Sparkling wines: Davy Żyw on Champagne


An image of arches and pathways through an underground cellar, where the Champagnes are aged.
Photo credit: Jason Lowe

We speak to Davy Żyw, our Wine Buyer, about the rich and fascinating world of sparkling wine. In this first instalment of our two-part series, we explore the Champagne region, uncovering the reasons it produces such remarkable wines.

What are the main methods used for making sparkling wine?

The most important sparkling wines can be split into two camps. The first one is the traditional method (méthode traditionelle), where the sparkle is achieved with second fermentation in bottle, giving a huge spectrum of different flavours and textures. The second camp is sparkling wine which is made with what the Italians call autoclave or Charmat – the tank method.

You do get some smaller, more peculiar styles which are produced in smaller quantities, such as méthode ancestrale – the original sparkling wine. This style of wine was first mentioned in 1536, in the town of Limoux, just outside Carcassonne. The written record of méthode ancestrale sparkling wine can be traced to a Benedictine abbey down there. These kinds of wines are made by bottling still wines that have still-active yeast inside, and there’s a natural fermentation which happens inside the bottle – but they’re in very small production.

What are the most famous examples of these methods?

There’s one particularly famous wine associated with the tank method: Prosecco. It’s one of the biggest success stories of the last 30 years, and it’s down to a little grape called Glera, which grows on the flat, foggy plains of Veneto and Friuli, and is very high yielding. It’s quite easy to produce and very quick to make: you can make a bottled Prosecco, from grape to glass, in 60 days. This is one of the reasons why it’s so cheap, but also why it’s so light, fruity, pleasing and easy to drink – because you’re tasting the pure essence of what that fruity grape is, rather than any intricate or technical winemaking intervention.

The most important sparkling wine, of course, is made from the traditional method, honed through centuries of human endeavour and achieved in the chalky crayères [subterranean chalk quarries] of Champagne. This is the global benchmark of sparkling wine, and for good reason: Champagne represents the pinnacle of quality and expression, and what sparkling wine can achieve.

What makes Champagne so remarkable?

There are a multitude of reasons here. One is the northern climate: it’s the most northerly wine region of France. To harvest ripe grapes is something producers have traditionally struggled to achieve – although this is different now with global warming.

Although there could be up to seven different grapes in Champagne, there are three frontrunners: Pinot Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The latter two have a wonderful ability to pick up vinous detailed expression from the vineyards. This leads us onto what the vineyards are like in Champagne, and what really sets this region apart is the chalk, set on a 65-million-year-old marine bed.

There are many benefits to this chalky soil. One is about the retention of water. So, even if it rains and snows a lot in winter, but doesn’t rain at all in summer, the chalk slowly releases just enough water to keep the vines healthy. It’s like sitting on a sponge.

The deeper the vines go into the chalk, the more salty, mineral character you get, which you can taste in the Champagne itself. Personally, I find this one of the most desirable elements when I look for a Champagne – particularly in Chardonnay from the Côte de Blancs, there’s this incredible salty marine character you find in the back of the palate, woven in with the acidity. It’s this incredible sea breeze, very crystalline character.

How did Champagne build such a prestigious reputation as a wine region?

It’s fascinating what the Champenois have done over the centuries. Champagne is historically the poorest, most war-stricken, desolate, bleak, cold, gloomy area of France. It’s in the midst of some incredible wine regions: you’ve got Alsace, the Jura, and Burgundy’s not too far away either.

But there have been a few intrepid winemakers and salesmen who, over the last few centuries, have built Champagne’s reputation as the height of sophistication, luxury and quality. But the Champenois have had it hard. The two world wars were fought in the vineyards of Champagne, which makes it even more incredible when you consider how successful Champagne is. This comes down to how export-focused they were, and how savvy they were with marketing themselves as this delicious, desirable wine which we know and love today.

It’s also on a critical route between Western Europe, Germany and Russia, so it’s always been in a strategic position – in terms of conflict, but also trade. They’ve been incredibly clever, knowing they’re in a poor region of France making an expensive wine, to target customers overseas – and they’ve created a whole culture around it.

What’s the difference between the Grandes Marques, the cooperatives and the growers?

In Champagne, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the Grandes Marques and the cooperatives. The Grandes Marques – MöetClicquotRoederer – hold the names of rich landowners, merchants or politicians – people who came from a place of money and privilege before they became winemakers. The Grandes Marques are family houses, and they’re generally privately owned. They may have some of their own vineyards, but they’ll also buy grapes from growers around the region to bottle under their own brand – apart from Roederer, who own the entirety of their vineyards.

On the other hand, you have the cooperatives. Take, for instance, Mailly, who make our UKC [Own Selection Champagne]. They are a cooperative in the Grand Cru town of Mailly, owned and run by the families of the village. Everyone has a share, and everyone has a say in how they grow the grapes, how they run the company and how the wines are made. Here, we’re lucky to work with the only two Grand Cru cooperatives: Mailly and Le Mesnil.

What makes Champagne so interesting now is that there’s been a shift in recent years, with more respect for terroir and for the farmer. There’s a lot to be said about the success that happened to Burgundy, looking at vineyard-specific wines and expression of detail of individual terroirs, and how winemakers are utilising their toolbox to best express their sense of place. These growers are becoming more and more important in Champagne, producing some of the region’s most exciting – and progressive – styles; not necessarily the most commercial, because some of the styles are quite challenging. But the role of the grower is becoming increasingly recognised and this is something I’d really like to champion.

Explore our Champagne selection here.