Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Widow Cliquot

The highlight of the tour.
There are plenty of websites that will explain méthode Champenoise  - the making of Champagne - but it's much more enjoyable to have it explained to you deep in the caves under Reims and Epernay in the Champagne region of France. Especially if the end of the tour involves tasting a glass of the product in question.

Where better to begin?
In case you're wondering how to approach a visit to Champagne, here's how we did it: we took a train from Paris Est - one hour 15 mins - and alighted at Epernay. A short taxi ride later and we were ensconced in our very French-rural B&B in nearby Cumières, a small town stuffed with Champagne houses on the banks of the River Marne.

The River Marne - flows through the Champagne region
Understanding that understanding champagne would necessarily involve tasting it, we had provided ourselves with a guide-chauffeur, the delightful Miss Sydney of Tasty Side to Life Tours who proved herself invaluable.

And where better to begin this indulgent few days than the Reims establishment of the House of Veuve Cliquot -- which we learnt means "Widow Cliquot". We also learnt that this redoubtable widow - her husband died when she was 27, leaving her with one daughter and a wine-making business - is credited with several of the more important innovations which have brought us the champagne we know and love today.

Descending into the Veuve Cliquot caves
One of the curious aspects of the Champagne region is the chalky soil, which we're told gives the delicious wine its unique flavour (along with other aspects of the terroire, or land). And this chalk is quite easy to dig - the first Romans in Gaul, as France was known in ancient times, dug quarries in this area for building materials. Those old quarries are today the underground caves of Champagne. They have been used as shelters, storage places, hiding places during the world wars - both WWI and WWII raged through this countryside (what a hideous image) -- but these days they provide optimum storage conditions for wine. 

Optimum storage conditions.
The House of Veuve Cliquot was established in 1772. And Madam Cliquot? She took over in 1805 - more or less in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars. First of all, it was pretty feisty of her to decide to run the business with which she was left, but hey - she was raised by a strong father, a mayor of the district, M. Ponsardin, and took on the challenge of learning the business and then growing it. Today, Veuve Cliquot (sometimes labelled 'Veuve Cliquot Ponsardin') is a major export label, possibly better known, or more widely drunk, abroad than in France. 

The Widow Cliquot was an early exporter, sending ships past the Napoleonic blockades and into Russia for the Tsar's dining table. In an extraordinary historical footnote, a shipwrecked cargo of champagne dating from the 1840s was recently fished out of the sea near Finland - some that didn't make it to the Tsar. Some of the bottles were Veuve - and they claim it's drinkable.

méthode Champenoise: second fermentation in the bottle.
These are the bottles in which your champagne
will eventually be served to you.
Madame Cliquot did not invent méthode Champenoise, but her house lays claim to several vital innovations, including the production of the first rose champagne (thank you, Madame Cliquot); and the first vintage champagne. Champagne is generally a blend of wine from several vineyards and years; in fact it is quite an art to correctly blend, which the big houses do in order to produce their characteristic "house taste". But a vintage champagne (millesimé) is made from only the wine of a particular year, and so can vary. Only the best years from the best vineyards are made into vintages, and there is not a vintage made every year. Millesimé may only be made when the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC), the 'chmapagne police', decides that the year has been good enough.

Upended champagne bottles, allowing the yeast lees
to settle in the neck of the bottles.
OK - here's a quick run-down of méthode Champenoise : the grapes are picked in a 2 -3 week season in late September or early October, and are quickly but gently pressed. Gently, because the colour from the skins of red grapes is not wanted in the wine.

The first fermentation then takes place in stainless steel vats (in the past, and still sometimes today, in wooden casks). Then you have flat white wines, made from three different grape varieties: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (a frost resistant variety). The champagne blender takes over, and when the correct blend has been concocted, the wines are mixed and bottled. To each bottle is added yeast and sugar, in regulated amounts, for the second in-bottle fermentation. The bottles are capped with metal caps (like beer bottles) and then laid in the caves to mature for a regulation period of time - the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) has strict rules. Champagne must age for at least 1.5 years, though most houses age it a lot longer. Vintages are aged for at least 3 years, and even longer periods.

During the resting time in the caves, the yeast then 'eats' the sugar in the bottle, causing - voila! - the delectable champagne bubbles. But how to get the yeast dregs out of the champagne? Back in Madame Cliquot's day, they basically didn't, resulting in cloudy wine. They also used a great deal more sugar - champagne in the 19th century was really a dessert drink. As a result of this yeasty concoction they lost up to 50% of their bottles in explosions (the very occasional bottle explodes today down in the caves).

Madame Cliquot is credited with inventing the tilted rack with angled holes in which the necks of the bottles are placed to allow the lees of the yeast to settle in the neck. The bottles are racked like this for a couple of weeks, and are turned a fraction every day to allow for even settling of the lees: the turning is called remuage, and in times past there were traditional workers for whom this was their specialised job. These days some bottles are still hand-turned in the big houses (and in the small ones), but there are also mechanical devices to do the task more easily and quickly.

The yeast and sugar lees in the bottle.
And here's the fun bit - when the lees have settled to form a small plug of yeast in the top of the neck, the bottle is 'disgorged': the neck is frozen (Madame Cliquot thought of this too), and when the metal cap is snapped off, the yeast plug flies out. Machines do this at lightning speed today, but in the past, and still in some boutiques, it was a hand-done operation.

The next step is called 'le dosage' - a dab more sugar syrup is added to flavour the champagne. Some boutique winemakers claim a secret recipe for their dosage - perhaps some old champagne wine, perhaps some herbs, who knows? Le dosage adds a little more character and sweetness to the wine. Of course, this needs to be done quickly, and the bottle immediately corked to preserve the carbon-dioxide bubbles that have been painstakingly maturing over the past 3+ years.

Waiting quietly for remuage, disgorement and le dosage.
Then - voila! again - the bottle is washed, labelled, wired and packed, and the finished product is ready for drinking. When you consider the repeated individual handling of each bottle of champagne, you have some understanding of its high price. Add to this the very limited growing area for grapes that can be made into genuine champagne - there are only 32,000 hectares in the champagne area - and the very high quality-control and regulation wielded by the AOC, and the delicious drink begins to seem like a bargain. Almost.

The finished product.
Pouring the three-year matured bubbles.
Madame Cliquot, immortalised on her bottle caps.
"Tastes like wedding".

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