How to make Champagne: Champagne is the only place where Champagne is made – all the rest are sparkling wines.
Grower champagnes are very much en vogue. In a region dominated by the big houses and luxury brands, these small, family run properties, usually comprising just a few hectares of vines, make small quantities of frequently outstanding champagne with real character and personality. They are often excellent value too.
Champagne Fresne Ducret, based in the pretty hilltop village of Ville-Dommange, just outside Reims is typical of this new breed of producer. They own just six hectares of vines – all in the village, which is quite a rarity in itself. Their champagnes are mainly made from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes by the talented and affable seventh generation winemaker, Pierre Fresne.
It’s rare to get the opportunity to go behind the scenes at a champagne house, let alone make a blend for yourself. But just sometimes the opportunity arises and we speak to someone who did it:
‘We started the day with a tour of the winery. Pierre took us through the champagne making process – starting with the arrival of the grapes from the vineyard. Understanding the significance of cuvee and taille are crucial, as well as the part each grape variety plays in the blend.
The ageing process for champagne is fascinating and we looked at how the bubbles form in the bottle and how you keep them in during the potentially messy dégorgement process. I had the chance to try a dégorgement myself. It’s an age old technique of removing the crown cap by hand and topping up with a liqueur d’expédition and then putting the cork in using a special hammer. Pierre made it look easy, but it really isn’t!
Once we’d gained a thorough insight into how champagne is made, we then made our way to the tasting room. Each place was laid out with tasting glasses, sample bottles as well as a handy notepad for scribbling our tasting notes.
Pierre took us through a tasting of his base wines. It was remarkable to experience the difference between Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. We tasted the reserve wines (wines that have been aged from previous vintages and which help ‘mellow’ the wine). We also sampled barrel-aged wines and the red wines used for his rosé blend.
After a bit of a pep talk and some guidance as to what we were looking to achieve, we began the assemblage process, putting together the individual elements to make a better whole. It involves lots of sniffing and tasting as you can imagine and much trial and error. Although it was a fun process it made you realise just how difficult it actually is. We champagne drinkers really do take things for granted.
Once our blends were assembled and labelled, Pierre then poured samples of each for us to try. We listened intently to his expert summation of each of our cuvees. He seemed quite impressed with our efforts and gave marks out of ten for each one. Let’s just say I think I’ll stick to my day job for now …
Lunch was then served by Pierre’s Canadian-born wife Daniella. She’s a real foodie and the three courses were divine, matched to the various champagnes Pierre brought from his cellar. Some were youthful and fresh, others had decades of bottle age. What an incredible contrast!
The whole day was brilliantly organised and was really very special. It was fun as well as informative. Pierre is an excellent tutor and speaks perfect English. He is kind and patient and he really exudes passion and expertise in everything he does. We had a marvellous time and would love to do it again sometime in the future.’