growers harvesting at the same time, with vineyards in approximately the same area will have enjoyed similar weather conditions. The quality compared to competitors will then mainly be determined by the quality of the vineyard and the competence of the wine grower. If wine farmers do not harvest at the same time and exactly during the last week the grapes of a sluggish farmer get a serious drenching, the poor fellow’s grapes are really done for. On the other hand it might just as well happen that the slow farmer is in luck because the extra bit of sunshine during that last week increased the natural sugar content in his grapes (and consequently less chemicals are needed) which gives him advantage over his faster college who ended up with grapes of a lesser quality. The Champagne region is four times the size of the Netherlands. So you cannot be sure that weather conditions in the South were similar to those in the North. Sometimes the weather even differs from valley to valley. What was just a rain shower at one place can just as well turn into a hailstorm some kilometres further on. The Vintage Charts do not take this into account. I hardly know anyone who can make me any wiser. The Vintage quality is therefore no more than an indication. For lack of better we’ll have to make do with it.
Availability reserve wines.
You may already have read that Champagne is made of a mix of approximately 70 still wines that together will go through a second phase of fermentation and maturing in the bottle. If the harvest of one particular year was bad the quality of the Champagne can very well be improved by a generous dose of good reserve wine from previous years. One needs of course a sufficient amount of these wines. Reserve wines have a limited storage life so one cannot keep too much in stock. From a commercial point of view I can imagine that some of the smaller wine growers will use the reserve wines that are near their “sell by date” as quickly as possible, regardless of the question whether such is better for the quality. When the harvest was meagre for a couple of years the supply of reserve wines will really come to its end. The winegrower will then make a choice. Either he will buy reserve wine from others growers or he will make Champagne with little or no reserve wine at all. Here you will encounter different matters such as business philosophy, previous years, the extent of the winegrower’s financial reserves, supply and demand, etc. etc.
The quality of the wine grower, his team and the means and methods he uses are perhaps the most important factors in the overall theoretical quality of Champagne. No matter how many still wines are available, making the right mix of these wines is an art in itself. Having a cellar full of the latest technological gadgets, measuring equipment, and computers that control everything down to the finest detail will give you a better chance of producing a quality Champagne than you would have without all this. However, even if you have the luxury of such a cellar but you haven’t got a clue how to operate and adjust these machines you are bound to make a mess of your Champagne. If the vats, the appliances and systems are not kept clean you can be sure to get fungus and other nastiness in your Champagne. If the team does not keep the cellar doors closed the temperature in the cellars will fluctuate which is damaging. If grape pickers throw with the buckets of grapes, the grapes will arrive at the press all mushy. If cheap yeast is used you’ll end up with lower quality Champagne. I could elaborate in this way a bit longer but I think that I gave you a fair idea of what I mean by the quality of the wine producer. Here also goes that this quality is not a steady one but from year to year can vary considerably. Change of personnel, illness of the boss, purchase of new machinery, the cellar masters expertise, a new air-conditioning system and so on, all of these factors have their impact on the quality.
The four quality factors together, (cru, year, backup wine and winegrower) determine the theoretical quality of the ultimate product as it leaves the cellar. Possibilities, limitations and choices of the Champagne house finally determine the theoretical quality.
The practical quality.
The practical quality of what you are being served depends for a great deal of how the Champagne was transported and stored before making its appearance on your table. Even theoretically brilliant Champagnes are done for if not properly stored (dark, cool and undisturbed). (See how to serve).
Ever so often the theoretical quality has nothing to do with the consumer’s perception of quality. I know some Champagne houses that are such shrewd marketeers that time and again they succeed in convincing whole crowds of people that their Champagne is top quality while connoisseurs find the theoretical quality of these Champagnes downright below standard. On the opposite I have seen consumer tests in which (theoretically) really good Champagnes were completely written off. The most revealing and funny I find the difference between blind tasting sessions (Where you cannot see the label) and common y ones. Then, more than ever you’ll discover the effects of marketing and brand boosting.
Read more in the book “Champagne [Boxed Book & Map Set]: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region“
The practical quality is also a relative and broad notion. A particular Champagne that is wonderful for a certain moment or with a certain dish might on another moment or with different food be a totally wrong choice. Everybody knows the effect of Sangria or glühwein when consumed at the wrong moment. It just is not right…
The (perception of) quality has just nothing to do with the theoretical quality but all the more with the art of matching and promoting. You, as an advisor determine how the party experiences the practical quality of Champagne I as a simple Champagne drinker search my database for the theoretical quality and try to find out whether a certain Champagne should be drunk immediately or whether I should leave in in my cellar for another year or so. If I have to choose between buying Champagne A and Champagne B (and assume that both have been transported and stored appropriately) then I will go for the Champagne with the best price (theoretical) quality relation while taking in consideration both the occasion for which I buy the Champagne and my budget.
When organizing a Champagne advising session I have to take care that the Champagnes fit in with each other, the moment, the surroundings as well as the preference of the guests. When asked for an advice I shall first try to determine, either by asking or simply by assessment ( if there is a reason to think that people are not really interested in asking questions):
• For what kind of occasion is the Champagne needed?
• Is the person I deal with an experienced Champagne drinker or not?
• Has this person a preference for a particular taste and if so for which taste?
• Is this person looking for Champagne for short time use or does he or she intend to buy Champagne for storage.
• Does this person make his choice on a base of quality, of price, or on a base of price/quality relation? What exactly does he or she have in mind?
• Under which circumstances is the Champagne to be consumed? Champagne Cocktails?
• With what kind of food is the Champagne to be combined?
As soon as I know what I am going to recommend I will think (briefly) how to present my advice while taking in consideration my guests and my own role. People who are really interested (those who send me mails for example) will get a different advice (not a different Champagne) than people who simply want to make a quick choice from the wine list. A good adviser knows how to manage the perception of quality ere a single glass has been poured.
Serving and replenishing offers ample opportunity for steering the perception of quality. I know a number of people who, exactly at the right moment, tell exactly the right things about Champagne which makes initially apprehensive guests really switch on to Champagne. These people I rate as top sommeliers.