Champagne – A state of affairs

One of the first wine regions that thoroughly fascinated me was Champagne. This is not a coincidence as it is the closest international wine region from Brussels (sadly, Limburg or the Westhoek are as of yet not recognized as global centers of quality wine) and Belgians are possibly the largest consumer group of champagne (all the wine that Belgians buy on a quick trip to the region is not included in most market research). As the holidays get closer, the number of Belgian cars spotted in the north of France skyrockets. Most families have their preferred supplier and they simply hop across the border for a day to get their stock for the next year. We have taken several trips ourselves just to discover new winegrowers and to get a better feel of the region.

There is no use in beating around the bush; Champagne is one of the most successful marketing stories in the wine world. Other regions have tried to no avail and the one that probably got closest is Bordeaux, but the attention here is still divided among right bank or left bank, the different Médoc communes and the wines lucky enough to appear in the 1855 classification. Aside from wine aficionados, I wouldn’t assume that the general public knows the difference between the Côte des Blancs, Montagne de Reims or the Côte de l’Aube, let alone the different villages and their appellation status. Champagne is just Champagne, it’s as easy as that, and as every decent marketeer knows, simplicity is the most effective way to sell your product. The CIVC as well as the houses are so efficient at protecting their brand that you’ll see a ridiculous lawsuit from time to time (Veuve Cliquot vs. Ciro Picariello or CIVC vs. Apple), but if it pays off, who can blame them?

The presence of the Grandes Marques (think Veuve Cliquot, Moët et Chandon, Mumm, etc) is a key characteristic of the economics of the region. Most of them do not own all the vineyards that they source their grapes from. At best they have a small selection of parcels they tend to themselves, reserved for their top range. They purchase their grapes from semi-independent growers and price depends on the location of the vineyard and its appellation status (Grand Cru, Premier Cru or no classification), not so much on the reputation or quality of the grower. As they purchase such enormous amounts of grapes (knowing thatVeuve Cliquot for instance produces up to 20 million bottles a year, you can only imagine how much they need to source every year) the effect of one supplier of lower quality can be compensated in the process later on. Some houses have extremely high standards of course. Bollinger for instance prides itself on the close bonds it has with its suppliers, some dating back generations. At least for their non-vintage Champagne however, most houses, particularly the ones in the lower price range catering to supermarkets, have more relaxed conditions with ambiguous consequences for the quality of the wine.

Another consequence of this mass-purchase of still wines is that they can be sourced from all over the region, as long as a commune is part of the appellation Champagne. Consequentially it’s often difficult to distinguish terroir or variety-linked characteristics in the wine. For some producers this is a source of pride. Charles Heidsieck for example strives to create a wine that embodies the meaning of Champagne as a region, not of some village unknown to the majority of its target consumers. This can be tricky, because you want to create something that is in a sense “generic” for lack of a better word, but that still shows the audience your idea of what champagne is. Whereas I personally believe that Charles Heidsieck succeeds in creating a wonderful and complete range of wines, other houses are just too big (think in terms of Mumm or Castellane) and while there may be nothing wrong from a technical point of view, they can only be noted for a distinct lack of personality.

Nevertheless, the increase in demand for champagne, despite being slowed down by the economic downturn as well as the rise of Cava seems to be unstoppable. You can claim that it’s a good thing for the name and fame of champagne as a whole, but there are negative consequences as well. The overall quality level may not change much but evens out, becomes more uniform and standardized. Focus at growers who are dependent of the large houses shifts from quality to securing yield, often resulting in earlier picking as this increases the odds of avoiding bad weather conditions during the harvest. Ripeness of the grapes is therefore a secondary concern, in particular because this can be compensated by chaptalisation (adding sugar to increase the eventual alcohol percentage and to decrease acidity), which does not bode well for overall quality.

There is no other region in France so dependent on the use of pesticides. All is done in the name of yield. Herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, as long as it can be sprayed, spread, thrown or injected it will be used. In the sixties and seventies, one of the top fertilizers was gadoux, shredded garbage from Paris and Reims that was spread between the vines. This would not be such a terrible idea if you assumed that everything recycled as he or she should, but of course the majority of the garbage ended up being plastic or something else that would only decompose 20 generations later. This was accepted until the nineties, and I’ve seen vineyards where it can still be found. Another technique that is a bit more conspicuous is injecting a mix of iron and soda in the earth, accelerating growth and of course increasing yield. Economically speaking you can make a pretty solid case for doing all this, but when the focus lies more and more on sustainable viticulture, these are questionable practices.

There is however an increasing number of independent growers who aim to do things different. Instead of making champagne that is representative for the entire region, they focus on specific crus and terroir, highlighting individuality as well as typicity even if this means sacrificing yield for quality. Strict selection in the vineyards, minimal intervention and aiming for optimal ripeness (which may not be the maximum ripeness that can be achieved) all lead to an elevated still wine as this is for them the only way to create excellent champagne in the end.

A number of these principles is also gaining track amongst the houses. Just last week, Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer expressed his support for biodynamic and organic viticulture, stating that the positive effects on the quality of the grapes and the wines is too big to be ignored, even if this means large investments and lower initial yields. If more houses would voice their opinion, the region as a whole would benefit from it. For now though, let’s focus on some smaller winemakers who have been searching for their own identities over the past years.

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