Back when villagers worked by candlelight and the bubonic plague ran amuck, France was the only country known for quality wine. That’s not the case today. Stroll through a store and you’ll see wines produced in regions far from the Eiffel Tower: China, Chile, New Mexico, India. The 21st century has witnessed an exponential and unprecedented growth in wine production in all parts of the world, and from Napa Valley to Slovenia, indeed there are wineries giving France’s top bottles a run for their grapes.
But it’s unlikely that a region will ever dethrone the bubbly, kingly wines of Champagne, a land indebted to its particularly cool climate and chalky, limestone soil. Last week I sat down to taste rosé Champagne with Elise Losfelt, a sixth-generation winemaker and one of ten for Moët & Chandon. Owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy (which also owns Dom Perignon and Domaine Chandon), Moët & Chandon is one of the world’s largest Champagne houses. Losfelt is currently on her fifth visit to the States to showcase the House’s latest vintage releases, a 2006 Grand Vintage Brut and a 2006 Grand Vintage Rosé. Below, Lostfelt and I chat about glassware, decanting Champagne, and grape varietals.
In Provence, they make rosé by slightly macerating the skins of the grape in the barrel [with the clear grape juice] for a few days to get a shade of pink. In Champagne, you more often blend red and white wines together, right?
There are two ways of making rosé Champagne. Ninety-percent of the houses blend red and white wine together. This is tradition but also because the weather changes so much so getting the right maceration of the grapes, even for white wine, is complicated. For rosé wine, it’s even more complicated. Making red and white wine separately permits you to control the extraction, aromatics, and color.
Consistency is the bread and butter of big Champagne houses, and it’s important to them that non-vintages taste the same ever year. How are big Houses reacting to the recent focus on Grower Champagne, which isn’t about consistency at all.
You have to have diversity in whatever you offer. The houses of Champagne do 90 to 95 percent of the business. Growers are important because we have our own vineyards but we also buy grapes from these growers. These growers don’t sell us all of their grapes [using the leftover to make their own wine]. The grapes that they do sell give them financial security because making Champagne is expensive. They need Champagne houses and the Champagne houses need the growers.
Champagne is made with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier. What do these grapes individually add to the wine?
The aromas of Meunier are quite flowery and stone fruity. As they age, they move to dry fruit and mushroom aromas. The Meunier is really juicy on the palate. Pinot Noir is quite structured, and you almost feel tannins. Chardonnay has a strong acidity.
We’re drinking out of white wine glasses instead of flutes. Why?
The flute has a shape of celebration, and it’s pretty, but it’s really narrow so you can’t swirl the wine. The shape doesn’t let the aromas rise out of the glass. You don’t even get the aromas while you taste because you have to tilt your head backwards, and the Champagne touches the bottom of your mouth, never the front of your tongue. Out of a flute, you have the bubbles but nothing else. In a white wine glass, you have a shape that lets you enjoy both the texture and the aroma.
What do you think about decanting Champagne? Does it help?
I’m not against it. Some Champagne could use decanting, but there’s a way to decant. You still want to have bubbles so decant softly, slowly, against the glass, so you don’t lose the bubbles. Champagne needs tenderness.
When you decant, the wine gets warmer. How do you balance decanting Champagne verse keeping it cool?
That’s a fun question. I’ve never thought about it. Why don’t you put the decanter on ice?
Outside of Champagne, what’s the most exciting region for sparkling wine?
I have to admit I’m spoiled. For quality, even what I taste good Prosecco, I find it interesting but not “wow” like Champagne. When it comes to choosing a sparkling wine, I’ll never choose Prosecco over Champagne, even for price. I know if I pay three-times the price for Champagne, I’ll have 10-times more pleasure.
In terms of winemaking, Domaine Chandon is making sparkling in Brazil. Brazil doesn’t have a winter and with the weather so humid and a rain season, it must be quite challenging. China is interesting as well. During the winter, the temperature drops below zero, and they have to put the vines below ground.