Excerpts from a seminar by Kevin Pike & Terry Theise “Champagne is on the verge of profound change. There is a growing realization in the region that its viticulture has become slovenly and the subtleties of its terroir have been neglected. The era of great growers and great vineyards is just beginning.” —The New France, Andrew Jefford, 2002
The Champagne region in France is dominated by a handful of brand names. These négoçiants and coopératives produce 80% of the total output in Champagne, yet they only own 12% of the vineyards. They may, by law, purchase as much of their grapes or pressed juice or already made sparking wine (known as sur-lattes) as they wish from all over the region. They bring to market a mass produced commodity - the most successful processed agricultural product in human history - a Champagne made in a “house style.” This is a sparkling wine made in a highly interventionist and formulaic way with swift pressing, extensive use of chaptalization, acidiﬁcation, cultured yeast strains, enzymes, nitrogenous yeast nutrients and rapid temperature controlled fermentations. They produce many millions of cases annually. By contrast, Small Growers, or “récoltant-manipulants,” may purchase only 5% of their fruit and handcraft their limited quantities of Champagne from individual villages and parcels where the inherent qualities of the vineyards imprint themselves into the wines. These winemakers are brave souls in an industrialized age: growing, crafting and bottling their own Champagne, offering it to the world as their life’s work. They deserve your support. Problem: There’s only one “Champagne” While Champagne consists of one AOC it is one of the largest in France, totaling 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres). Of these, 31,000 hectares are planted in over 300 villages and spread over three Départments (“States”). Consider that the Côte d’Or in Burgundy has over 110 AOCs for 8,450 hectares. Solution: Discover the Regions and Villages Familiarize yourself with the ﬁve sub-regions already present: • • • • • Côte des Blancs (96% Chardonnay, 3% Pinot Noir, 1% Meunier) Vallée de la Marne (63% Meunier, 27% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay) Montagne de Reims (56% Pinot Noir, 28% Chardonnay, 16% Meunier) Côte de Sézanne (developing fast, now mostly Chardonnay but Pinot Noir being planted) Côte des Bars (also known as the Aube, 65 % of the region, lower quality, lots of quantity).
Look for the differences in style between the regions. Also use the designations already in place for Premier and Grand Cru villages. We can start learning the differences between the Grand Crus of Avize, Tours-sur-Marne and Ambonnay. Think of it as similar to the Burgundy hierarchy, with “Champagne” being similar to “Bourgogne”, the sub-regions like “Côte des Blancs” similar to “Côte de Beaune” level, and the Premier and Grand Cru villages similar to the great names of Burgundy, like “Volnay” and “Gevrey-Chambertin”.
Map of Champagne
Grand Cru Premier Cru Côte des Blancs Montagne de Reims Vallée de la Marne www.sk urnikwines.com
Problem: Quantity, not quality in the vineyard MYTH – Grapes for Champagne should be picked early to retain acidity, which is need for quality bubble production. REALITY – Picking early is ﬁnancially beneﬁcial to both the growers and producers. Each vintage, the local government sets the date on which harvest can begin, and the price per must weight that will be paid. Quality only enters the formula in a limited fashion, in that prices set for grapes from the best “Grand Cru” villages are higher than those for “Premier Cru” villages, which in turn are higher than those of all other villages. Even given these “quality” designations, it is still only must weight that matters ﬁnancially. Hence, the growers who sell their grapes to the houses and cooperatives prefer to pick as early as possible when the grapes are under-ripe, but at their highest must weight. Then the houses and…