Why most mass-market Champagne isn't very good...
Most mass-market negociant Champagne is fairly bland (by design) and a bit sweet (again, by design), and generally not worth whatever is being charged for it.
The main reason for this is the absurdly high yields that are the norm in Champagne. The officially reported average yield in the region is about 5.5 tons per acre, and most insiders agree that this “official” number severely under-reports actual yields. We know of people routinely harvesting crops at 7-8+ tons per acre – a level 3-4 times higher than would be acceptable for top Burgundy, for example. Lower yields do not necessarily or automatically equate to better wines, but there is no other wine region with yields of this volume that is attempting to produce luxury-priced wines.
So why are the yields so high in Champagne? Most simply, grapes are sold by the ton in Champagne, and therefore it benefits the grower to deliver the biggest crop his vines can carry. Then, add in the fact that the grapes weigh their heaviest when they are not yet ripe (in the 9% potential alcohol range), and it behooves the growers to harvest when their grapes are heaviest (and thus need chaptalisation – sugar addition – during fermentation, and more sugar addition – a big dosage – before disgorgement and release.)
Just how sweet is that “Brut”? We’ve been taught that Brut is the designation for a very dry Champagne – when in fact a lot of mass-market Brut has up to 15 grams per liter of sugar (the regulations allow up to 12 grams per liter of added sugar at the time of dosage, coupled with up to 3 grams per liter of unfermented sugar that remained after fermentation. A wine that has fermented “dry” will generally have 1-3 grams of unfermentable residual sugars remaining.)
So the system incentivizes the growers to hang a heavy crop, and to pick it before there is any flavor development. And we wonder why that $55-65 bottle of Veuve Clicquot tastes like spritzy sugar water and little else! It’s a seriously flawed system, folks.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the top grower-producers in Champagne, people growing grapes with which to make their own Champagnes. You can take your pick – Laval, Laherte, Bouchard, Selosse, Leclapart, Chartogne, Bereche, Peters, virtually any of the top 200 grower-producers that are available in the US – and their yields are hugely lower than their neighbors (if their neighbors are selling to the negociants, that is.) I work with several producers that still sell a portion of their crop to the negoce and keep their best parcels for themselves, and they tell me that they crop the parcels they use for themselves 30-50% lower than the parcels they sell off. That pretty much tells you everything you need to know right there.
The best grower-producers are farming for lower yields and better ripeness, routinely picking at 11% potential alcohol or more and often requiring no chaptalisation (by design, and with thanks to some help from global warming.)
We’ll pull back back the curtain some more on the wonderful world of negociant Champagnes in future posts. Stay tuned! (And drink farmer fizz. Daily. It’s not just for breakfast anymore!)