Champagne is a small sparkling wine region located approximately 140-150 kilometers east of Paris, predominantly surrounding the town of Reims, the Champagne capital, and expanding partly east toward the town of Chateau Thierry and partly south toward the town of Ay and Epernay, the little village Vertus and further south to the town of Troyes.
Champagne is roughly divided in 5 main regions (see my previous post on "Champagne and other sparkling wines" for more info), including the 3 main ones located in the Marne district:
- Montagne de Reims roughly forming a "U" shape toward the south around the town of Reims where some of the best Pinot Noir vineyards can be found.
- Vallée de la Marne extending from east to west and following the Marne River between the town of Epernay and the western part of Chateau Thierry, where some of the best Pinot Meunier vineyards are planted.
- Côte des Blancs starting from Epernay and going down south toward Vertus, home of the best Chardonnay grapes.
Champagne is a sparkling wine produced by inducing, after the 1st fermentation alcoholic, a second fermentation in the bottle by an addition of yeast and sugar, creating some carbon dioxide which can't escape from the bottle, thus creating carbonation: bubbles.
In a few steps, here is the explanation of the various phases of the "Méthode Champenoise" (also known as Méthode Traditionnelle"):
- Pressing (a.k.a. Pressurage): right after harvest the 3 Champagne's grapes (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) are gently pressed. Depending on the Champagne house, the pressing of the grapes can be different, but on average 4000kg of grapes will result in about 2550L use to produce quality Champagne (2050L of Cuvée - tête de Cuvée and Cuvée de Reserve - and 500 of Taille) the remaining liters left over from the pressing will be use for distillation and production of Marc de Champagne. Roughly, it takes about 1.2 kg of grapes to produce a 750cl bottle of Champagne.
- Alcoholic fermentation: the fist steps in the production of Champagne are very similar (or should I say identical) to white wine. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier's grapes are gently pressed then fermented, usually separately, but sometime together, depending on the producer's style, need or intuition depending on the vintage. Like for white wine, the conversion of natural sugar (contained in the grapes) into alcohol usually occurs because of natural (and sometime added) yeasts, the grape juice turns then into still white wine. The malolactic fermentation is not always used and especially not if the natural acidity of the grape juice is low. Before assembling the wines, the wines are usually "refrigerated", technically the temperature is lowered is the stainless steel tanks, to provoke the "Acid Tartaric Precipitation", and this way avoiding the formation of tartaric crystals in the bottle when put in the fridge just before consumption.
- Assembling the wines: as you may already know, most Champagnes (except the "Millésimé" better known as "vintage") are Non-Vintage (NV) and mostly "Brut" (dry), for the simple and understanding reason that they are made from wines of different vintages. For those of you who do not understand what I'm trying to say, let me explain: in order to respect the consistency, taste, balance, characteristic and style of their Champagnes (NV), vintage after vintage, and more especially year after year, the different Houses of Champagne have their own blend made with, predominantly, the gape juice of the latest harvest completed after ageing and disgorgement, with a touch of the "Cuvée de Réserve" or "Reserve" during the Dosage phase, usually a wine from the recent past years.
- More over, the blend between Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier may vary in quantity depending of the vintage and the desired style (Rosé, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, etc...) but also in quality depending on the provenance of the grapes, especially for the Houses of Champagne that traditionally continue to buy their grapes with the local growers located either in the Grand Cru vineyards (usually the best, selling their grapes from a higher price and considered 100%) or the 1er Cru vineyards (although, considered 99%, supposedly lower in quality with less expensive price for the kilo of grape, yet still excellent). Which explains why a bottle of Krug or Salon or Gosset or Bollinger or Billecart Salmon or Ayala or , in the case of this post, Marc Hebrart "Brut Non Vintage" taste pretty much the same year after year.
- In Champagne, being a Champagne maker and expert blender, like Richard Geoffroy at Dom Perignon, is not an easy task and requires refined blending skills and an accurate, very consistent palate, because, for the reasons cited above, different wines from different grapes and different areas and Terroirs are blended together to obtain a consistent Champagne that need to have the same taste, style, quality and characteristics year after year (that is also the best way for the Champagne Houses to keep their identity, their reputation and more importantly their consumers: because, even if sometime, consumers may try different Champagnes, other than the one that they like to drink the most, for different reasons, at some point, they will always come back to the one that correspond the most to their style, their envy and more especially their palate).
- Bottling and secondary fermentation (also called "Tirage" phase): usually happening in January, after the first alcoholic fermentation and the assembling, the desired assembled (or blended) wines are bottled with an addition of yeasts and sugar (also known as "Liqueur de Tirage"), slowly starting a second alcoholic fermentation in the bottle and creating some carbon dioxide which can't escape and dissolves in the bottle, thus creating carbonation: bubbles (also known as "Prise de Mousse"). The fermenting wine must remain by Champagne's law a minimum of 1,5 year in the bottle before disgorgement. Some Champagne House, depending on the desired style and taste, left the obtained Champagne for longer on its lees and yeast residues which confer roundness, viscosity and somewhat richness to the final product. The Champagne bottles slowly fermenting are closed (or sealed) with a beer-like metal capsule and a plastic "Bidule" (small plastic recipient placed against the capsule inside the neck of the bottle) to collect the lees and yeast residues and to facilitate the disgorgement.
- Maturation: Champagne are usually stored on wood standing "Palette" or rotating palette located in the multiple corridors carved in Champagne's famous chalky soils, creating kilometers of labyrinth and cavities where the Champagne can mature and age in perfect conditions. Traditionally, the bottles are stored horizontally to start with, on standing palettes made of wood, then they are manually, consistently, carefully and gently rotated a few times a day by skilled "rotaters" (skilled bottle rotating people, usually the cellar master and his assistant) and in the mean time gently and gradually inclined to gather the yeasts and lees residues toward the neck of the bottle.
- By the end of the maturation process, after a minimum of 1,5 year for non vintage and 3 years for "Millésimé", the bottles are usually up-side-down and the residues form a layer of about less than 1 inch against the capsule (in the "Bidule"). Technology has evolved and production, cost and demand eventually triggered the birth and the need for "rotating palettes", machines which rotate the bottles instead of men, often used for faster results in generic champagnes from big brands and other quantity Champagne Houses and lower quality sparkling wines production. Although, the difference in quality hasn't really been proven, the nostalgic and more traditional way of storing the bottles on wooden palettes in the dark, moist chalk cellars for 2-3 years remains the method of choice in most classic Champagne houses.
- Disgorgement (or Dégorgement): Once the bottles have mature to ideal time (depending on the Champagne house between 1,5 to 3 years and more) and are also inclined enough to have all the lees and yeast residues in the neck of the bottle, against the capsule, the Cellar master can proceed to the Disgorgement (or Dégorgement). Before 1816, Champagnes were made following the original method, also called Méthode Ancestrale (which by the way still exist and still in use for certain style of sparkling drinks in certain countries), and were cloudy because disgorgement, a method invented by Madame Clicquot, didn't exist.
- The old method of disgorgement (also called "Dégorgement à la volée") consisted for the cellar master and champagne maker to quickly yet carefully and skillfully manually open, with a special tool, every single bottle (one after another) and thus evacuate (with the pressure contained in the bottle) the unwanted lees and yeasts residues accumulated in the neck of the bottles. Although very efficient, this method was somewhat imprecise due to the amount of Champagne lost and the additional "Liqueur de Dosage" varied from bottle to bottle, allowing a certain inconsistency yet nothing really major, but at that time some bottle may surely have been better than other (or at least tasted slightly different).
- The new method, brought by researches, experiences and new technology, is roughly the same and consists to plunge the neck of the bottles in a liquid (called Brine) that will freeze the lees and yeasts residues. The formed plug of ice containing the lees and yeasts residues is then removed, also by pressure, without losing much Champagne (at least, less than the previous method). Once opened after disgorgement, the bottles need to be immediately closed after the addition of the "Liqueur d'expedition" during the Dosage phase.
- Dosage: immediately after disgorgement, in order to refill the bottles and especially close the bottles to avoid oxidation, keep consistency and quality, and determine (or obtain) the desired style, a "Liqueur d'Expedition" (a blend of sugar and vine) is added, also because all the residual sugars have been consumed during both fermentations and the Champagne taste will not be as pleasant without this addition of sugar. The amount of "Liqueur d'Expedition" varies depending on the final, desired style and taste and will determine the "Dosage" of the final produce: e.i. a Champagne "Brut" will contain less sugar than a "Demi-sec" or "Extra-Dry" (yes, I know it is confusing, but it is how the British defined it at first and it stayed with tradition, "Extra-Dry" should be dryer but for Champagne it is the opposite, it is sweeter...go figure).
- Corked: right after the Dosage phase (addition of the "Liqueur d'Expedition"), the bottle are securely corked with a "Muselet" (or cage) to avoid accidents. The quality of the cork is essential to maintain the quality of the Champagne. The final products will then rest for a certain period of time (depending on the Champagne House) before release.
FYI: By the way, the Champagne cork, the form of the Champagne bottles and the chalky naturally temperature controlled underground cellars were also developed around Dom Perignon's time, during the 17th and 18th century when the monk of the Champagne area discovered (or re-discovered depending on the source) roughly everything at the same time and were forced to find a solution: basically, during the second fermentation not appropriate and not well attached corks were flying all over and bottles were exploding due to the pressure but also due to external temperature too, eventually after multiple attempts and experimentation, the right bottle shape and the right cork were found and used. The natural and constant cool temperature of the human carved chalky cave underground constituted the perfect maturing place for Champagne and sparkling wines in general (but still wines too, take for example the cellars of Saint-Emilion). As a matter of fact, like in Bordeaux, most Champagne houses were built with rectangular sculpted chalky stones carved out directly from these caves.
Moreover, the traditional Champagne method, also called "Méthode Champenoise", is known since the 17th century. Although he didn't really discover it but yet was a quality pioneer in sparkling wine who developed it and somewhat perfected it, this method was attributed to "Dom Perignon" a Benedictine monk from the "Abbaye de Hautvillers" (north of Epernay). In fact the British were the first to study, understand and appreciate the desirable and attractive trait of Champagne and its bubbles.
Champagne is produced exclusively within the Champagne region of France, from which it takes its name. And because of now established international treaty, national law and quality-control/consumer protection related to local Champagne regulations, the name of "Champagne" can only be used for the wines produced in the Champagne appellation. In Europe, this principle is enshrined in the European Union by Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status. Other countries, such as the United States, have recognized the exclusive nature of this name, yet maintain a legal structure that allows longtime domestic producers of sparkling wine to continue to use the name in certain circumstances. But otherwise, it is forbidden to call a sparkling wine produced else where than Champagne to be called "Champagne". In France, sparkling from other regions may be referred as "Mousseux" or "Crémant" or "Pétillant" (depending on the method). Other sparkling wines from other countries may mention on the label "Méthode Traditionnelle", or Traditional Method, or if the method is different, one may read "Méthode Charmat" (Charmat process or method), "Méthode Ancestrale" (ancestral method), "Spumante", "Frizzante", or even "Sekt".
In fact, it is still possible to find, in the US market, wines bearing the names of famous Appellations because during the early 1930's, most of the French wine regions' names were not well protected. Names like "Chablis" and "Burgundy" from California, for example, have absolutely nothing to do with the original names or appellations. Despite the fact of bringing more regulations about what it is possible to do or not to do for producers and growers within the limits of an appellation, the INAO ("Institut National des Appellations d'Origine") and the AOC ("Appellation d'Origine Controlée") were created in 1935 to defend and protect the name of the different Appellations and their wines against fraud and counterfeit, and especially to limit the used of them.
However, after this long article about Champagne, let's get back to our Champagne of the day:
Marc Hébrart is a fairly new, exciting producer from the Vallée de la Marne, producing really enjoyable Champagnes from about 12.5 hectares of vineyards planted on chalky, limestone soils with mostly 75% of Pinot Noir in the great 1er Cru vineyards of the villages of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Avenay-Val-d’Or and Bisseuil, complemented by 25% of Chardonnay from the Grand Crus Chouilly and Oiry in the Côte des Blancs. Marc Hébrart winery is located in the underrated village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a 99% villages considered 1er Cru and home of another one of my Champagne Rosé: Billecart-Salmon.
Jean-Paul Hébrart, the current owner and winemaker, somewhat inherited of the property from his parents, Marc Hébrart and his wife, who started making Champagne in 1963. Due to the high price of the land in Champagne, they slowly and gradually bought and planted more vineyards. In 1983, their son, Jean-Paul started is own little production. In 1997, to keep and secure the lands within the family, Jean-Paul and his parents created a company (E.A.R.L Champagne Hébrart) by merging the two enterprises together, subsequently Jean-Paul became the director of this little family run company. Marc Hébrart Champagne is a Récoltant-Manipulant (RM), meaning that the Champagne house owns its own vineyards and produces Champagnes only with their own grapes and do not buy any grapes from other growers.
Jean-Paul Hébrart is somewhat a purist and a traditionalist, who prefers applying natural methods in the cellar but also to the soils and vineyards rather than using unnatural products like pesticides, herbicides, etc.. Hand selected and harvested grapes, Bucher pressing, fermentation in "petite cuvée", malolactic and hand remuage. Hébrart represents a departure from the other producers in this portfolio, for Jean-Paul’s wines marry the top Pinot Noir sites of the Vallée de la Marne with Grand Cru Chardonnay sites in the Côte des Blancs. From Skurnik point of view, Hébrart is more similar to the philosophy of Gimonnet than to that of Larmandier-Bernier, for the connoisseurs who also know these two producers. Hébrart’s wines are buoyant and lithe with deft integrations of minerality and juicy fruit, with excellent balance, acidity and length.
NV Marc Hebrart Brut Rosé 1er Cru Champagne Vallée de la Marne France
Suggested retail price $41-$45
Imported / Distributed by Michael Skurnik wines
Disgorged in December 2007; it was made with wines from the excellent 2005 vintage, completed with the still Mareuil red (10%) coming from 2004 vintage. The base is half-half Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and all the Chardonnay come from Grand Cru vineyards. 2005 is one loveable vintage, offering both-solid-and-ethereal wines, with great clinging fruit and a silvery aurora of chalk that almost sizzles on the brilliant finish.
Over the last 2-3 years, I tasted Marc Hébrart Rosé in many occasions and it rapidly became one of the favorite "Champagne Rosé" of my wife and I, with Billecart-Salmon Rosé and Laurent-Perrier Rosé. The last time was for the 3rd birthday of my son last week-end, and once again, it was a wonderful experience.
NV Marc Hebrart Brut Rosé 1er Cru Champagne has a light, pale salmon, pink color with captivating reflects and is already pleasing to observe in the glass. The nose is fresh, clean, delicate, mineral, floral and inviting. The palate is quite impressive, somewhat light, delicate and almost fragile in the attack yet expanding nicely in the middle palate with light raspberry and vivid red berry flavors complemented by rose petal, floral notes and lifted by a great, racy acidity. The lingering finish is quite dry with dry red cherry and raspberry notes. Overall, it is a well crafted, very feminine Champagne with a complex and seductive yet friendly and approachable attitude. I loved it everytime I tasted it, and this last time was no exception. Highly recommended for the lighter, less rich and yeasty, yet sophisticated and balanced Champagne's lovers.
LeDom du Vin
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