Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Champagne: The few, the committed, the terroirists

According to Essie Avellan MW (Single Vineyard Champagnes -- The Alternative Reality, TONG About Wine, No. 4, Winter 2009), a great wine is differentiated from a good wine largely by its authenticity and its sense of place.  Fine champagne, according to Avellan, meets the criteria for authenticity (sincerity, commitment, devotion) but, for the most part, does not meet the sense-of-place requirement because (i) it is blended across terroirs and (ii) its "taste of terroir" is further diluted by sugar added at several stages.  In this post I will examine alternatives for bridging this sense-of-place gap that Avellan would say exists between Champagne and other great French wines.

In the non-Champagne wine world, single-vineyard (or single-parcel) wines are viewed as the epitome of terroir wines; as the essence of place.  But this has not been the case for the single-vineyard Champagnes that have been placed on the market by the Houses over the past seven decades.

First, these Champagnes are made in the conventional style.  Second, Champagne Houses are the least likely sources of terroir-based wines because (i) they have a business model that is working very well thank you; (ii) most of the vineyard land is owned by the Growers, limiting their potential for single-vineyard initiatives even if they were so inclined; and (iii) they have significant investments in conventionally made Champagne stocks that could be placed at risk if customers began clamoring for terroir-based wines.  Finally, Avellan sees the single-vineyard efforts by the Houses as pursuit of additional value rather than pursuit of a sense of place.  In his view, "Rarity is a luxury and the costliest single vineyard champagnes are often bought for their luxury appeal rather than for their gustatory quality." These wines, then, are upward thrusts into the luxoriosphere, brand extensions in search of even more rarefied air, rather than a "seeking-after" of the truth of terroir.

Most of the Growers' output make its way to the Champagne Houses via Co-ops but some is held back for wine production at both the Grower and Co-op levels.  According to CIVC statistics (champagne.fr/en/economie.aspx), 31% of total Champagne shipments originate from Grower and Co-operative production while 13% of overseas shipments can be attributed to these two sources.  Beginning with the exhortations of wine importer Terry Thiese over two decades ago, Grower Champagne has gained a devoted following among serious wine drinkers (The Chronicle, Wine Selections ..., 12/12/08) and is viewed in some quarters as the wine to drink if you are put off by the lack of terroir implicit in the House style.  But not so fast, says Robert Walters.

Walters (Alternative Champagne 2, The World of Fine Wine, Issue 35, 2012) views attempts to differentiate between House and Grower Champagnes in this fashion as meaningless in that many of the growers produce their Champagnes in the conventional style.  And that assertion is borne out if you visit the website Les Champagnes de Vignerons, the umbrella brand covering all Grower Champagnes.  This site contains a description of the Champagne production process and it does not in any way differ from the process that is described on the CIVC site.  He instead describes what he refers to as "Champagne de Terroir," a wine which "maximizes the expression of the vineyard and removes the influence of the winemaker."  These Champagnes de Terroir are, according to Walters, "only produced successfully by a handfull of the finest growers."

In Issue 36 of TWoFW, Walters goes on to characterize the methods of these "Superior Grower Producers."  They:
  • Own or manage their own vineyards
  • Make wines from their own grapes
  • Begin with a desire to make wines that reflect their origins
    • Single-vineyard or single-commune wines
  • Manage the vineyards with little or no chemical input
    • Biodynamic or organic
  • Plow the soil
  • Seek lower yields than customary for the region
  • Pursue intense fruit so that lower dosage is needed
  • Use dosage in minimal amounts (when used) to balance acidity
  • Mature slowly; no fining or filtering.
The products emanating from this process are wines first and Champagne second, according to Walters.  They are drier, more vinous, clean, pure, and long of finish.  They tend to age well and, in his view, are better with food than a traditional Champagne.

The Growers that fit this mold are Egly-Ouriet, Selosse, Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier, Jérome Prévost, and Cedric Bouchard.

Producing wine in the manner described above in Champagne is hard.  With the almost insatiable demand for traditional Champagne, it is more profitable for a Grower to expend "normal" effort in the vineyard, pick his/her grapes early, and turn it over to the Co-op post-harvest than it is to try to make a Grower Champagne using the conventional method; and is definitely easier (and less prone to barbs from your fellow growers) than taking the steps necessary to produce a "Champagne de Terroir."  As wine drinkers we should honor the commitment that it takes to attempt to make wines that bend the curve, wines that go against the grain, wines that reflect what we all pursue -- a sense of place.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


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