Champagne resides 150 kilometres east of Paris, the appellation covers 34,282 hectares of vines, 320 Villages, 17 Grand Crus and 42 Premier Crus. This is c.3% of all the vineyard land in France. In excess of 15,000 growers own close to 90% of the land, however the majority of them own less than 1 hectare of vines. Whilst some of the growers make their own wine, the vast majority (more than 10,000) sell their grapes. They either sell direct to the Grande Marques or to their local co-op, with over 2,500 growers belonging to co-ops, which may, in turn, have an agreement to sell grapes (or grape must) to a number of houses. The fact that the Grande Marques are responsible for over two thirds of champagne sales and over 85% of exports, yet the growers own over 90% of the land, gives an indication of the specific relationship that exists between growing and producing this fine wine.
The cost of grapes in Champagne currently sits around €5.89 per kilo as opposed to 70 centimes equivalent in Cava. Approximately 1.2 – 1.5kg is required to make just one 75cl bottle of champagne, hence the raw production cost is not insignificant.
Pol Roger set up his eponymous house in 1849 and initially supplied houses such as Mumm, Moet & Chandon, Joseph Perrier and Ruinart on a sur latte basis to establish a sustainable business. During the 1860’s Champagne began to gain recognition as a ‘dry sparkling wine which could be drunk with dinner’ and in 1874 Pol Roger bottled his first imperial pint bottle and celebrated a seminal vintage for the house. It was this vintage that sealed Pol Roger’s fate as a house that made great wine in Champagne. In recognition of this Queen Victoria granted the Maison a Royal Warrant in 1877. In 1899, after a number of decades of continued success, Pol Roger passed away, but the stewardship of the house moved to his son Maurice, in whose safe hands it flourished. To this day the house remains under family ownership, with the fifth generation at the helm.
Champagne is made by the blending of grapes from a delimited area, which undergo primary and subsequently secondary fermentation, and it is this process which eventually leads to the sparkling wine we all know from this famous region.
- Champagne is hand-picked; approximately 120,000 pickers descend on Champagne in September in order to harvest whole, undamaged clusters of grapes.
- The whole bunches are pressed and impurities are ‘settled out’ by ‘debourbage’ whereby solid matter sinks to the bottom of the stainless steel vat in which the liquid is contained. Maison Pol Roger undertake this process twice; a second ‘settling’ over 48hrs at 6 degrees (a ‘froid’) filters and eliminates the courser ‘lees’, ensuring very clean juice.
- Then alcoholic fermentation occurs, whereby the grape must is converted into a low alcohol, dry wine (vin clair) in stainless steel vats. Primary fermentation takes place by grape varietal and village.
- At Pol Roger all wines go through Malolactic fermentation; a process whereby malic acid is transformed into softer, riper and creamier lactic acid.
- The base wines are then aged until January when blending starts; the family and cellar master unite for this crucial moment in the champagne process. The art of blending is often identified as the true magic of champagne. The blend comes from any number of the 52 crus that Pol Roger vinify separately, varying by grape variety and village, and can also use up to 5 different vintages of reserve wine. Reserve wine, from a former vintage, is kept inert in concrete tanks, and can be used in order to blend a wine that matches the consistent Pol Roger style.
- Post-blending, the wine is bottled and the ‘liqueur de tirage’, a sweet solution containing yeast cultures, is added.
- The bottle is then sealed with a crown-cap and secondary fermentation takes place in the ‘cave de prise de mousse’, at 34m below street level, in the Pol Roger cellars. The fact that this deep cellar is at 9°C or less, rather than a normal cellar temperature of 11-12°C, prolongs this fermentation and contributes to the quality and particular style of the wines and their famously fine bubbles.
- Pol Roger ages lying on its side and on the ‘lees’ (lees mainly consist of yeasts that have multiplied in the bottle and formed a deposit), for a minimum of 4yrs for non-vintage, 9yrs for Vintage and 10yrs for Cuvee Sir Winston Churchill.
- Pol Roger remains one of the very last houses in champagne to ‘remuage’, a process whereby a team of Riddlers turn the bottles by increments by hand in order to work the ‘lees’ into the neck of the bottle. A Riddler will turn approximately 40,000 bottles a day and each bottle will undergo 25 turns on average, a process which takes 4-6 weeks, until the wine is ready for disgorgement.
- Disgorgement is the process by which the neck of the bottle is plunged into a refrigerating solution and the sediment (in the form of a frozen plug) is then ejected under pressure when the bottle is opened, with minimum loss of wine and pressure. The wine is topped up with ‘Liqueur d’expedition’ which contains some sugar ‘dosage’, with the exception of Pol Roger Pure which has zero dosage, and sealed with a cork.
- The wine is then aged for a further 6 months in bottle, before it is shipped to the UK.
Whilst Pol Roger remains loyal to a number of traditional aspects of the champagne making process, it is also willing to adapt to advances in technology, and has recently invested significantly in the cellars and bottling line.
Champagne is one of the most well-regarded and feted wines of the world, a reflection of the expertise and time invested at every stage of the process, from soil to shelf. The skill of blending is a subtle mix of both art and science; a magical convergence which comes from understanding the vineyards, the specificities of the vintage and the house style.
Champagne will go about its business in June 2016 as it has always done, for over 300yrs, tirelessly and meticulously following traditions to make sure each bottle can be as special for the next consumer as it has been for so many others over the centuries.