Champagne – A quest for Terroir

Ask a vigneron what the most important factor is in creating a good wine and the most likely response you’ll get is “terroir”. It is the combination of several environmental factors (soil, climate, location, sunlight, etc.) that shapes a wine. Some vignerons would go as far as stating that they are not really adding anything and that the wine practically makes itself. Biologic, biodynamic or natural viticulture is often seen as a key element in creating terroir wines. Champagne however, is different in the sense that tradition dictated that everything should be done to snuff out the influence of terroir. The excellence of a wine is determined by the blend created by a chef de cave who skillfully selects the best that each terroir can add to the wine. Rarely will they allow a specific terroir or lieu-dit take the spotlight.

The production process behind champagne makes it extremely difficult to keep intervention to a minimum and hence, to create a wine as natural and as close to terroir as possible. Sugar needs to be added together with yeasts to start the second fermentation (liqueur de tirage) and again when the bottles are disgorged (liqueur de dosage). These processes will be discussed in greater detail in a future post as there is an increasing number of growers who are trying to come up with solutions but the general approach is still artificial yeasts, cane sugar and sulphites to stabilize the wine at best, chaptilisation and adding whatever else works at worst.

Even if the production process would allow the typicity of terroir to show itself, plenty of houses and growers prefer a blend. In the past, growers would take their grapes to local pressing centres and payment for their grapes would be based on the status (grand or premier cru) of the village. Growers would then receive a portion of the wines to commercialize under their own label, and the houses or big brands would swoop in and take whatever they required from village X or Y, essentially purchasing a blend of the village’s growers. It is the great equalizer, you can be the best or the worst grower, you would still get the same price for your grapes.

As land prices in the region are sky high (up to 2 million), a lot of growers only manage to expand their holdings with bits and pieces of land. The result is that you get a patchwork of parcels spread throughout the region. The domain that I’ll present in the next post, Laherte Frères, is a good example. 10 hectares, divided over more than seventy different parcels and covering ten different villages make it very difficult to create something that is not a blend. You would have to go through painstaking lengths to produce separate cuvées that each present what their terroir stands for, and you’d end up with forty different cuvées on a total of 100 000 bottles. This may work for some producers in the Jura, but I don’t really see it happening in the Champagne.

While French appellation law can be incredibly complex, it’s surprisingly simple in Champagne. There is only one appellation, and the Echelle des Crus, the classification of the villages is out-dated and does not go deep enough to really get a sense of terroir. For consumers and wine geeks this can be frustrating as you don’t really have a foundation going in and the best way to get a sense of what is going is visting the villages and talking to the vignerons. If you want to make wine though, the lack of a legal framework is an opportunity. Vignerons are not bound by strict rules and have the liberty to define their idea of terroir without governmental interference. This led to the rise of more focused blends, showcasing specific types of terroir, or lieu-dits, wines made from a single parcel, often in minimum quantities. The trend among both the houses and independent growers is to explore and discover lieu-dits that offer different characters and experiences. Le Mesnil is probably the most famous example and Clos d’Ambonnay from Krug is certainly the most expensive but others include Terres Rouges from Jacquesson or Philipponat’s Clos de Goisses.

This movement is however led by independent growers. Big names like Selosse or Egly-Ouriet have become so famous that they can command premium prices, but there are plenty of others to choose from. Personal favorites include Pierre Larmandier, creator of razorsharp Chardonnay in Vertus and Ulysse Collin. The latter is based in the Côte de Sézanne and amongst the terroir he works with you can find some of the most unique cuvées in the entire region. My most recent discovery is Laherte Frères, which will be discussed in greater detail next week, so stay tuned!

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