Updated: Nov 18, 2019
The Special Club really is a Champagne treasure. Walk into their atelier de dégustation (tasting room) in Reims and novel forms of education await. Stand on the map and pull down the bottle above you to read about a grower producer champagne from that village.
Follow the number on an "info bottle" to find that delicious RM champagne on the shelf.
There are now 28 members of the club (up from the original 12) so plan on several visits. There is a reasonable chance that one of the member winegrowers will be your "cashier".
Chatting with a winemaker and reading about these wines is only part of the education you can receive at this "champagne boutique". The best part is sharing a glass with friends that also have an interest in wine.
Like Karen Moneymaker noted in The Sommelier Journal, December/January 2014/2015, I'm surprised that Special Club champagnes aren't more well-known, particularly since they've been around since 1971! Just because they are récoltant manipulant (RM) champagnes doesn't mean they will be good, but the peer review process does tend to ferret out the best of these estate grown and produced champagnes. The Club even designed a distinctive bottle (albeit after 17 years) that all members now use for branding.
Special Club wines must come from outstanding vintages and pass peer tastings (of the vin clair and after 3 years in bottle) but this does not always mean they will be the most expensive wine offered by that producer. Personally I find the Paul Bara Special Club more satisfying than the more expensive limited edition Comtesse Marie de France.
My blog posts focus on wine education more than reviews of individual wines and this is no exception. This post will highlight some basic facts about wine from Champagne.
Champagne is a type of sparkling wine, as opposed to still wine or fortified wine.
Champagne only comes from that region in France. There are many other sparkling wines made in many regions of the world but they should not be called champagne (despite some wines being egregiously grandfathered in as American Champagne). Even sparkling wines made in the same way (méthode traditionnelle) in other regions of France must not be called champagne (they are called crémant).
There are other regions in France called Champagne. For example, Grande Champagne is the central area within the Cognac region (just north of Bordeaux) and Petite Champagne the area that surrounds that. When the eponymous brandy is made from grapes from both areas it is called Fine Champagne. However, Cognac is a distilled spirit usually made from the Ugni Blanc grape though Colombard, Folle Blanche, Semillon, Montils, and Folilgnan (10% max) are also permitted.
During the Middle Ages, Gouais Blanc, Gouais Noir, and Fromenteau were the principal grapes of Champagne. Pinot Noir replaced Gouais Noir in the 16th century and by 1900 there were many different white and red grape varieties grown in Champagne. However, when the vineyards were reconstructed after World War I, Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay, proven superior for effervescence, dominated.
The dominant grape varieties used to make champagne wine today are Pinot Noir, Meunier, and Chardonnay. However, the Champagne Cahier des Charges (appellation regulations) also permit Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc (aka Blanc Vrai), and Pinot Gris (aka Fromenteau). Pedantically, since Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Meunier, and Chardonnay (a cross between Pinot and Gouais Blanc) are all part of the Pinot family, the three varieties technically allowed are Arbane, Petit Meslier, and Pinot!
Duval-Leroy Petit Meslier
Laherte Freres Les 7
Roses de Jeanne La Boloree
Champagne may be white or pink (rosé in France, rosato in Italy, rosado in Portugal) in color. Unlike other pink wines, pink champagne is usually made by blending white and red base wines.
Still wine may also be produced in the Champagne region but it is not called Champagne. The Coteaux Champenois (mainly red wine) and Rosé-des-Riceys (pink wine) appellations regulate such wine.
There are many other important aspects of Champagne (such as types and styles of champagne, production method, sweetness levels, label nomenclature, classifications, appellations, terroir, etc.) but to aid learning I try to keep these blog post short.