Champagne is perhaps the most difficult wine in the world to make. Grown at the extreme northern limit of the vine in France, champagne grapes are barely ripe in most years. Three major varieties – two red, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white, Chardonnay – correspond respectively to three major regions: the Montagne de Reims, the Vallée de la Marne and the Côte des Blancs.
As if this weren't enough, scores, if not hundreds, of ranked crus in each area reflect slight differences in climate and in the chalky subsoil of the Champagne area. Despite such variety and a general climate that is never the same from year to year, each company manages to produce an individual style of champagne that never varies.
How do they do it? It's all in the spring blending of the previous vintage's wines. Considering that this operation is carried out with young acid wines nearly three years before the suave finished product reaches the market, the result is little short of miraculous.
The precise proportions of different crus in the annual blending are, of course, each firm's most closely guarded secret. But since each seeks to maintain its distinct house style, there is little incentive to copy, and lately some companies, such as Henriot, have been willing to give at least the broad outlines of their blend.
Henriot is a small company (annual sales of 1.3 million bottles) with a reputation in France for quality. Henriot's sound finances, based on an association with Philippe de Rothschild's wine firm, La Bergerie, permitted it last year to take over the much larger (3 million bottles annually), export-directed, but financially weak, Charles Heidsieck company.
Although both brands are now blended by the Henriot cellar team headed by oenologist Daniel Thibault, Charles Heidsieck's style remains distinctly different from Henriot's, as it was before the takeover. For instance, some 30 different and mostly grands crus go into the Henriot blend, but as many as 80 make up the Charles Heidsieck style.
Joseph Henriot, president of the company that bears his name, explained the differences in blending necessary to achieve a uniform result with two contrasting vintages: the rich, full wines from sunny 1976 and the thin acid ones from rainy 1977.
To maintain the dry finesse for which Henriot is known, the 1976 blend called for a lot of light blanc de blancs (white wine from white Chardonnay grapes). Few reserve wines were necessary with this round, full year.
The 1977 blend called for exactly the opposite: 40 per cent old wines, versus 15 per cent in 1976, to attain the same degree of smoothness. And, of course, much less blanc de blancs and more full-bodied blancs de noirs from the Montagne de Reims also helped to smooth out 1977's acidity.
Mr. Henriot also explained that "The nonvintage wine in a good year is harder to make than in a poor year because the gratin, the best wines of a good year, have already gone to make the vintage champagne from that year. In a poor year, when there will be no vintage wine, you can draw on the best crus and the best reserve wines from good years to make the nonvintage blend.
"You also have to take into consideration what you have available and what will be available for future years. In the spring of 1977, some of the Chardonnay vines froze, so we had to hold back on it and save some for future years that may need reserve blanc de blancs."
In any case, the various new white crus are blended among themselves as are the new blancs de noirs and the reserve wines before these separate blends are combined into the final overall blend.
This comes out as a thin, acid, slightly fizzy and rosy-tinted wine that bears almost no resemblance to what will be drunk some three years later as nonvintage Henriot.
But the secondary fermentation (prise de mousse) in the bottle blanches it and aging in Henriot's four hectares of extraordinary pyramidal cellars, carved out as quarries in Gallo-Roman times, brings the harsh blend to the smooth maturity and finesse that you expect in a finished champagne.