Champagne is perhaps the most anomalous region in the world of wine. Certainly, at least, in the world of French wine. In complete contrast to the rest of France, which is divided and sub-divided into dozens and in some cases hundreds of appellations covering tiny patches of land with presumably distinctive characteristics, Champagne has just one single official AOC covering a massive 34,000ha. Compare that to the world’s other extreme, Burgundy, where there are over 450 AOCs for about a quarter of the acreage of champagne.
Clearly everyone inside and even many outside of the region is aware that not all of champagne’s vineyards are created equal. From the Marne Valley to the Montagne de Rheims or the Côtes des Blancs, soil and climate differences account for the planting of different varieties and the resulting variations in wine styles. Yet these variations rarely have the opportunity to be articulated on a bottle. The companies who control the region have little interest in officially parceling up the region into distinct AOCs.
Champagne is dominated by a handful of big names with big interests. The majority operates on the financial platform established by the strength of their non-vintage blends, made from grapes grown throughout the region in huge quantities running into the millions of bottles per annum. Creating new, more distinctive AOCs would only lessen the perceived value of these non-vintage cuvees, in the same way that generic bourgogne rouge or blanc sells for considerably less than a village or cru burgundy – how many producers can get $60 for their generic (imagine even non-vintage) bourgognes?
The trouble is, the only way to make a consistent house styles year after year in a marginal region like Champagne is to blend from as many grapes and parcels as possible (not to mention different vintage years). Consistency of style is, in fact, a point of pride for most houses, and consumers have come to rely on the standardized taste of the big non-vintage cuvees.
The négociant houses and the region’s cooperatives account for over 80% of the region’s wines between them, yet own only 12% of the vineyards. This means that the vast majority of their production is made from purchased grapes, under the complex price-structure put in place by the Inter-professional Committee of Champagne Wines (CIVC). There’s nothing inherently evil about making wine from purchase grapes, but it’s also not coincidental that virtually all of the world’s distinctive wines are made by passionate people who grow their own grapes.
The less well-known side of champagne is represented by the grower-producers, distinguishable from the negociants by the presence of the tiny letters “RM” on the label (Récoltant-Manipulant) as opposed to the letters “NM”, which stand for Négociant-Manipulant. Most of the growers operate small estates, farming their own parcels and producing their own wine. Since their vineyard holdings are almost always located in the same sub-region, their wines reflect the particular characteristics of their zone. That’s the definition of distinctive: different from the wines made by your neighbor next door, and vastly different from the wines made on the other side of a 34,000 hectare region. Individual personalities are allowed to show through in a way that a team of winemakers and board of directors could never allow when the stakes are so high. It also means different styles from year to year. Even the non-vintage wines of may growers actually come from a single harvest, since few have the means or indeed the space to store back vintages for later blending.
Let’s be clear: smaller doesn’t always mean better. In fact, many small producers suffer from a lack of capital and any economy of scale to invest in the latest equipment or top expertise and never reach their full potential. You may not even consider distinctiveness or variation from year to year a positive attribute in your champagne. But I encourage you to try them out and see for yourself. Here below are a couple well worth checking out:
NV R&L Legras Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
R&L Legras is the house pour in more Michelin 3 star restaurants than any other champagne house. This non-vintage is made from fruit from the Grand Cru village of Chouilly in the Côte des Blancs. The nose is clean, highly fragrant but delicate, with fresh croissant, white chocolate, and hazelnut aromas. The palate is bright and crisp, essentially dry, with tight acid and really fine yeasty, fresh, half-baked brioche flavours. A wine of great finesse for fans of the classic blanc de blancs style. 93 $55
2004 David Léclapart Blanc de Blancs L’Artist Premier Cru Extra Brut
Léclapart is a biodynamic producer from the village of Trépail with a maniacle devotion to his vineyards. He learned his trade from the legendary Anselm Selosse, biodynamic practioner and proselytizer for a totally natural way of farming. All wines chez Léclapart do malolactic, and are finished with zero dosage and no sulphur. The Artiste cuvee is fermented partly in stainless and part in barrel. This is all from the 2004 vintage, but it’s not declared as such on the label. This is a dramatically different style of champagne from the norm, with pure and precise green apple and wet stone aromas, almost more like Chablis with bubbles than champagne. This has a real vinous quality. The palate has vibrancy and intensity that goes beyond most of the wines in the category, with intense apple, mineral and fresh yeast flavours. A real tour de force that should age beautifully for a couple of decades or more. But be forewarned: these are not champagnes for everyone. They demand some serious intellectual exercise. 96 $120
2002 Guy Charlemagne Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs
Charlemagne’s cellar is across the street from Champagne Salon in Le Mesnil-sur-Ogier. For his 2002 vintage, half goes through malo in small wood, the other half sees only stainless steel. This has a highly exotic nose of orange blossom, acacia honey, marzipan, and candied lemon. The palate has explosive intensity and power, beautifully balanced by minerality. A wine of fabulous intensity and length, with broad enough appeal to bring lots of smiles to the party. Drink now or hold 20+ years. Even though it’s $115/bottle, this still spells excellent value in the world of high-end champagne. 96 $115
These champagnes are imported by:
Stephen Cohen of Groupe Soleil, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fueled by his personal passion, Stephen Cohen has set out across the region to de-niche the region’s best, from small producers who own their own vines.
You can find out more about John Szabo by visiting his website or his WineAlign profile.
Filed under: Wine, Champagne, John Szabo