Champagne lovers gather around. Listen, can you hear the winds of change? Now, more than ever, Champagne’s growers are bringing awareness to flavour, style and the all-important question of terroir. What does this likely mean for the future of Champagne ‘the region’ and champagne ‘the wine’? Read on. Award-winning wine author and lecturer, Gert Crum, gives us his thoughts.
They are the strongest voices in Champagne, most of the large houses in Reims and Épernay, Les Grandes Marques, have maintained for many years that “champagne is not a vin de terroir“. But the winds of change are here. The champagne world has been livelier than ever in the past 30 years, to the great advantage of every champagne lover.
Les Grandes Marques are both the voice and face of champagne. From the 18th Century since, ever more clearly. It will most likely remain that way. Nevertheless, the role of small family businesses cannot be disregarded, and certainly not on the French market itself. Traditionally, the French buy their champagnes from the growers.
On a Friday afternoon, you drive to a nice hotel in Champagne. You have a comfortable dinner and, the next day, visit some of those family businesses. You tour the beautiful landscape and finish the day with another fine dinner. On Sunday, you make the journey home feeling content and with a car load of champagne. And then every time one of those bottles is opened, that same weekend and those friendly champagne growers are referred to. However, France’s domestic market has shrunk dramatically in recent decades. Not long ago, the French accounted for two thirds of total champagne consumption, now it is barely 45 percent. Things are not going so well for many of the champagne-producing family businesses.
Champagnes with a soul
But (also) in Champagne there is viticulture à deux vitesses, viticulture at two speeds. There is now a significant and growing number of small champagne producers that are making great progress. In France, but also in export markets. They are mostly traditional and organic, sometimes even biodynamically working producers with guts and vision. Their production is often limited, but the quality, originality and authenticity of their champagnes is often stunning. They produce wines with a soul, and this is recognised by champagne lovers all over the world. People like Anselme Selosse, Pascal Agrapart, Delphine Boulard, Alexandre Chartogne, Cédric Bouchard, Aurélien Lurquin, the Fourny brothers, Jérôme Prévost, Olivier Collin, Frédéric Savart, Benoît Lahaye, Pierre Larmandier, Georges Laval, Emmanuel Lassaigne, Emmanuel Brochet, Bertrand Gautherot, the Chiquet brothers, Francis Egly, Pascal Doquet and the Bérêche brothers – to name only twenty – now (almost) have cult status. In recent years, they have given Champagne a great quality boost by name and also inside the bottle.
Everything focused on quality and originality
Stubborn champagne growers want to let terroir speak. They spend a lot of time in their vineyards, don’t spray with pesticides, and don’t use fertilisers. They plough the top soil lightly – or not even that. They limit the yield of grapes per hectare and select rigorously during harvest. Only ripe and healthy fruit counts.
That seems obvious, but in Champagne a grape supplier to the large champagne houses is paid by the kilo; a truck full of ripe, but also green and rotten fruit goes onto the weighing machine and the weight determines price.
After pressing, they vinify with great care and precision, so that a series of high-quality vins clairs (still wine) is obtained. And they usually bottle their wines, to benefit the prise de mousse (during the second fermentation in the bottle, the bubbles arise), only in July or even September following harvest, where most large houses and small family businesses have the rule to do so in March / April. And more importantly, the new generation of champagne growers often vinify the wines village-wise or single vineyard-wise.
The common type
This touches on the essence of what the new wave of producers represent. They propose (part of) their champagnes as vins de terroir. So not the prototype champagne as presented by the big houses, blended vins de l’assemblage – this common type of champagne is composed of wines from several years, from three different grape varieties, and from tens, sometimes hundreds of villages. They have to, because they have little or no vineyards themselves and must source from every nook and cranny within the region. That is why they blend according to a house recipe and look for a house style with the same character throughout the years. Don’t mistake me, there are beautiful champagnes of this type.
Beautiful and challenging
So the winds of change is about champagne with a sense of place. And then very specifically, champagne from one village or even from a single vineyard. And, not infrequently, from one single grape variety and one harvest year with minimal (or no) dosage. For champagne lovers with a wine heart, it is fascinating. In addition to a general quality boost, sensible large houses may feel challenged by small producers who push them off the wine lists at renowned restaurants, but they also acknowledge it is a great enrichment of the champagne palate. Based on experience, you may know where Chablis differs from Pouilly-Fuissé and Meursault from Puligny. You might even be able to put into words the difference between grand crus champagnes like Cramant, Avize, Aÿ and Verzenay. But for the time being, I think, our experience falls short of the quality, the specific properties of a champagne de terroir, from Merfy in the Massif de Saint-Thierry, from Congy in the Val du Petit Morin and from Celles-sur-Ource in the Côte des Bar (Aube). What a challenge!
Read more in ISSUE NO. 4 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Gert Crum
Photography by Victor Pugatschew and Tyson Stelzer