Champagne’s defining element is undoubtedly its effervescence. After all, what is champagne without bubbles? Not champagne.
Historically, Champagne has been an exceptionally cool wine region, its geographical location placing it at the northernmost limit of viable grape growing in France. While it’s true that the region was highly regarded for its still wines prior to the invention of sparkling wine in the 18th century, the still wines created there today are usually too austere for modern palates, characterized by high acidity and relatively low levels of ripeness.
Put these wines through a second fermentation in bottle, though, and they’re transformed into something magical. Effervescence helps to bring out the flavors of the wine. It makes a champagne feel lively, refreshing, even joyful. Bubbles make people happy.
But how much effervescence should champagne have?
In the modern era, champagne’s mousse has been more or less standardized in pressure, at six atmospheres. This is an element that’s usually taken for granted by consumers and producers alike. However, there’s a significant historical precedent for champagnes of lower pressure.
In the 19th century, and through much of the 20th, one of the traditional styles of champagne was called crémant, which was made entirely from white grapes and finished with a lighter mousse. This developed largely because winemakers found that these white grapes, most notably chardonnay, produced effervescence of a different character than that of wines made from red grapes such as pinot noir and pinot meunier.
“When the first blanc de blancs were bottled without pinots, the mousse was much more dynamic,” explains Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave of Louis Roederer. “It was too much. Winemakers decided to decrease the pressure in order to have a less active mousse.”
This tradition continues to be preserved by a number of producers today, even though the term crémant can no longer legally be used in Champagne. The house of Mumm bottles a lower-pressure blanc de blancs called Mumm de Cramant (the original name of this cuvee was Crémant de Cramant, and it was labeled as such up until 1985). Pierre Péters makes a blanc de blancs called Perle du Mesnil, bottled at four atmospheres of pressure; Lilbert-Fils has a similar cuvée called Perle, made exclusively from old vines. And Pierre Gimonnet’s Gastronome is another champagne made in a low-pressure style, named for its alleged compatibility with food.
Why, in the modern era, would these producers continue to make champagnes of lower effervescence? Usually, it’s a means of tempering the aggressiveness of the mousse, particularly in young champagnes. Champagnes with a lower level of pressure can offer a voluptuous appeal, increasing the perception of textural richness on the palate.
Cédric Bouchard’s Roses de Jeanne champagnes have attracted a devoted following among connoisseurs around the world, yet ironically, he doesn’t even really like sparkling wine. “In fact, I’m not very Champenois,” he says. “The bubbles bother me a little. I don’t like it when the bubbles attack your palate too much.” In order to mitigate this, he bottles all of his champagnes at about three-quarters of the usual pressure.
At Louis Roederer, Lecaillon cites texture as a primary issue when thinking about chardonnay, particularly if, as is the case at Roederer, the wine doesn’t go through malolactic fermentation, which is the conversion of tart malic acidity to softer lactic acidity. “When you don’t do malolactic on chardonnays,” he says, “the acidity and minerality is very intense, like a razor blade. If you want to create a creamier, more unctuous texture, you need to pick riper grapes, ferment in oak, or soften the mousse with a lower pressure.”
Roederer’s blanc de blancs, which comes entirely from vineyards owned by the house, incorporates all three of these things: the grapes are always picked at high levels of ripeness, and a percentage of the base wines are fermented in oak vats; furthermore, the champagne is finished at four atmospheres of pressure in the old crémant style. All of this results in a tension between the wine’s lively acidity, its complex fruit flavors and its velvety texture.
In a relative comparison of champagne styles, Roederer’s wine falls towards the classical end of the spectrum, yet the strategy of low effervescence also seems to make sense with modern, avant-garde champagnes as well: those that many people call, for lack of a better word, “wine-y.”
“The more vinous the wine, the more the bubbles feel aggressive,” says Yannick Doyard, who makes complex, full-flavored champagnes at his eponymous estate in the village of Vertus. “For a vinous champagne, you need only a touch of effervescence.”
“Vinosity” is an ambiguous and imprecise term, but in the context of champagne it refers to a wine that shows an elevated concentration of flavor, and oftentimes, more overt ripeness. Doyard’s wines aren’t overly large in body, but they do possess a vinous intensity, and to complement this, Doyard bottles all of his champagnes at a lower pressure than the norm—four to five atmospheres rather than six—believing that this results in a better harmony of components in his style of wine.
Moving farther towards the avant-garde end of the spectrum, Cédric Bouchard also cites the aggressiveness of the mousse as a factor in lowering the effervescence. Bouchard’s Roses de Jeanne champagnes have attracted a devoted following among connoisseurs around the world, yet ironically, he doesn’t even really like sparkling wine. “In fact, I’m not very Champenois,” he says. “The bubbles bother me a little. I don’t like it when the bubbles attack your palate too much.” In order to mitigate this, he bottles all of his champagnes at about three-quarters of the usual pressure, which, combined with his penchant for harvesting at high levels of ripeness, gives them a creamy richness on the palate.
Bouchard’s champagnes are also released relatively young, which is not at all uncommon today, particularly in the case of grower estates who make small quantities of wine. It’s expensive to age champagne for a long time, and many growers don’t have the financial means to hold wine in their cellars for six or seven years before release.
The effervescence of a champagne that’s aged for a short amount of time on its lees is usually more aggressively pronounced than that of one that’s seen many years of lees aging. Part of this is because the mousse decreases slightly in strength over time, but it’s also because the extra richness gained by long lees aging helps to balance the wine’s components.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a champagne’s effervescence needs to be decreased, nor that champagnes of lower pressure are intrinsically better than those that have a normal mousse, but the effervescence is an element that a winemaker can adjust to suit the balance of a particular champagne.
It’s not inconceivable that we could see more producers experimenting with this in the near future. Champagnes of today are notably more fruit-forward than traditional examples of the past, due primarily to a warming climate, but also to winegrowers actively seeking riper fruit. If more people decide, like Doyard, that this relates in some way to the mousse, then a part of integrating the effervescence into the overall fabric of the wine could be to decrease its strength.
At the same time, this doesn’t necessarily translate into bigger, bolder wines: at its heart, champagne is a wine of grace, not power. At the Roger Coulon estate in the village of Vrigny, proprietor Eric Coulon bottles most of his champagnes at five atmospheres of pressure instead of six. Why? “The definition of champagne for me is elegance,” he says. “Elegance means that you suggest rather than impose.”