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On terroir in Champagne...

It’s a subject that deserves a long-form article at least, and probably an in-depth book (both of which I may end up writing at some point), but for a few paragraphs here I want to talk about the most important development in Champagne since Dom Perignon in Hautvillers “invented” the sparkling beverage that has become the world’s best-known wine.

The producers working on the cutting edge of the Champagne revolution, and it is in fact a revolution, are showing us very clearly that Champagne can be, and at its best should be, a wine of terroir. This is the polar opposite of what we’ve been fed by the Champenois negociants for the last 200+ years. The mantra has been that Champagne is a wine of blending, of assembling different grapes from different villages (often a hundred miles apart) to arrive at the “perfect” blend that can be endlessly replicated in the “house style” to the tune of millions of bottles per year.

If you didn’t like the “Coke” of Moët maybe you’d prefer the “Pepsi” of Clicquot, but the leading lights of Champagne were in fact industrially produced beverages that could come from anywhere. Yes, these wines were identifiably from Champagne rather than sparkling wines from elsewhere in the world, but any personality, character, subtlety or nuance was guaranteed to be wiped clean from the product by the time it hit your glass.

George Laval's Les Chênes vineyard in Cumières

George Laval's Les Chênes vineyard in Cumières

As recently as six or seven years ago, the large negociant houses sold 99% of the Champagne bought in the US. All we knew of Champagne was what was offered from the Grand Marques (“big brands”), and that’s the reason a lot of people in the US say, to this day, “I don’t like Champagne”.  About 15 years ago, a handful of small producers and a US importer named Terry Thiese decided it was time to call bullshit on the status quo.

In that short space of time, what we know of Champagne has changed dramatically. There are over 5,000 small producers here making wines from their own small vineyard holdings (the average “estate” here is under 5 acres), and there are now nearly 200 of them available in the US. The biggest result of that tidal change is that we now get to see that the best Champagnes are wines that are from some-place, made by some-one, rather than factory produced wines made to a formula on a spreadsheet.

The best producers, by and large the new, young generation, are taking it several steps further. They’re exploring what terroir is really all about here. In Burgundy, the terroir has been understood for over a thousand years. Here in Champagne, this new generation is like the Burgundian monks in the middle ages, growing grapes and making wine on an amazing voyage of discovery.

I’ve been blown away by the dedication and determination of the cutting-edge producers – they’re asking a lot of questions, and the terroir is starting to give them answers. Down in the Aube in Ville-sur-Arce, Jérôme Coessens is making 5 different wines from different parts of his 5-acre single vineyard. Each wine is from one grape, one parcel, and one harvest. He’s also identified a portion of his site that he thinks might make fabulous Pinot Noir as a still wine, and is experimenting with 6 barrel’s worth from the 2014 vintage.

Up in the Marne Valley in Cumières, the brilliant Vincent Laval has identified at least seven distinct terroirs in his 5 acres of vines on the same hillside. This year, he vinified separately the grapes from the lower half and upper half of the same rows in his Les Chênes vineyard, and the differences were dramatic - night and day dramatic – from grapes grown less than 40 meters apart.

Across the river in Chavot, Aurélien Laherte has grapes from some 80 different parcels spread across 10 villages, the smallest being one-tenth of an acre. He vinifies and keeps these separately, and has some 80 different lots in his cellar that each express something unique. (I tasted most of them one afternoon last month before finally waving the white flag of palate fatigue!)

In the cellar at Laherte Frères

In the cellar at Laherte Frères

More and more every day, there are new producers emerging who are working in this direction, many of whom are farming organically or Biodynamically as well. There seem to be dozens of new ones every time I visit. These guys and their brethren are revealing a “new’ Champagne with every bottling, and the discovery is fascinating, not to mention flat-out delicious. But of course it’s not truly new, the terroir has been here for about 200 million years. It just took humankind this long to finally to take a real look at it. It’s exciting as can be, and the best is certainly still to come.

My tastings throughout the region continue to reveal a real dichotomy in the world of Grower Champagne producers – those who are working in this “new” direction, and those who are staying closer to the classic model, in terms of traditional vinification techniques. You don’t have to ferment in old Burgundy barrels or new cement eggs to make great Champagne, nor do you have to keep every parcel separate. There is certainly room for both, and excellent wines are being made in the new and old-school camps. Ultimately there is room for both, and you as the consumer get to make the stylistic choices you want.

The wines that are most interesting to me are the ones that are trying to break new ground, but they’re only interesting to me if first and foremost they are delicious wines that are a joy to drink. There’s a lot of craziness going on for craziness’ sake, it seems, and some of those wines are just plain flawed, un-pleasant, and to my way of thinking nearly undrinkable. There’s a fair amount of the “emperor’s new clothes” that’s passing for high-end Grower Champagne these days. Not every barrel-fermented wine is going to be delicious. A lot of the Brut Nature bottlings probably would be better with a judicious dosage.

At the end of the day, Champagne is one of the two most dynamic wine regions on the planet today (Beaujolais being the other, in my view), and we are all the beneficiaries of the collective passion, work and imagination being put forth by the Champenois. Let’s pop some corks and explore. Cheers!