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Deconstructing champagne: Many wines come together in one bottle

We know champagne as a singular wine, in at least two meanings of that word.

It’s exceptional, isn’t it? Nothing quite like it, this wine that smiles.

But it also presents itself as complete and finished, a wine as a singularity, from the exclamation mark of the pop of its cork, to the manner in which it sits tall and proud in a fluted glass.

If only we knew the byzantine complexity of its beginning.

By and large, champagne is one wine made of many wines, gathered together then put into a bottle and sent through a second fermentation. Only a very few champagnes are constructed from one wine alone.

No, winemakers select several, sometimes many dozens of wines – called “base wines” or, in French, “vins clairs” – to fashion a champagne. (In the most widely imitated of the world’s winemaking, so too do the multitude of sparkling wines made across the globe that follow the methode champenoise.)

Olivier Krug, house director at Champagne Krug and fifth generation to be such, absolutely floored me when he said during a recent visit, “If you could make a (base) wine from each of the vineyard plots in the Champagne region and from each grower and each grape variety grown there, you would have something like 270,000 different wines.”

The annual composition of Krug’s own Grande Cuvee ($150-$175) – in my book, the greatest of the domain’s wines – includes 120 to 140 individual wines, including dribbles of reserve wines going back through more than a century of stocks.

What fascinates me, however, more than anything else about this process of assembling base wines is how the winemaker is able to see their future, married together and then aged, as the singular wine that the champagne will be when it is released. (The legal minimum for aging on the spent yeast cells is 12 months for nonvintage champagne; for vintage, three years. The great champagnes age upward of six years, oftentimes more.)

Michelle DeFeo, president of Laurent-Perrier USA, says, “Blending the vins clairs is both an art and a science. Our enologists have about 75 years of data so that they know that, given certain parameters, this vin clair will turn out to be like this. It’s a kind of taste memory, but it’s also like a recipe: the vins clairs are individually simple, not complex, so they become ingredients in something larger.”

Of course, those of us on the receiving end of a bottle of finished champagne – that would be all of us – don’t have any opportunity to buy and taste base wines. No point, really, because they’re far from complete wines and, frankly, they’re all Thomas Hobbes: nasty, brutish and short.

Base wines are destined, therefore designed, for transformation; they begin as extraordinarily high-acid, lean, thin and low-alcohol white wines. The second fermentation (and often the finishing dosage that slightly sweetens or rounds out the wine) builds on all that, boosting the alcohol 1 to 1.5 degrees, hanging flesh on the bones, putting the acids in a richer, more complex context.

“It’s like an apple pie,” says Hugh Davies, scion of the Schramsberg Vineyards in Napa Valley and the elder states-winery of American Champagne-method sparkling wine. “You start with super-tart apples, then add pie crust, maybe some sugar, bake it up; that’s apple pie.” It’s a helpful analogy, minus the heat certainly. But aging for years in bottle is merely a sort of Fahrenheit of time.