Terroir and appellations, sacred for Champagne?
- Friday 6 June 2008
Lord, what confused times we live in. On the one hand there are the Champenois, preparing to open the floodgates to heaven-knows-how-many new growers (growers currently of wheat or sugar beet) – all of whom are desperate to get on to the gravy train that is Champagne. On the other hand we are told that the Champagne terroir is sacrosanct. On the one hand, too, we have the Australians proposing that we take seriously a Geographical Indication called Greater Australia, which includes almost every vineyard in the country. Yet on the other hand, the Australians are supposed to be promoting regionality. What is going on? Is the entire wine world trying to pull a fast one on consumers it regards as too stupid to notice? It may be. But if we look a little closer, it becomes apparent that growers and bureaucrats in both places are wrestling to reconcile two separate but related concepts which we, as consumers, have fallen into the habit of regarding as the same thing. One is terroir, and the other is appellation. They’re not identical, and they never were. Ideally they should coincide, of course. The basis of appellation is supposed to be terroir, isn’t it? And to some extent it is - but only to some extent. Appellations tend to be drawn up in response to market forces. Appellations are a marketing tool. In France they were often created in
response to consumer scepticism in the wake of the phylloxera bug: with fake wine being foisted on them in all directions, consumers wanted a legal guarantee that what they were buying was what it said it was. Appellation Contrôlée (AC) gave them that guarantee.
And, by and large, it has worked extremely well: growers have a collective name to hang their hat on and consumers can associate a particular style and flavour with a particular place. (To qualify for AC, wines generally have to pass a blind tasting which is designed to weed out those wines not deemed typical, so the association of style with place becomes, to a degree, self-fulfilling.) Appellation boundaries were generally drawn up with only one eye on terroir.
(The Côte d’Or is the possible exception.) Nobody did the sort of detailed soil
analyses and recording of climate datathat we expect now. According to Daniel Lorson of the Comité Interprofessionel des Vins de Champagne (CIVC), the boundaries of the Champagne appellation were drawn up in 1927 according to tradition and knowledge of the vineyards. Now, knowledge of vineyards, stretching back over a generation or three, is probably at least as reliable a guide to good terroir as technical data; but in 1927 only about 35,000ha (hectares) of vines were planted in the Champagne region. And they included vines making poorquality table wines, as well as those making high-quality (and some not so high-quality) sparkling wines. Says Lorson: ‘In 1927 they didn’t always take into account the fact that many vineyards were planted that had never produced Champagne. Some had only ever produced very mediocre wines. ‘We don’t know any figures for the surface area of vines planted in the 19th century in Champagne, but the figure usually agreed upon is 65,000–80,000ha. Many growers had been ruined by phylloxera and had decided to do something else, so did not apply for the appellation for their land.’ In other words the boundaries were pragmatic: if you asked for the AC you probably got it, even if your wines were basic table wines and not Champagne at all. And if you didn’t ask for it, because you’d switched to another crop, your land wasn’t included, no matter how good it was.
That’s pretty much how appellations are being drawn up in the New World even now. The simplest method is to take a map, draw a line round the land already planted with vines, extend it a bit to allow for future plantings, and there you are: a geographical indication. That’s more or less how it’s being done in Chile, which is not yet as focused on regionality as it no doubt will be in the future. Australia tries to be more precise. Says James March of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation: ‘A “region” must be a single tract of land that is discrete and homogeneous in its grape-growing attributes to a degree that is measurable.’ There are various criteria: climate, geology, date of harvesting, drainage, availability of water, altitude, development plans, traditional divisions in the area, history of wine production. Quite how its ludicrously proposed new Greater Australia GI fits in with this is not clear. But then, the larger the region, the less homogeneous it can be.The new NewEngland Australia GI is 27,000sq km (square kilometres) for example. The more generously you define a region, the harder it becomes to justify leaving out the neighbouring bit and the bit after= that. But tightly defining an area brings its own problems.
In Coonawarra there is a distinct soil type – terra rossa over limestone – which was generally accepted as marking the best land. It was planted first and was what made Coonawarra famous. Once you get off the terra rossa, the soil is black and is less good for vines as it is less well drained. But a lot of growers had planted on the black soil because the terra rossa was in short supply and they wanted themagic bullet of the Coonawarra name. When the time came to define the boundaries of Coonawarra, problems developed. Those who had only terra rossa thought that only terra rossa should be included. Those who had black soil said, hey, we’re part of Coonawarra too.Those drawing up the boundaries wanted to be inclusive: they didn’t want to have to tell people that their wines couldn’t be called Coonawarra, just because they weren’t grown on terra rossa. Inclusiveness won over terroir, and now Coonawarra officially has more than one soil type. Just like St-Emilion, you might say. Or Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Had the GI been restricted to its heartland – to the soil that made it special in the first place – it’s possible that the quality of Coonawarra might be higher today and its style more marked. But it’s certain that there would also be less of it.
Over in Champagne, Daniel Lorson says: ‘In the mind of the people of Champagne, the terroir was always larger [than the legal boundaries] and it included parts that were not planted with vines, but that were surrounded by vineyards. For a person in a Champagne village, the terroir is everything that surrounds him, not just the land in the 1927 appellation.’
The trouble is, boundaries that were originally drawn pragmatically have to be justified later. If they are challenged in court (and they will be – if you want a career for your child, send them off to be a lawyer in Champagne) they have to prove themselves in terms of terroir. And that is a major headache. Let’s head south-west for a moment, to the Médoc. There is a long-running dispute in Margaux over the boundaries of the AC (see Decanter, May 2006). Twenty years ago, Château d’Arsac decided that it ought to be within the boundaries of the Margaux AC, and eventually succeeded in having 40ha of its 112ha reclassified as Margaux. The argument was that when the AC was created there were no vines at d’Arsac, and so the owner never bothered to apply for the AC, although everyone in the village of Arsac who did, got it. Naturally, a lot of other growers on the edges of Margaux then decided that they too would like to be reclassified. The Margaux Syndicat decided the best thing to do was to ask INAO to examine all the boundaries of Margaux; the dispute continues. And as Gonzague Lurton, headof the Syndicat Géneral des Vignerons (SGV) says wearily: ‘The difficulty is that there is no objective way to prove that one parcel has a terroir superior to its neighbours. The more you work at it, the less you understand.’ The CIVC is going to be in that position soon. So why did it open this can of worms? Because, says Lorson, a village called Fontaine-sur-Aÿ – as its name suggests, close to the village of Aÿ, one of the best villages of the region – applied to INAO to have some parcels of its land added to the Zone de Production. The Conseil d’Etat, the highest court in
France, agreed. ‘Immediately afterwards INAO and the SGV received dozens of new demands for inclusion,’ says Lorson. We realised that if we didn’t do a thorough survey we would not control anything any more. That’s why we decided to make something total. That’s what started it: INAO lost one case, and might have lost the power of decision.’ The conclusions of the first stage of the inquiry are that some 40 communesshould be added.
These conclusions surprised everybody – growers and the INAO. They were not driven by pressure from either,’ says Lorson. ‘INAO is the final authority,’ he adds. And by the time you are reading this, its decision will be known. ‘Then there will be a public inquiry where the mayor of every commune will be able to question the decision.’
In or out?
Will all the Zonage information – the data, gathered between 1990 and 1995, on climate, topography and soil – be used in the decision-making? ‘It’s very clear that the experts will have this kind of information at their disposal,’ says Lorson. But as Gonzague Lurton points out, all the analysis in the world doesn’t amount to proof. The effect of climate on wine style and flavour is easy to understand, and topography too: but we do not yet fully
understand the ways in which soil affects wine flavour. You can prove that a soil is different or the same, but proving that it is better or worse is another matter entirely. One thing is sure: Champagne is going to be lawyer heaven. What is the alternative? A divorce between terroir and appellation? That is impossible. There’s no point in appellation if you dissociate it from terroir, however loosely you interpret terroir. The association between them remains, and the more care taken in drawing appellation boundaries, the stronger it is. Some new regions, though, could be storing up for themselves the same problems now faced by Coonawarra, Margaux and Champagne. Ultimately, it will depend on the price premium they attract – it always does. If it’s big enough, the people outside will want to be inside. And at that stage the only way to decide is by terroir. The boundaries of the Bordeaux AC, for example, could probably be challenged at every point. The reason they’re not is because basic Bordeaux Rouge is barely saleable. The irony of focusing on terroir in Champagne is that the majority of wines do not reflect its terroir, except in the most general sense of being high in acidity and low in ripeness. Chardonnay in Champagne can easily produce more than 140hl/ha (hectolitres per hectare); Pinot Noir is only a little less prolific. At that level it does not – cannot – reflect its terroir in any meaningful sense. Lorson is clear that the rewriting of the boundaries of Champagne should improve the quality of the wine, while
maintaining its identity. A rule stating that if producers overcrop by more than a certain amount then all their wine must be declassified, not just the overproduction, would have the same effect. But the CIVC probably has enough on its hands for the moment.