- Wednesday 1 October 2003
Despite its premium price-tag, many Champagnes are made, entirely or partly, from bought in grapes. Tom Stevenson asks whether it matters
Let's cut to the chase. Surprisingly, home-grown grapes do not guarantee a better quality Champagne. They don't even safeguard a greater consistency of style. They might make it easier to achieve these ends, but there are more than enough cooperatives and growers making poor Champagne from their own grapes to realise that they are no sure thing. Equally, the likes of Alfred Gratien and Gosset – neither of which own a single vine – demonstrate that the highest levels of quality and consistency can be achieved exclusively from purchased grapes.
So, given that the purchase of grapes is frowned upon everywhere else, why is it so prevalent in Champagne? Simple practicality: the houses sell more than two-thirds of all the Champagne produced, including 90% of exports, yet they own less than 12% of the vineyards. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to buy vineyards, and the cost of land is prohibitive – in excess of h0.8 million per ha (hectare). The only way to add vineyards is to take over another house – as LVMH did with Lanson and Pommery, selling on the brand, buildings and stocks, but retaining Lanson's 210ha and most of Pommery's 307ha.
Champagne's trend of going from boom to bust and back again creates the perfect economic climate for such asset-stripping takeovers, but it is impossible to fault LVMH and others for these activities when the system itself is to blame. Indeed, any group or house that has the financial means to build up its own vineyards in this way would be negligent not to do so rather than rely on the growers to fill the 65% void between the houses' own vineyards and market demands. As Richard Geoffroy, winemaker for Dom Pérignon, says, 'Growing our own grapes is as much about securing our supply as achieving quality.'
Georges Blanck, the chef de cave at Moët & Chandon, adds that home-growing also provides 'better quality control, ensuring ripeness levels and maintaining sanitary conditions.' Plus, of course, 'the grapes are cheaper'.
Buy in or grow your own?
The advantages of owning vineyards are obvious, but are there any benefits to buying grapes? When asked, most of the houses answer along similar lines to Bollinger's Ghislain de Montgolfier, who says the advantage of purchasing grapes lies in their location: 'We buy in places where we have no vineyards (Le Mesnil/Oger, Avize, Ambonnay) or where we would like to have even more (Aÿ, Louvois, Bouzy, Verzy, Verzenay etc).' Claude Taittinger agrees: 'Even if our own vineyards represented 100% of our needs, we would still buy grapes in villages such as Avize and Le Mesnil, which are important for the blending of our style.'
Houses not only buy grapes, they also buy juice and vins clairs. 'The advantage is that you can pick what you like, knowing what the wine already tastes like, rather than being compelled to buy grapes under a long-term contract,' says Charles Philipponnat. 'And as long as it remains a minor proportion of your blends, it should not influence the house style.'
Another benefit of buying fruit is that the more you buy, the stricter the selection that can be applied. Roederer's Jean-Claude Rouzaud says, 'We purchase grapes or juice from 138ha, which is 40ha more than we need. This allows us to cream off the best.' Roederer's winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon avoids buying vins clairs, however: 'We believe the winemaker's work during the fermentation and the malolactic is part of creating the Roederer style.
According to François Roland-Billecart of Billecart-Salmon, which owns a mere 3ha, 'It is not how many hectares you possess that counts, it is how much you know about the vineyards, what vines are growing on which soils, whether they are clones or not, and whether the grower you contract with works a 35-hour week or will get on his tractor on a Sunday morning if he has to.'
In a perfect world, most quality-conscious Champagne houses would prefer to own enough vineyards to cover 120% of their needs, and these would ideally be located in the best sites of all the villages they have ever used grapes from, even on an occasional basis. As all wine growers know, this is not a perfect world. But the conclusion has prompted the thought that the largest houses are missing an opportunity. Champagne cannot live in isolation. And even if the likes of Alfred Gratien, Gosset and Billecart-Salmon continue to make fabulous wines without a single vine (or as near as damn it), the general perception held elsewhere that purchased grapes are inferior to estate-grown grapes will eventually filter through in a 21st century when transparency has become so necessary. So why not establish the first all-estate-bottled, grande marque Champagne? Any one of at least half-a-dozen houses could achieve this. The obvious choice would be Dom Pérignon. LVMH easily has the financial clout and viticultural resources with which to convert Dom Pérignon into Champagne's first super-premium estate, with its own modern winery sited in the heart of the vineyards to express literally its roots. This would not mean dispensing with the original Cuvée Dom Pérignon. Imagine instead a range of single-village, single-vineyard, single-variety Champagnes built around it. Wouldn't that be something?
Tom Stevenson is author of Christie's World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine (£35, Absolute Press).