Champagne is Changing
By Don Clemens
For decades, if there was one thing that I could rely upon, it was the way that Champagne Houses went about farming their vineyards - or managing the practices of those growers from whom they would ultimately purchase grapes.
The major "important" Houses could afford to demand the best, since they would pay top dollar for the grapes going into their wines. After the AOC authorities identified those plots of land which merited special designations, i.e., Premier Cru and Grand Cru, because of the unique character and undeniable quality of the grapes, growers could demand a premium price.
The more important - or maybe more accurately - wealthy Champagne Houses began to acquire as many of these prized plots of land as they could. The reputation of Champagne as a luxury product was legitimately bestowed upon some of these magnificent edifices, where the assemblage of finished wines from many diverse vineyard sites would take place. The Négociant/Manipulant (Grape Buyer/Winemaker) status of the major Houses would set the stage for the way most Champagnes being sold throughout the world would be made; except in France, where individual grower or co-operatives were the most popular selling brands.
The Champagne region has gone through a lot of transitions. It is not only one of the northernmost wine growing regions (meaning: one of the coldest), it has been the scene of much military action in both World Wars. Since the late 1800's, the region has faced the same economic roller coasters as the rest of Western nations. Boom and bust: "The Gay 90's", "The Roaring 20's", "The Great Depression" and whatever we want to call the booming 1980's - all had their impact on how the Champagne region developed.
The way that vineyards themselves were viewed has also changed. From merely producing x number of hectoliters per hectare of grapes at a certain level of sugar and acid to be delivered to the wine presses, there is a significant transition to better viticultural practices, including organic, sustainable and biodynamic.
I can still recall wandering through some of the most important Grand Cru vineyards of Champagne in the early 1990's and seeing bits of blue plastic trash bags, littered throughout the composted soils. It certainly put a different spin on recycling. Today, winegrowers are much more aware of what is going into the soils of their properties.
Very significant vineyard-owning brands such as Bollinger and Roederer have adopted biodynamic practices in much of their own vineyards, and have worked closely with many of their partner/growers to help them adopt these practices, as well. (Biodynamic farming probably couldn't have happened if global climate changes had not been happening for the last couple of decades, bringing significantly warmer winters to the region).
Another significant change is the way that independent grower/producers have emerged from being solely sold in the French marketplace. Today, one of the phenomena of Champagne is the availability of these unique, small-production, often exceptional wines. It's probably not too surprising when one considers that there are literally thousands of Champagne grower/producers and only about 240 Champagne "Houses.” We can give thanks to such luminaries as Terry Theise, who has made it a mission to bring such small, excellent producers to the American market.
It's now the Holiday Season in the USA; the time we usually hunt for some nice bubbly to savor with friends and family. While I confess a true love for the wines of Champagne, there are many fine bubblies out there to enjoy. It's an easy choice to pick one of the famous Houses as a sort of reflexive guarantee that the bubbles will satisfy most everyone; I suggest that you hunt around a bit for one (or more) of these small grower/producer brands to get something unique. Talk to your trusted wine merchant. See what they have to offer!
May I also suggest that Champagne isn't just for the Holidays. It's pretty great all the time. If you've never had Champagne with your bowl of popcorn, you're really missing out! And, it's pretty good with Pizza, too!