Champagne's dirty little secret..
There have been some conversations going on since this post on the Vinography blog went up this past Monday. In it, writer Alder Yarrow bemoans the deplorable state of the vineyards in Champagne, calling attention to the fact that excess garbage from Paris had been dumped in Champagne vineyards for many years (true), as well as bringing to light the high yields and excessive use of herbicides that are often seen in Champagne. Not exactly the romantic image we have of the region that produces the world's most celebrated and festive wines!
There is some truth to most of what is said in the piece, though in all my visits to Champagne over the past 30+ years I've seen all of these things improving steadily rather than declining. One can certainly find vineyards in Champagne that are strewn with litter and remnants of garbage, though it is nowhere near as widespread or pervasive as the article would have you believe. I would suggest that when you see a vineyard in such a state, it's a near sure bet that it's a vineyard that is selling all of its fruit to one of the large negociant producers. I've yet to see any evidence of trash-dump vineyards that are owned and farmed by people who are actually making wine from those vineyards. Alder's right in pointing out that those who are selling their fruit to the negoce are pretty much only interested in yield - thus the high crop loads and heavy herbicide use - maximum return for minimum farming costs makes the most sense for these people.
The sad part is that the negociant producers who buy these grapes don't seem to care about what they're buying - they just want quantity as well. I've seen deplorable-looking loads of grapes (rotten, diseased, decayed, or un-ripe) that the buyers happily pay for and use (in wines that they sell for ridiculously high prices to boot.) I guess when you're making several hundreds of thousands of cases, or even millions of cases in a couple of operations, the quality of the raw material is not a primary concern. Very sad indeed.
The worlds of negociant Champagne and grower Champagne could not be further apart. The negociants make over 88% of all Champagne, but they own only a bit more than 10% of the vineyards. Their wines are made in massive factories with grapes purchased from everywhere and anywhere. Grower Champagnes, on the other hand, the only kind of Champagnes we import, are genrally made in small cellars under people's homes in the villages, by families who grow their own grapes and make their own wine.
One needs only to look at the parcels farmed by the quality-oriented grower-producers to see meticulous vineyards, farmed organically or biodynamically, with low yields, no herbicide use, and lots of hands-on TLC. Wines from these kinds of vineyards, from these kinds of producers, are what I want to drink, and what I search out, what I import, and what I sell. The difference is right there in your glass
Yes, there are trashy vineyards in Champagne. There are lots of vineyards that have been sprayed to death with toxic herbicide. Plenty of vineyards where the yields are way too high. Just three more reasons I always say - "Friends don't let friends drink negociant Champagne!"