Champagne is the name given to both the world’s most famous sparkling wine, and the region in north-eastern France whence it is produced. The climate here is the coolest of all French wine producing regions, and the Chardonnay, Pinot-Noir and Pinot Meuniere grapes which grow on the free-draining chalk slopes are characterised by a marked acidity, even in the warmest growing seasons. It was only the introduction of secondary fermentation in-bottle, and of the bottles strong enough to withstand the resulting pressures (the technique known as Methode Champenoise) during the 19th century that permitted the growers to harness, indeed embrace, this tartness of character to the ultimate advantage of the wine. Prior to this sparkling wines had been made, but by the very much more unreliable methode rurale, whereby the wines were bottled before the single fermentation had finished, a technique both hazardous to the quality of the wines, and to the well-being of those charged with making them.
Deft marketing by the famous merchant houses, most significantly by association with royalty and the aristocracy during the belle epoque, together with fierce protection of the Champagne name, has bequeathed us the famous premium sparkling wine, the vast majority of which is made and marketed by a relatively small number of large firms, whilst most of the grapes are produced under contract to those firms by large numbers of small growers – the ratio is somewhere in the region of 90% of the wine being marketed by 10% of the grape growers, the converse therefore being that 90% of the grapes are produced by people that have nothing to do with the marketing of the wine. Herein lies not only the potential for greed and corner-cutting, but also the seeds of one of the most interesting and quietly significant recent developments within the region.
Many of the 19,000 artisan vineyard owners in Champagne have always held back a proportion of their crop in order to make their own Champagne for family consumption and cellar-door sales. In recent years, some of these have been not only increasing that production, but withdrawing altogether from the contract system. Whilst it would be inaccurate to paint a picture of uniform quality – there are perhaps 5,000 such Recoltant-Manipulants, many of whom produce Champagne that is somewhat rustic or at least variable in quality – it would be fair to say that there are increasing numbers who are making outstanding wines that offer a fascinating insight into the various individual terroirs of the region, something which the large Negociant-Manipulant houses are on the whole unable or unwilling to do, not least because they overtly seek a consistency of style from year to year by blending together wines produced from throughout the region. I would go further and surmise that many of the large houses have become victims, albeit only on a stricly qualitative level, of their own successes. Large multinational companies are not best known for their appreciation of qualitative nuance, and accountants will usually prevail over individuality and passion, whatever the marketing gloss that is painted. I am far from alone in detecting that standards are not always as high as they should be from some of the big names, indeed are too often downright poor.
The picture might increasingly be compared, therefore, with the Burgundy of two or three decades ago, where the large merchant houses in Beaune were marketing the majority of the wines, which were themselves sourced and blended together from the produce of a multitude of small growers, a process that effectively ironed out the many unique expressions of individual terroirs and winemaking styles, whilst theoretically guaranteeing a certain (often quite mediocre) consistency. Today we can see in Burgundy large numbers of individual producers who are growing their own grapes and conducting the elevage and marketing of their own wines, many of them held in high regard by a discerning and worldwide clientele.
As champions of the artisan, the original and the outstanding, we see it as our task to root out and, in as far as we are able, to promote the the wines of some of the best of the ‘new-wave’ Champagne producers. We would particularly draw your attention to the fascinating contrast between the elegant and refined Chardonnay based 1er Cru Veuve-Fourny and the round complexity of the Grand Cru wines from Paul Dethune in Ambonnay.