Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Champagne: The anti-terroirist "fine wine"

Champagne is the most anti-terroirist of French fine wines in that its production flies in the face of the core principles of terroir-driven wines whose mantra is "communication of a sense of place."  A terroir-driven wine is presumed to "express the natural personality of its origin site" with the winemaker's role being confined to harnessing and bottling this natural expression with minimal intervention.  This philosophy/practice is the principle underlying the oft-used phrase "quality wine is made in the vineyard."  Champagne production works at cross-purposes with these principles.  According to Robert Walters (Champagne: Bursting Bubbles, The World of Fine Wine, Issue 34, 2011), "Champagne is nearly always a highly manipulated product and thus clashes with most of our preconceptions of quality wine."  We examine that characterization in this post.

The Champagne region is enormous and diverse (34,000 ha of vineyards spread over 25,000 sq. km and 319 villages), encompassing many soil types, aspects, and climates (Franciacorta, one of the Italian sparkling wine regions, has, in comparison, 3000 ha of vines spread over 19 municipalities.).  There are in excess of 15,000 growers spread over the Champagne-delimited area, each farming, on average, a 2-ha plot.  Rather than grower-negociant interaction (as is common in Burgundy, for example), the growers sell their grapes to a Cooperative which crushes the grapes and creates communal and varietal blends which are delivered to the Champagne Houses.  As Walters points out, this approach creates two problems.  First, the separation of the grower from the negociant has implications for quality.  The grower knows that his/her grapes will be incorporated into a communal blend anyway so there is no incentive to make an extra effort to ensure that the grapes are breaking any quality barriers.  Second, and most important from the terroirist perspective, no vineyard characteristics will be evident in the final blend.  In the Burgundy schema, the must that is delivered to the Champagne House is, at best, a Village blend and could even be a regional blend.  So the first principle of terroirists wines are shot down early in the process -- no vineyard characteristic, no sense of place will make its way through to the final wine.

From its musty beginnings , Champagne undergoes layers of manipulation before the final product emerges.  As related in my post on the traditional method, the wine undergoes:

  • Chaptalization -- as necessary to bring the juice up to 11% potential alcohol
  • Alcoholic fermentation
  • Blending
  • In-bottle fermentation
    • Solution of wine, sugar, and yeast added
    • Captured carbon dioxide dissolved in wine
  • Aging on lees which (Aromas & Flavors: Explanatory Notes, wine-pages.com):
    • Releases reducing enzymes that inhibit oxidation
    • Absorbs certain essential yeast nutrients (limits potential for refermentation at dosage)
    • Increases amino acids and other nitrogenous matter, precursors to "Champagne character"
    • Produces acetal which possibly adds a biscuity or brandy-like complexity
    • Produces MP32 which reduces tartrate precipitation
  • Liqueur de dosage
    • Adds sweetness, roundness, and complexity (Walters)

Walters raises the issue as to whether, with this degree of manipulation, Champagne can be considered a great wine.  As he sees it, much of its aroma, flavor, and texture comes from the winemaking process rather than the grape itself.  "If the initial wine is austere and much of the final character derives from the process by which it is made, we are closer to a beverage than a 'great' wine."

Let us look at the characteristics of great wines. Vintage Direct (nicks.com.au) has identified a number of characteristics of great wines, two of which I will discuss here.  In terms of the vineyard site, Vintage Direct says that great wines come from small sites "which will be very apparent as a great site when considered as a part of the surrounding viticultural district."  We can easily identify the great wines in Bordeaux and Burgundy by the vineyards in which they are grown but it is not that easy to tie some of the well-known Champagnes to specific vineyards.  The Champagne House will say that the House style is more important than any vineyard characteristic but is that representative of a great wine? or a great beverage?

One of the other "great-wine" characteristics identified by Vintage Direct was yield: 3 tons/acre from old vines.  The idea here is that the older the vine, the less output, but the more complex the fruit.  In Champagne, the practices are a little different.  First, the vines in Champagne average 20-25 years old and are kept that way to ensure vigorous output of less-complex fruit.  A combination of less-complex fruit picked early aids in the production of the austere base wines which the Houses like as the starting point for Champagne.  According to Walters, the argument that is presented for austere base wines is that the complexity and richness added by the process would make the wines heavy and elegance-free if less-austere wines were used as starters.  Yield in Champagne, according to Walters, runs between 13 and 15 tons per acre.

Finally, Champagne has not historically been marketed as a great wine. Rather, it has been marketed as a luxury good that is associated with times of celebration.  It is broken over the bow of a new cruiseliner at launch, sprayed over a Formula 1 or Nascar winner at the end of the race, or broken out when your kid graduates from college (Free at last, free ...).  But that is not how the great wines of the world are marketed.  Great wines are marketed on the basis of the wine (complexity, aging characteristics, flavors, etc.), terroir, viticultural techniques, and pedigree.  You do not waste great wine on the bow of some hunk of metal.

While the above captures the large majority of winemaking within the Champagne region, there is some  terroir-driven winemaking in the region and I will cover that in a subsequent post.


©Wine -- Mise en abyme

3 comments:

  1. what about the end-of-day most important factor of any wine anywhere in the world (from one wine blogger to another) ... the taste! ... all of this manipulation of well-made champagne (from small and large houses) leads to an amazing balance, complexity, and even aging potential ... the end justifies the means ... in summary i feel that not all wines should be judged alike ... comparing a bordeaux (still, terroir-driven wine) to champagne is like apples and oranges ... personally i love both!

    in short ... CHEERS ! :-)

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    Replies
    1. I understand your point of view if the objective is taste. But what great estate-bottled wines promise is a sense of place. If you are an accomplished Bordeaux drinker, you can tell the commune of origin of the wine you just drunk. Good luck with Champagne. As said on delongwine.com, "What other region sells industrially produced bulk wine at prices more or equal to estate bottled wines."

      Cheers.

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