As attention turns to single vineyard wines, many smaller producers are – very successfully – grabbing a piece of the action, finds Dr PHILIPP BLOM
Champagne is a region of considerable paradoxes: this most luxurious of white wines came about by accident when a simple red wine wouldn’t stop fermenting. A quintessentially French wine, it was, and still is, dominated largely by foreigners (Messrs Bollinger, Krug, Roederer etc in times gone by; LVMH and the international investment funds today) and created for the palate of Englishmen and Russians. The great houses make 90% of all Champagne and own only 10% of the land. And in the country that worships terroir, it is the only wine traditionally made by blending wines from different areas. In this scheme of things, individual growers are little more than gardeners bringing their produce to the big boys who will transform it into their Champagne. Nowhere has the structure of peasants on the fields and aristocrats in elegant châteaux been maintained more effectively. Until now, that is, for growers’ Champagnes have finally come of age.
In the post-war era, a handful of names controlled virtually every aspect of winemaking in the region, and even 20 years ago, recoltant manipulants were few. Making still wine into Champagne required expensive equipment and enough capital to leave the bottles in the cellars for several years – and most growers simply couldn’t afford it.
Now the landscape is changing. With an increasing number of good and excellent small producers, a new idea is rearing its head. Revolutionary for the Champagne, though a matter of course for everywhere else in France, the monocru wine is made to express the individuality of a single vineyard and its terroir. Producers like Krug, Bollinger and Salon already make great single-vineyard Champagnes – first among equals is Krug’s sublime Clos de Mesnil. But now smaller producers want a piece of the action and are proud of the regional differences expressed by Champagnes from different villages and areas of the region. With this tide change, styles are also evolving, demonstrating that the subtle cuvée defining the house style of one of the greats is not the only valid way of producing a great Champagne.
The village of Bouzy just east of Epernay is a vision of what the Champagne scene might look like some decades hence. The Pinot-driven Champagnes produced here combine vinous richness with finesse, a reason why the great négociants are keen to add Bouzy wines to their cuvées to add body and fruit. The grand master of the Bouzy growers is undoubtedly Paul Bara, no trendy teenager but a pioneer nonetheless. He took over the estate 60 years ago and works traditionally. Six generations of Baras have tilled the soil in Bouzy, but it was only in 1952 that the first Champagne was produced. As a result, Bara’s vines have an average age of 25 years, closer to 40 in his best vineyards. He uses a traditional vertical press which, he believes, produces the best results. Only the first pressing is used for his Champagnes, and fermentation takes place in glass or enamelled vessels. Malolactic fermentation is allowed to take place as and when the vintage necessitates it. With a bottle age of at least four years before release, these are wines of great delicacy and distinction, perfect examples of fine grower’s Champagne, deeply individual in the expression of their terroir. His Special Club 1996 is a floral and aristocratic wine and a wonderful illustration of the potential of this village. It is astonishing that a winemaker like André Clouet can remain almost entirely undiscovered. I came across his fine vintage cuvée some years ago, but found that he barely gets a mention in most French literature. André’s son Jean-François, however, is an ambitious young man who shows great pride in his estate.
Clouet’s new prestige cuvée, Un Jour de 1911, is a beautiful combination of vinousity and stylishness with good ageing potential. The Brut Rosé is a perfect specimen of a Bouzy rosé, floral with tones of strawberries and deep Pinot character. The vintage cuvée 1995 is also fine, a wine with deep fruit and great individuality, though perhaps not as sophisticated as earlier years.
Some 10km to the south is the estate of the impassioned Anselme Selosse who used to be called ‘le fou d’Avize’ – not because of temperamental outbursts but because of his winemaking convictions and working practices. Vinified like great burgundy his blanc de blanc wines are big, expressive beasts, full of aromas of stewed fruit, caramel and honeysuckle; as unlike classical Champagne as one can get. Selosse is regarded as eccentric. The way he stacks his barrels in pyramids to aid the dynamics of the circulation; his use of new small oak; the way he works with 50-year old vines, tiny yields and almost overripe fruit; and the fact that he gives his Champagnes up to five years of bottle age before releasing them, all make him suspicious in the eyes of his more orthodox colleagues. But the results speak for themselves – a sign on his winery door regrets he cannot take on new customers. Selosse learned winemaking in Beaune and was inspired by the Burgundian example. He believes that great quality is achieved with a minimum of interference. ‘My job is not to spoil what nature has given me,’ he says. The resulting wines are a matter of impassioned debate among wine lovers; the expressive style of Selosse wines is not for purists looking for elegance and equilibrium, but are cult objects for others.
His prestige cuvée Origine is intensely concentrated with clear wood notes. Selosse is one of the few Champagne winemakers who still use the Solera system under which the assemblage wines are kept in one tank and replenished every year as part of the new vintage, thus becoming ever more complex. Both the ripeness of the fruit and the use of oak give this wine a Burgundian breadth which has quickly made Selosse a star and his 20,000-bottle production hard to come by. Apart from the Origine, the estate’s signature wine, Selosse also makes a non-vintage wine which is fine and assertive in his distinctive style, and a rosé which can develop a surprising honeysuckle nose I have never found in any other Champagne.
When I visited Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy in Cumières I had just come from a large négociant who shall remain nameless and who had given me an extended lecture on the buying habits of the young consumer of luxury goods. It was a contrast and relief in equal measure to dive into Geoffroy’s small cellar for a sniff of yeast and the sight of dusty bottles and bare light bulbs.
Like many small producers, Geoffroy is passionate about his wines, and the products of his winery are lovely, if somewhat rustic, Champagnes which have lost none of their grape character. There may well be less sophistication here, but Geoffroy’s Brut Reserve and Cuvée Prestige remind one of the fact that good Champagnes are not ‘products’ to be marketed and passed on to ’consumers’, but the work of an artisan – even an artist. The small house Vilmart & Cie in Rilly-la-Montagne is one of the region’s best-kept secrets. Here, Laurent Champ has recently taken over from his father René, allowing the latter to concentrate on the production of church windows in the style of those of the 13th century. Nowhere else did I find such crystal-clear fruit, perfectly poised and with such great depth. On 12 hectares (ha) of premier cru vineyards, Laurent continues his father’s husbandry with little chemical intervention. Showing me the vineyards, resplendent in healthy green, he gestured towards the next field, which was affected by a bad case of mildew. ‘He didn’t take care of his vines very well this year,’ he explained, ‘but chemistry isn’t always the answer, either.’
Non-intervention is a watchword here, and increasingly in many estates in the region. Grapes are pressed in a traditional wooden press, but with carefully regulated pressure. Fermentation takes place in large oak barrels. ‘When everybody else was putting in concrete and then steel, my father bought these,’ Champ explained. ‘They thought he was mad, but our wines have proved him right time and again.’
Vilmart’s vintage prestige cuvée is made solely from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Pinot Meunier, it is felt, would age too quickly) and is a coeur de cuvée, using the middle portion of the first pressing only. The 1991 is a wine of immense poise, focus and concentration – a truly great Champagne. ‘We try to make something more human here,’ Champ told me. ‘Nowadays you too often find standard Champagnes: no faults, no big surprises. Our Champagnes are effectively monocru, and we would like to move more in this direction to express the terroir, not some amorphous house style.’ In Merfy, in the Montagne de Reims, Elizabeth and Philippe Chartogne-Taillet represent the transformation of the small Champagne récoltant. ‘Our grandparents were peasants who produced grapes for the big houses,’ says the charming Madam Chartogne. Nowadays, she and her husband belong to the generation of the bourgeois winemaker, combining a passion for wines and craftsmanship with an international outlook. The Champagnes are classically poised and elegant, made to convince gradually by their charm and delicacy. The non-vintage Brut was perfectly structured and showed great development in the glass. The cuvée Fiacre Taillet uses not only old family names but old vines to achieve concentration and impressively focused fruit, supported by 60% Chardonnay.
It may seem that a sophisticated négociant is out of place in an investigation of winemaker Champagnes, but if one wants to have a vision of the future of this region, and an optimistic vision at that, one could do worse than to visit Bruno Paillard. A wine broker until 1981, Paillard created his house from scratch, and his new headquarters, all steel, glass and concrete, are unromantically located by a roundabout on the Avenue de Champagne on the outskirts of Reims.
Apart from a baroque table in the entrance hall there are no sops to tradition and candlelit romanticism; the establishment is very French in a sophisticated Parisian sort of way. Paillard may well be the smartest dresser among the Champagne producers, and when he leads visitors through the building traditionalists will take against him immediately. Remuage by hand is done away with and happens in computer-controlled crates. ‘We did more than 50 tests,’ he says, ‘and there was neither a chemical difference nor one on the palate.’ His temperature- controlled ‘cellars’ are at ground level, with a veritable steelscape of tanks at the ready.
What a surprise, then, for the lover of tradition to find the wines so poised and individual. These are among the best the region has to offer, a testimony to their creator’s ambition and summarised by him as the wish ‘to produce the best Champagne’. The grapes are bought from the finest villages and growers, and the Champagnes are made with 15% wood, except for the rosé – a balanced and elegant wine with good colour and a hint of liquorice. The house’s prestige cuvée is the vintage NPU (Nec Plus Ultra). The 1990 had an intense nose of cooked fruit, reminiscent of a nobly-sweet wine but without a hint of flabbiness, great length and a continuing evolution in the glass. If this is what emerges from a sterile-looking winery, Paillard may well achieve his ambition.
Is this, then, the face of the Champagne of the future? Yes and no. The big houses are not going to feel threatened by the small growers yet – not even a négociant like Paillard will be able to make a dent in their profits. However, grower Champagnes offer a thrilling alternative to mass-produced bubbly or the astronomically-priced prestige cuvées of the big houses – and will find favour among those who want a bottle not just to bash against the hull of a ship, but for the character and quality of the wine itself. After all, as I was told by grower after grower, Champagne may be a symbol of celebration, but first and foremost it is a great wine.
Written by DR PHILIP BLOM