Monday, March 17, 2014

Champagne Blin's 80 million bubbles

 Photo: Champagne Blin's François Gigandet

Decanting Champagne seems like an absurd idea because, surely, you would squander bubbles.

Yet François Gigandet, the export manager of Champagne H. Blin, recommends decanting, or at least letting the wine breathe.

“We recommend decanting Champagne in general,” he said in an interview during the recent Vancouver International Wine Festival. “When you keep it in the cellar for so many years, there is a lot of carbon dioxide. So when I do a tasting, I let it breathe for five minutes. Don’t open the bottle and serve it. Let it breathe for five to ten minutes. The best would be to decant it. There is so much gas inside. If you don’t let it breathe, the first taste is carbon dioxide.”

I objected that one would lose bubbles, which are so critical to the enjoyment of Champagne.

“Do you know how many millions of bubbles you have in a bottle?”  François replied. “Eighty million.”

He was not making that up. His authority is Gérard Liger-Belair, a University of Reims professor of physics who actually has done a study of Champagne bubbles to come up with that number.

The professor also calculated that each standard bottle of Champagne contains an astonishing five litres of carbon dioxide, the product of the secondary fermentation in the bottle. The gas is compressed under a pressure of five bars (or five times atmospheric pressure), which is why so much volume can be squeezed into 80 million bubbles.

“The sudden liberation of this gas by the uncorking the bottle explains the force of the ejection of the cork,” the professor writes. “Its speed can reach 50 km/h!”

However, you are unlikely to experience a Champagne cork as a missile when the bottle is opened by a professional like François. He twists the bottle, easing out the cork with an almost inaudible pop. When a bottle is opened with what sounds like an explosion, the wine is likely to foam out – and that is squandering Champagne.

I would still have a hard time decanting Champagne, considering what the professor has to say about the importance of bubbles.

“The presence of bubbles doesn’t really play a role in the taste itself, but in the texture, the sensation in the mouth,” he writes.  “The mechanical effect [is] when the bubbles burst on the surface of the tongue. The chemical effect [is] when they release their gasses with aromas of hazelnut, bitter almond or other honey. 
It is highly probable that the sight of the bubbles increases the marvel that one feels when tasting Champagne.  Along with the senses of sight, taste and smell, the sound of the light crackling as the bubbles explode against the surface of the glass all serve to drive the pleasure of the experience.”

Just think: a chorus of 80 million. 

Champagne H. Blin was one of eight Champagne producers at the festival. It is a relatively unfamiliar producer to consumers in western Canada, currently with just one listing in the British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch. The wines are top quality but the shelf space for Champagne is, alas, not unlimited.

Two things set Blin apart.

First of all, it specializes in Champagnes made with a high percentage, even 100%, of Pinot Meunier in the cuvée. The majority of Champagne is built around either Pinot Noir or Chardonnay with an occasional dash of Pinot Meunier.

Secondly, Blin is a family co-operative, in the sense that most of its 100 growers are related to the family of Henri Blin, who founded the winery in 1947 at Vincelles in the Marne Valley. Organizing growers into a cooperative making its own wine was strictly a defensive measure. The Champagne market had been devastated by two wars, the Russian Revolution (Russia had been the biggest market) and the Depression. As a result, the big Champagne houses reduced grape purchases from independent growers.

“You have to understand that Champagne started to sell in big volumes again only in the 1970s,” François says. “From 1945 to 1970, the growers were poor … poor to the point that they had to have another job.”

Henri Blin rallied the Vincelles growers into a cooperative just so that they could survive by making and selling their own Champagne. Today, his grandson, Simon, heads the company, which produces 600,000 bottles a year.

“Our identity is the terroir of Vincelles, which is cool and has very good soil,” François says. “And Pinot Meunier. Champagne Blin owns 120 hectares of vineyards – 70% in Pinot Meunier, 20% in Chardonnay, and 10% in Pinot Noir.”

In the 19th Century most of the vineyards were planted to Pinot Meunier, a good variety to produce the sweet fruity Champagnes the Russians loved. When drier palates developed in the British market, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir displaced a lot of Pinot Meunier.

“Today, of 32,000 hectares in Champagne, 30% is Pinot Meunier,” François says. “The rest is divided between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”  And most of the Pinot Meunier grows in the Marne Valley. Blin’s growers also have modest plantings of the other varieties, usually to allow the winery to produce blends.

“We can produce a good quality Chardonnay but our identity is Pinot Meunier” Francois says. “That is why there is a lot of Pinot Meunier in most of our cuvées.
The Pinot Meunier brings a lot of fruitiness and roundness to the Champagne. The Pinot Noir is the structure and the power and body, and the Chardonnay is freshness.”

It is his belief that “Pinot Meunier is becoming very trendy in Champagne. People start to rediscover Pinot Meunier because this is a blending variety you find only in Champagne. You find it almost nowhere else in the world.”

At the Wine Festival, he poured four of his company’s Champagnes and, hopefully, impressed the trade enough to get orders. The wines, with approximate pricing if listed:

Brut NV ($55). The cuvée is 80% Pinot Meunier, 20% Chardonnay. The wines in the blend – 73% are from the 2010 vintage – spent two to three years on the lees. This wine shows classic brioche notes on the aroma and palate, with a hint of apple on the palate. The lively bubbles give it a creamy texture. The finish is crisp. 90.

Brut 2005 ($70). This is 50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Chardonnay. The additional time in bottle has added a nutty note to the flavours. The finish is crisp and dry. 91.

Blanc de Blancs ($60). This is 100% Chardonnay, with 80% of the cuvée from the 2010 vintage and the rest from 2008.  It is crisp, with flavours of apples and with a toasty note from time on the lees. 89.

Rosé NV ($60). There is something especially festive about pink Champagne. This wine, more than half of which is Pinot Meunier, has fruity aromas and flavours of strawberries and red berries. Once again, it is crisp and dry, but with a generous texture. 90.

The one currently on the BCLDB list is Blanc de Blancs Edition Limitée  Extra Brut, a Chardonnay from the 2005 vintage selling for $90. Since there are only four bottles in the LDB, perhaps the listing is transitioning to another Blin wine. It should be a Pinot Meunier-based Champagne, allowing consumers to experience the comparatively characteristics of the variety.



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