Getting to visit a Grand Cru classé Champagne House was definitely the highlight of my brief stop in Champagne, France. Of the 100+ villages in Champagne, only 17 are considered Grand Cru territory, and each year the individual Houses need to prove their Grand Cru worth. I visited Champagne Faucheron Gavroy in Tours-sur-Marne (outside the Champagne centre of Epernay) and was given a tour of the cellars by owner Cathy Faucheron.
The House has been in the family for four generations (25 years at their current facility) and specializes in Pinot Noir (80%) and Chardonnay (20%) with five hectares in the region. They produce 20,000 bottles/year and sell the rest of their produce to the large Champagne Houses. They have 40,000 bottles currently in their cellar.
From the winery with the press and dozen or so tanks of varying sizes, we were taken through an unassuming door and 8 metres down into a beautiful network of tunnels housing the thousands of bottles in various states of aging. While I have learned about the the involved Champagne-making process, getting to see it first-hand was pretty darn exciting.
Ah, the ever important barrels for aging. Oak is important for several reasons. 1. It lets oxygen into the wine which can soften tannins and round out flavours. 2. Depending on what type of oak is used (new vs old, French vs American), it can impact the flavour profile. This is of course where the base still wine is aged before bottling for the second ferment (the part which makes the bubbles).
For the second ferment (you know, the important bit which is why we’re into Champagne/sparkling wine), the base wine is put into bottles, sugar and yeast are added, and then the second ferment happens. The CO2 released from this fermentation can’t escape the bottle, thus = bubbles! Once the sugar is eaten by the yeast, the yeast dies, bringing us to this:
Sur lie aging (or aging on the lees [dead yeast cells leftover from fermentation]) impart autolytic complexity to the wine – ie: rich and creamy mouth feel, impression of biscuits, nuttiness, etc.
Once it’s been sufficiently aged (minimum legal length for Champagne is 12mths, though depending on what the winemaker wants the wine to express, it can take years), it’s time for Remuage.
Remuage (or ‘riddling’ in English) is a process whereby the lees are gently coaxed into the neck of the bottle for disgorgement by minute turnings of the bottle. In the case of Faucheron Gavroy, this is done completely by hand morning and night.
After disgorgement (where the top of the bottle is opened and the lees are expelled by built up pressure in the bottle) is the dosage – this is when the winemaker tops up the lost wine from the disgorgement with the original still wine and decides on the final style of the wine (ie: sweetness level – Brut, Sec, Demi-Sec, etc.).
After the cellar tour, we went up to the Cellar Door for a tasting of three wines: Brut Reserve, Blanc de Blancs, and a Rosé.
The Brut Reserve (2014) – 80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay; light bodied with almonds, brioche, and apple on the nose; well balanced acid with lively fruit on the palate, big bubbles and a nice, long finish. (And my personal favorite)
Blanc de Blancs (2014) – 100% Chardonnay (that’s what Blanc de Blancs means), citrus and minerals on the nose with lemon and brioche leading the palate; very fine bubbles and a medium finish.
Rosé (2014) – 70% PN, 18% CH, 12% vin de rouge de Bouzy (red wine they’ve made from their Bouzy vineyard grapes); light yeasty bread notes with prominent red fruit on the nose; red fruits (strawberry, raspberries, cherries) leading on the palate; fine bubbles and a medium finish.
Tour and Tasting (by appt) is €6/person, or free if you purchase 6 bottles. As they are a small producer, they sell primarily in Europe, but do send a small quantity to Canada and just started up in Japan.
While there was a bit of a language barrier that saw some of my more technical questions unanswered, it was a charming experience nonetheless. When I asked Cathy what her favorite part about being a Champagne maker was, her answers: working out in the vines in the summer and making the wine deliveries and sales in the winter. Her eyes lit up when she talked about the first pressing of the harvest, too.
There it is – a quick and (hopefully) easy-to-understand explanation of how Champagne is made. And remember: