What’s a great Champagne? Here’s a clue…

By Celia Strong

From the popular board game, “Clue,”  the characters Mrs. Peacock and Colonel Mustard and others were involved in a mystery of who killed whom and how and in what room. In the spirit of that game, we are going to learn about a new wine.

We’re playing in Champagne. It’s that time of year again, and I have tried to find new and/or better priced Champagnes so we all get to learn about our latest and greatest favorite discovery.

As a review, so we’re all in the same page, Champagne is a sparkling wine made in the region of northern France with that name. There are many, many sparkling wines, but just those made from grapes grown in the Champagne region and produced in that region can be called Champagne. “Real” Champagne tends to cost more than many sparkling wines, for several reasons. One is the difficulty of growing grapes at that northern a climate. The region is roughly on a parallel with New York City. Less warm weather, earlier cold fronts every year, including possible frosts before the grapes are harvested, make it hard for the grapes to fully develop their flavors and textures. The majority of Champagnes are blends of several vintages of grapes. They are allowed to use three varieties — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. Different vintages do better or worse for each variety. Because they have to hold onto batches of wines, by grape variety and by vintage, there is an expense for the storage itself. Plus, we have to assume there is a charge, like interest, for not getting their money for every vintage as it is produced. Reserved wines for blending can go back even 10 years. That’s 10 years’ storage charge and 10 years’ interest charge. And, watch out if there was any inflation anywhere in those years.

Added in come expenses from very specific laws in the Champagne region that control how the wines have to be made. For non-vintage Champagne, where grapes from multiple harvests are blended together, this is the basic process: In the spring of a given year, the winemaker from House X will go into his blending room and get beakers of still wines, all three grape varieties as still wines, and mixes and tastes until he gets a “recipe” that tastes like their house cuvée. This “recipe” is then made in bulk and the cuvée is bottled. A bit of yeast and a bit of grape sugar for the yeast to work with are added into bottle. And a metal cap is put on to seal the bottle. Hundreds of bottles are made, thousands and millions even, and laid down in the cold cellars. Champagne cellars are very deep and very cold. The wines lay on their sides, with the yeast creating a second fermentation within the bottles. (The first fermentation made the grape juice into the still wines.) As the second fermentation progresses, carbon dioxide is produced (a by-product of fermenting), but the bubbles of this gas are caught in the sealed bottles. These are the bubbles that make sparkling wine. Legally, this second fermentation has to take a minimum of six months. There are Champagne houses that extend this to a year or a bit more. The longer it takes, and the cooler the temperature it occurs at, the smaller the bubbles will be. Smaller bubbles are a sign of better Champagne.

After the second fermentation, the now sparkling wines have their metal caps popped off. All done in a specific way so that the bubbles are not lost. A bit of alcohol, usually, is added to bring the total alcohol level up to 12 percent — the point where Champagne tastes the best — and some grape sugar is added to determine the level of dryness or sweetness of the Champagne. Brut is allowed 0 to 15 grams of sugar per liter of Champagne. Legally. Then, the cork is forced into the bottle, the wire basket is wrapped around it, and the bottles lay down again. For non-vintage, this nap has to be a minimum of 15 months. And, again, good houses do more than the minimum. All of this means, if the blend made in the spring included still wine from the harvest of the Fall just before, it’s over two years since they picked the grapes that no one has been paid for anything. Minimum. When you think of the older reserve wines, from previous harvests, that were used to make the cuvée, it’s an even longer time. Think we pay for that long wait? For sure we do.

For vintage Champagne, which cannot be made every year because the grapes are not good enough every year, the laws and time minimums are stricter and longer. Some houses choose to not make, “declare,” a vintage as often. That way their reserve wines are better quality and their non-vintage Champagnes are better. When there is a vintage Champagne made, its price is definitely higher.

Our Champagne find, for this year, is Moutard (moo-tard) Grande Cuvée. Moutard Père et Fils (father and sons) has been making wine for several generations, since the 17th Century. Like most Champagne producers, they own some vineyards and buy from others to get the quantity and quality of grapes they need. Their main vineyards are located in the Côte des Bar area in the southern part of the region, where the soil is made of clays and limestones: Perfect for the Champagne varieties. They are based in the town of Buxeuil, in Champagne, where old records show the family’s long commitment to “local wines.”

Their Grande Cuvée, our wine for this week, is a  non-vintage Champagne made from 100 percent Pinot Noir. A true Blanc de Noirs (white wine from black grapes) and a very rare thing in the world of house cuvées. The vines for this wine are 10 to 20 years old and the grapes are hand harvested. The first fermentation is done in stainless steel tanks. The sparkling wine, after the second fermentation, rests in their cellars for three years, long beyond the minimum 15 months. This Champagne is a brut, with 10 grams of sugar per liter. Moutard makes only 200,000 bottles at a time. Not many at all when you consider this is their primary wine. So, having some is a rarity. The wine is vibrant, lively, elegant and rich with butter, brioche and almond notes.

The Moutard Grande Cuvée has an easy name to remember, especially if you realize “moutard” is French for mustard. Then you can think of Colonel Mustard and the drawing room and your “Clue” mystery game. And, then you can sip a glass or two.

Despite the small production of this Champagne, and the uniqueness of it being all Pinot Noir, Moutard is very affordable. So don’t let it be a mystery at your house. For $35.99. Enjoy.

This Champagne can be purchased at Bill’s Liquor on Lady’s Island.

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