After 2001: A champagne odyssey

  • Saturday 1 December 2001

Champagne is moving with the times to meet the needs of the modern consumer. MICHAEL EDWARDS visits the region to find out how in wine as in politics, the simple truth is seldom true and never simple.

Champagne is moving with the times to meet the needs of the modern consumer. MICHAEL EDWARDS visits the region to find out how in wine as in politics, the simple truth is seldom true and never simple.

The world of Champagne is a kaleidoscope of ever-changing images. At first sight, it is a wine of strong brand icons, dominated by the 20 or so great houses (grandes marques) owned mainly by a handful of international conglomerates whose finely honed bubbles are estimated to reach one billion consumers on five continents. But shake the tube and one of the most diverse, distinctive wine regions appears. With more than 5,000 grower Champagne makers, 270 négociants and 45 cooperatives, the increasing choice of Champagne available to the consumer is huge.

To make sense of this bewildering diversity of producers and wines, it helps to have a benchmark of the most popular and widely distributed style of Champagne, the brut cuvée or dry non-vintage blend, which accounts for well over 80% of a house's or grower's production. The soundest yardstick remains the blend from one of the best grandes marques because their financial muscle allows them to take the lion's share of the finest grapes, employ the most gifted winemakers and, crucially, age their wine longest in order to develop the flavours fully. Of all the great brands of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot is currently the most impressive. Over nine million bottles of the instantly recognisable Yellow Label Brut are produced every year, yet the quality and style – rich, full bodied, beautifully balanced – very rarely falters.

To find out Clicquot's secret of success, I was invited recently into the inner sanctum of the company's blending room in Reims to taste the key constituent wines that made up the 2001 blend. 'There's no magic formula,' says a smiling Philippe Thieffry, senior winemaker and right-hand man to Jacques Péters (pictured above), the firm's distinguished chef de cave. 'The backbone of the cuvée is great wine from the finest Chardonnay sites, the grands crus, of the Côte des Blancs such as Le Mesnil, and from top-rated Pinot Noir vineyards on the Montagne de Reims like Verzenay.' To make the cuvée attractive to drink as soon as the cork is popped, these long-lived wines are blended with faster-maturing, approachable ones. Cliquot's trump card is its extensive network of Champagne grape suppliers who provide every flattering flavour from the length and breadth of this large region to add harmony and polish to the end product. Tasting one's way through a representative range of still wines from different villages is a Champagne odyssey in miniature.

From the Massif St-Thierry, the most northerly vineyard of Champagne located on the road to the Belgian frontier, came a fruity, fresh Pinot Meunier, which is used to fill out the cuvée. It was interesting to compare this wine with the next component – another style of Meunier, aromatic, spicy and deep-flavoured from Ville-Dommange on the Petite Montagne close to Reims. In the mind's eye, a 100-mile trip south brought us to the Aube village of Celles-sur-Ource, which touches the border with Burgundy, for a very individual type of Pinot Noir, vivacious with a delectable strawberry fruitiness. And in case all these elements might produce too soft a blend, we went back to the southern edge of the Montagne for the dry Chardonnay of Villers-Marmery. 'The birds don't eat the grapes here,' Philippe comments, 'as they're too acidic.' This austere wine, however, is brilliant in a blend to contribute fine mineral flavours.

For the technically minded, the Yellow Label 2001 Cuvée, which will come on stream in 2003, is made up of 20% Pinot Meunier, 28% Chardonnay and 52% Pinot Noir, three quarters of the cuvée coming from the most recent vintage (2000). An extra boost to quality is the high level of reserve wines from older vintages in the blend; the voluminous 1999 Mesnil, the subtly fine 1998 Oger and the outstanding 1995 Verzenay being the glittering lynchpins in this box of tools.

Bottle skills

The conventional wisdom is that the skill of the cellarmaster in Champagne is such that the non-vintage blend will always taste the same thanks to the addition of the reserve wines. Thieffry is the first to admit that this is gilding the lily a bit. How could it be otherwise, when 70% of the blend comes from the most recent vintage, whose character changes subtly but significantly from year to year? The shifting nuances of flavour each harvest are affected by the vagaries of the weather.

This is a reminder that Champagne, like all fine wines, remains at heart an agricultural product which to be excellent depends on great grapes. While the grandes marques often have first call on these, they no longer enjoy a monopoly. Recently, the most interesting trend among smaller Champagne producers – wealthy growers or bijou merchants owning an exceptional vineyard – has been the emergence of the single-domaine Champagne. Such estates ideally range in size from 11 to 30ha (hectares). So they are small enough to be the real guardians of quality, yet they are also large enough and sufficiently well financed to hold good stocks of reserve wines that can ensure consistency and continuity of style in their cuvées.

The consumer's continuing love affair with Chardonnay has allowed outstanding Blanc de Blancs producers such as Alain Robert in Le Mesnil and Jacquesson with their magnificent domaine in Avize to make great inroads into the top restaurant markets of the world's capitals. In the Marne valley, the 13ha domaine of Jean-Mary Tarlant at Oeuilly is a model business. Jean-Mary's family has been growers here since the mid-18th century but now in the 21st century he is a key member of the powerful technical commission and a leader of the Champagne community, respected for his knowledge of viticulture and his concern for the environment. Now joined by his son Benoît, Jean-Mary vinifies the wines from individual vineyard sites separately to give optimum expression to their respective soils and terroirs. The Tarlant mastery of oak is spectacularly illustrated in his Krug-like Cuvée Louis.

These Champagnes from privileged sites clearly strike a chord with discerning consumers and the récoltants-manipulants (grower-Champagne makers) and niche-market smaller merchants have fared much better than the big houses or giant cooperatives in the difficult post-Millennium trading conditions of 2000/ 2001. 'It is symptomatic of the general more paysan, back-to-nature approach in Champagne, says Philippe Feneuil, the feisty president of the syndicate of growers. 'Consumers want to know and be assured by the exact classic source of the wine. It is a bit like buying a shirt, you are going to be happier if it comes from the Faubourg St Honoré rather than southeast Asia.'

The point is not lost on the big beasts of the jungle. Nicolas Feuillatte, the 'new' major Champagne brand which expanded dramatically in the late 1990s, has just launched four single grand cru bottlings of the 1995 vintage from the villages of Chouilly, Cramant, Le Mesnil, and Verzy. The first three are 100% Chardonnay, the fourth pure Pinot Noir. All these wines come from the vineyards of member growers belonging to the Centre Vinicole de Champagne, the vast cooperative at Chouilly which sources the Feuillatte wines. Why does a huge concern like this, whose raison d'être is the art of blending, get involved in these micro-bottlings which traditionally have been the strength of the smaller growers? Chef de Cave Jean-Pierre Vincent's reply is candid: 'I suppose one reason was to rekindle the consumers' interest with something new in the morose post-Millenium marketplace. But the other reason is qualitative. I regularly use quantities of these four grands crus as the motor of our prestige Cuvée Palmes d'Or. I was so impressed by them in the 1995 vintage that it seemed to a pity to waste what was left.'

Not to be outdone, Moët and Chandon, the biggest player of all, has announced the release of three grands crus from Chouilly, Ay and Sillery made from pure Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier respectively. Significantly, each cru bottling is made from an assemblage of 1996 and an older vintage; the Moët urge to hone and polish is still strong. Not everyone in Champagne agrees with this trend for mono-crus. Ghislain de Montgolfier, the head of Bollinger, believes that this sort of initiative is tinkering at the edges of Champagne and is wasting great wines that should be used to bolster the quality of the flagship Cuvée Brut. 'That provides our livelihood, the bottom line.' Laurent Gillet, the president of the powerful Alliance Champagne group, comments, 'I think these new ideas originated in the marketing department, not the cellar, as Champagne produced in viable quantities is overwhelmingly a better product when it is made from a blend of different crus, not just one.'

Standing together

These creative tensions are the stuff of life in the Marne. But one of the most encouraging aspects of the Champagne scene in the 21st century is the close working relationship between houses and growers; they know they sink or swim together and have worked hard to keep prices steady and quality high. One enlightened initiative, announced in January 2001, is Viticulture Raisonnée (thought-out wine growing) which has been enthusiastically welcomed across the Champagne community. Ecologically friendly produce is in increasing demand. Viticulture Raisonnée is a response to this demand without jeopardising the commercial viability of the vineyard enterprise. Through seminars and the publication of advisory manuals, growers are being encouraged to preserve their natural surroundings and the biodiversity of the vineyard by fighting diseases and pollution with the least toxic methods. Tests in model vineyards across Champagne started a few years ago.

In the Surmelin valley, the heart of Meunier country, Pol Roger's beautifully tended vines at Montchevret would lighten the spirits of the most committed Green Party members. 'We are very keen on Viticulture Raisonnée,' says Hubert de Billy of the Pol Roger family, 'and anything that encourages the best type of vine stock is good news for Champagne.' So is the arrival of a great new vintage, 1995 – the sort of rare year that is already charming and approachable but also has the power to ensure a long distinguished life.

Michael Edwards is a Champagne expert and freelance writer

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