Hello Champagne aficionados,
April is a busy time in Champagne region – with growers launching new tasting salon exhibitions left right and centre. There was only one Salon eight years ago “Terres et Vins” – now there are 21 ! Most are now based in Reims with only a few based in some of the villages. This week has been named ‘Le Printemps des Champagnes’. It is a busy week – spitoons are the order of the day – and a firm resolve with copious note taking. Most growers speak enough English to be well understood. Also there are a number of events at local wine bars – show casing growers’ champagne.
There are some breathtaking wines in the line up – mainly all coming from the new breed of vignerons – organic, bio dynamic or simply doing sensible viticulture. It does not matter which as long as there is respect for the soil sufficient not to poison the crap out of it. The ‘Bulles et Bio” salon was one of the highlight tastings, with all the big names strutting their stuff. Some vignerons exhibited at more than one tasting during the week. Small parcel cuvées are becoming quite common and are of an extremely high quality. A vigneron may press 2,000 or 4,000 kg and ferment and age in barrel, and then select the best barrels to go into a one-off special cuvée, with the other barrels going into a basic cuvée blend. Certainly the new breed vigneron is casting more doubts on the original ‘Cru rating’ system. The vigneron’s approach to his craft seems more important than the vineyard rating!
Equally there were a lot of mediocre bubbles around as well. Grower does not necessarily equate to ‘good’. Insipid, dilute, boring, over dosaged champagnes still exist. And when discussing these wines with the grower, the revelation is that this is the ‘style the clients like’! Well not our clients! And this type of client will only ever pay bargain basement prices.
After spending 4 weeks in the region – tasting, spitting, visiting and discovering – I thought maybe that I had become an even more ‘one eyed grower aficionado’, so I took the time to attend a two day ‘Revue du Vin de France’ magazine Salon tasting in Paris. This gave me an opportunity to visit some growers again, and to taste thru most of the big house brands. Well it was a shock – the gap between the ‘grower’ and the ‘house’ has actually widened. For sure, many of the big houses are making a very correct good quality AOC Champagne which has all the characteristics of a ‘Champagne drink’ and upholds the ‘quality brand image’ of Champagne , but they lack some of the personality and intensity that the growers can deliver (which wine enthusiasts look for). The big brand prestige cuvees can be very impressive and command an impressive price too. But this is not a revelation to me or anyone else in the wine business. Look at any decent Michelin starred restaurant winelist anywhere on earth and you see that the majority of Champagnes on the list are growers. Some lists may only have Krug or Bollinger as the only big house brands. Names like Agrapart, Bereche, Bourgeois-Diaz, Boulard, De Sousa, Egly-Ouriet, Rodez, Vouette et Sorbee, Cedric Bouchard, Tarlant, Laval, Doquet, Leclapart, Selosse, Prevost, Brochet, Fleury, Chartogne, Marguet, Lassaigne, Lahaye, Bedel, Larmandier-Bernier, Suenen, Seleque, Savart, Geoffroy etc. are now ‘de rigueur’ for any top wine list. Names that you rarely see on top wine lists (apart from maybe a rare Prestige Cuvee) are Lanson, Mumm, Laurent-Perrier, Piper Heidsieck, Pol Roger, Veuve Clicquot etc.. And this will not change in a hurry. What we will see though is a re-shuffling of the grower order. Some of the longer established growers will be pushed off the list as new growers push for exposure, and as sommeliers try to differentiate and diversify their winelists.
Certainly grower Champagnes offer quirky terroir precision and tension, making them a great mix and match combination with food – hence the popularity on restaurant wine lists. We see a number of ‘new breed’ vignerons evolve from being grape growers who sold to the local co-op, to starting their own full production facility. Some growers used to sell grapes and run the local press house. Now these producers are keeping the best grapes for themselves and making some really interesting wines. Also more of these new breed vignerons respect the soil and the environment and are working the soil using the best of organic/biodynamic principles. The ‘small batch’ vinification mentality means that every harvest produces something different. They are more agile and flexible and can incorporate ‘change’ quickly and easily – something which the big houses cannot do yet.
April is a good time to see the vineyard landscape. Sadly, yellow landscapes of ’round-up weed killer’ vineyards are in the vast majority. We see the occasional healthy green landscape, with grass, flowers, weeds and life in the vineyard. Also we see grey lunar landscapes where everything has been exterminated, destroyed and removed – not a living thing in sight apart from the vine. Shame. The media tends to show us the healthy alive green vineyards – but these are still in the minority! There is talk on banning the use of herbicides in the entire Champagne region over the next few years – but we must wait. Vignerons can adapt to using less herbicides – they just need a little direction and incentive.
Export statistics for Champagne to Australia have taken a huge jump in 2015, up from 6.5million to 8.1million bottles, with the big brands taking most of the volume increase. Mumm appears to be the biggest NV flagship brand in Australia. Growers figures are down again – sigh! A poor exchange rate, supermarket dominance and heavy discounting appears to lure consumers away from experimenting with growers champagnes.
Glassware – yes always we must talk about glassware. Yes, the revelation is that ‘flutes’ are out of fashion, in favour of a much larger ‘wine glass’. This is old hat news – the growers ditched using flutes ten years ago. The much awarded Michelin starred restaurant ‘Les Crayeres’ in Reims serves its prestige Champagnes in a large Burgundy glass which has a point base (to maintain the mousse). So we have progress – even if it is delayed.
My ‘Champagne guru’ friend, Kaaren Palmer from Adelaide has written and published a sensational book on Champagne – ‘Champagne -a tasting journey’. Not only is it full of information – most of which is new, authentic and original, but it is also a great structured learning guide to help you walk thru the discovery of Champagne. You can see more here.
From our last offer I have received some glowing comments about all the Champagnes. Both ‘nature’ cuvees of Beaugrand have sold out. Great Montgueux Champagne is popular. All the vintage Champagnes have sold out and Voirin-Jumel has nearly sold out.
I have a few new discoveries in the pipeline, to be revealed later in the year.
All the best
a la votre!