Champagne must not have gotten the memo about the French appellation controllée (AOC) laws. They have their own regulations–after all, Champagne is an AOC–but they seem to have originated in Rome or Athens, not Paris.
Regional Blends Predominate
Elsewhere in France, the most prized and expensive wines come from individual and distinct vineyards. The French mantra is terroir, terroir,terroir. Place is paramount. Grapes are merely the vehicle for transmitting the flavors of the earth to the wine. No Burgundy producer would dare blend their Montrachet with their Bâtard-Montrachet, even though those vineyards are separated only by a narrow road. Blended wines in Burgundy are sold under the name of a village or, more commonly, a region; these are distinctly down-market bottlings, and command a far lower price. The same is true in Bordeaux. Wines from Pauillac, a prestigious village in the Médoc, are far more prized–and far higher priced–compared to wines blended from various villages in the region and labeled simply Médoc or Bordeaux.
But in Champagne, most of the prestigious and expensive wines, such as Moët & Chandon’s Dom Perignon, Roederer’s Cristal or Laurent Perrier’s Grand Siècle are the equivalent of Burgundy’s or Bordeaux’s “regional wines” made from grapes grown in vineyards spread all over the region. Of course, there are a few single vineyard Champagnes, such as Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay or Philipponnat’s Clos des Goisses, but they are conspicuous exceptions that prove the rule.
Non-Vintage Wine Has Cachet
Throughout France, wines not dated with a vintage are sold like gasoline, and I’m not speaking metaphorically here: A consumer takes a plastic jug to the winery and fills it from a pump that is different from a gas station pump only in the liquid that emerges from its nozzle.
By contrast, in Champagne, producers take great pride in their non-vintage blends. These comprise the bulk of the region’s wines, yet they can hardly be dismissed as bulk wines since they are not inexpensive and most certainly are not sold like gasoline.
Blending Red and White
Throughout the rest of France’s appellations, blending red and white grapes is prohibited, except in a few areas in the Rhône Valley, such as Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape. In Champagne, blending is the rule rather than the exception, as in those Rhône appellations.
Moreover, Rhône blends are always predominantly red with a little dollop of white—maybe 5 or 10 percent—whereas blended Champagnes may be based either on white or red grapes, with the minority portion approaching 50 percent of the total.
Villages, Not Vineyards, Rule
Elsewhere in France, such as Alsace or Burgundy, individual vineyards are graded with Grand or Premier Cru status according to their potential for providing the raw materials for distinctive wines. In Champagne, entire villages receive a grade, such as Grand or Premier Cru, implying that all the vineyards in the village have the same potential for supplying high quality fruit.
These virtually unique regulations in Champagne arose, for the most part, because of geography. Champagne is the northern-most area of wine production. Most years the grapes don’t ripen sufficiently to make high-quality still wine. To remain commercially viable, the Champenoise turned from still wines to sparkling ones in the early 19th century.
Even then, the vagaries of weather in such a marginal northerly climate necessitated an additional hedge against climatic disaster: Blending wines from different vintages, locales and grapes as an insurance policy against climatic disaster. Limiting production to just one grape variety grown in one vineyard or even a single village was akin to putting all your eggs in one basket–and a very rickety basket at that.
The miniscule size of the Champagne’s property holdings also helps to explain the tradition of blending in Champagne. Bordeaux, estates such as Chateau Margaux or Chateau Palmer range in size from 100 to 200 acres. In Champagne, the average size of a vineyard is less than 5 acres, and most of the 20,000 or so grape growers own less than 2.5 acres. Building and maintaining a production facility and storage cellar makes little sense when such small parcels of land are all that a vintner would have to provide raw materials for estate-bottled wines.
This harsh commercial reality led to the rise of cooperatives and the big Champagne houses, such as Moët & Chandon and Veuve Clicquot. Although the large Champagne houses own some vineyards, the vast majority of the Champagne they produce is derived from grapes purchased from growers. Even Roederer–which buys the smallest proportion of grapes among the great Champagne houses–only owns enough land to supply 70 percent of their needs.
Despite the fact that individual growers don’t have the economies of scale that are enjoyed by the big houses, so-called “Grower Champagnes” are becoming more common and easier to find in the US, thanks in large part to importer Terry Theise’s tireless efforts since the late 1990s. Thiese says the market for grower Champagne in the US exploded in 2002 and 2003 and “they are the easiest wines in my portfolio to sell.”
By law, a grower must use his or her own grapes for these Champagnes, and is allowed to buy only a small percentage from others. GrowerChampagnes are still usually blends of vintages, grapes, and different vineyards, but they generally come a single village or group of neighboring villages. Ownership on a small scale is localized for a simple reason: If you bought vineyard plots in far–flung villages, you’d either have to buy four tractors or spend half your life on the road
Grower Champagnes will always be more distinctive than wines from the big houses (not necessarily better or worse ) because they emphasize the terroir signature of a relatively small place rather than the agglomerated characteristics of many places. Since many growers can’t afford to hold stocks of still wines from previous years to even out vintage variations, they have less ability to blend. Indeed, whereas the big houses aim to make a consistent non-vintage blend that tastes the same year in and year out, non-vintage grower Champagnes vary more widely from year to year depending on the weather because they centered more tightly on a single year’s crop.
Whether global warming will reduce the need for blending and create conditions more conducive to making Champagne from individual vineyards remains to be seen. The sparkling wine industry in southern England has picked up considerably in the last decade, a phenomenon attributed to the warming climate. Although the Grands Marques (big name Champagne houses) dominate the market now, growers could gradually assume a greater share of the market as has occurred in Burgundy. As recently as 40 years ago, Burgundy négociants dominated the wine trade there, buying grapes and wines from small growers. Over the last decades, small Burgundy growers have expanded dramatically. Burgundy négociants are clearly still important today and still play a major role in the market, but their role has diminished.
Will the same happen in Champagne? Time will tell. For now, there are plenty of grower Champagnes that are widely available and are easy to recommend: H. Billiot Fils, Chartogne-Taillet, René Geoffroy, Pierre Gimonnet, and Pierre Péters (who also makes a single vineyard Champagne, Les Chetillons, which is marvelous).
It’s Wine–You Can Drink It with Food
I, for one, am glad the Champenoise figured out how to deal with their climate because I love Champagne and have plenty of it in my cellar. (Itdevelops beautifully with bottle age). The pop of a cork transforms an ordinary evening into a celebration. Its versatility is unmatched. It’s equally as good with food at the table as in its more traditional role as a stand-alone aperitif. Indeed, when in doubt about what wine to serve with a dish, Champagne is often the answer. I’ve enjoyed the bold robust style of Bollinger with steak, and the lighter more delicate Comte de Champagne by Taittinger with scallops. When you open Champagne this holiday season, save a glass to try with food–any food. You might be surprised, and pleasantly so I’d wager.
December 13, 2011