Feature: Champagne

BY JO AUSTIN

Champagne is a seductive luxury and airlines know that their choice of vintage really can make all the difference.

The bubbles started flowing at Heathrow Terminal 5 in the British Airways’ First dedicated Champagne lounge where Master of Wine and British Airways’ Business class wine buyer, Keith Isaac, took me through my tasting paces. The hues, the aromatic complexity, the bubbles, the palate and the longevity all had to be considered.

While Champagne is traditionally offered as an aperitif, it is increasingly being served as an accompaniment to savouries and some desserts and its popularity for all things celebratory over the past 200-300 years is not dwindling. One tradition that Champagne will never alter is the popping of its corks. Champagne has to have a cork in order to have an appellation.

No screw tops here. Equally no plastic bottles for Champagne, in spite of the weight challenge onboard. “Plastic bottles in the air can still have an image problem, although there are big savings in Economy,” says Keith Isaac.

The technology for bottling sparkling wine in PET has in fact already been designed in New Zealand and won recognition in the 2016 Onboard Hospitality Awards as a new comer in the field. PETolo is a 200ml PET bottle with a five layer barrier technology in its walls which has been launched through Ratcliffe and Brown, wine specialists in supplying the travel industry.

The ‘making’ of Champagne has not changed in centuries. Traditions are strong as are the families who own the great houses. Great names such as Moët, Bollinger and Krug are the ‘grandes marques’ and the origins of the first sparkling wines go back to Roman times. Monks produced sparkling wine for use in the sacrament of Eucharist and French kings were traditionally served Champagne as part of coronation festivities.

Creating Champagne remains the responsibility of the cellar master and his team of winemakers and to this day Champagne can only be produced in the tiny region of its namesake in north-west France. Covering an area of around 76,000 acres between the towns of Reims and to the south of Epernay, the region is made up of around 320 villages, home to 5000 growers.

Consistency is the biggest challenge says Elizabeth Sarcelet, chief wine-maker at Champagne de Castelnau. “We produce around nine million bottles of Champagne a year using the grapes from 350 wine growers. My team (mostly female) tastes around 20 cuvées every day to ensure we can retain a consistent style and quality. We estimate there are 29 million bottles in our cellars!” Storage these days tends to be in stainless steel vats but there are plenty of oak casks to be seen in the Castelnau cellars, dating back to the 1890s. Champagne de Castelnau has just released a de luxe cuvée to celebrate the founding of the house in 1916, labelled Hors Catégorie.

The art of creation

“Champagne-making is similar to the art of blending perfume. It comes with hundreds of rules and regulations as one would expect,” says Virginie Delcourt of Champagne Henriot.

The chalky, limestone soil in this flat, rolling landscape is ideal for growing the principal grapes that make up Champagne, namely Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Unlike classic vineyards, the grapes in this region are grown low to the ground in order to retain as much warmth as they can from this north-lying region.

The law of Champagne-making states that it can be made only of two black grapes and one white grape, all of which must be hand-picked.

“It’s all about the terroir (soil and climate)”, adds Virginie. At Champagne Henriot it is the minerals that make the difference. Taking grapes from north-orientated villages, Henriot talks of acidity, longevity and elegance. “Chardonnay gives us style and Pinot Noir brings the fruit”.

There is a lot of talk about vintages in the world of wine but in the case of Champagne around 70-90% of production is non-vintage. A vintage Champagne, the product of one single year, is aged for longer and might be declared three out of every ten years and the grapes might come from many different crus and from many villages in the region. A de luxe cuvée is superior to a vintage Champagne and is the choice of most airlines for their First cabin; British Airways serves Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle NV which can be aged anything up to nine years.

The Champagne industry is distinctly female-orientated, most famous being Veuve Clicquot who took on her husband’s wine business when she was widowed at the age of 27. In the case of Laurent Perrier, Laurent was tragically crushed in his cellar leaving 29 year old widow Perrier to take on the business. The First World War took its toll on the industry leaving many more widows to run ‘the house’. The industry almost collapsed in the 1920s but saw a huge resurgence post WWII.

The Prosecco challenge

But what is all the fuss about and is it really worth paying the extra? After all, the sparkling wine from Italy’s Prosecco-producing regions are proving popular. Andrew Brown of Ratcliffe and Brown, says: “It’s horses for courses, Prosecco is made using the Charmat method in tanks and is a lot cheaper to produce than Champagne’s labour intensive Methode Traditionelle where the wines undergo a second fermentation in the bottle. The flavour profiles are completely different. Prosecco is made from Glera and is light and floral. Champagne, traditionally a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier can be rich and complex as well as fresh and crisp. Is the appeal of Prosecco just price? No, it tastes great too. But, when it’s time to christen the bows of my new super yacht, only Champagne will do.”

In the case of British Airways, the choice is Champagne with the consumption across the fleet being around 680,000 bottles a year and a choice of three Champagnes in First, two in Club World. Top of its range is Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle and all top airlines tend to include a de luxe cuvee in their First range. Grand Siècle is the showpiece of this great cuvée blending the finest growths and the very best harvest to deserve its luxury status.