Words Adam Gollner
Photography Domaine Jacques Selosse, Michael Boudot, Champagne Agrapart
Champagne has become one of the most successful high-end beverages in the world, with sales topping 4.4 billion Euro annually. Marketing has played a key role in that success. The major producers spend vast sums promoting their brands.
But a return to tradition and terroir has been sweeping over Champagne, and there is now a fascinating alternative to the famous bubbles. It is called “grower Champagne”, made by small-scale vignerons who tend their own familial grapevines. These maverick traditionalists vinify and bottle Champagne that aims to capture the variations between different vintages and parcels of land — just as other great wines do.
“Great Champagne is first and foremost great wine,” explains Dominic Allnut, a Canadian Champagne importer whose company Vinnovation specializes in grower-producers. Many of the growers are members of an association called Terre et Vins de Champagne, including in-demand winemakers such as Laherte Frères, Cédric Bouchard, Benoît Lahaye, Jérôme Prevost, J-M Seleque and Georges Laval.
These Terre et Vins growers, who gather together for a large annual tasting every spring, adhere to organic principles of viticulture, emphasizing non-chemical interventions and sustainable agriculture. To focus on quality instead of quantity, they reduce their yields, picking around half the amount of grapes that others do. Another tool of theirs is to use minimal amounts of sulphur, as well as low dosages of sugar, sometimes even none at all. Perhaps the most important aspect of their innovations is the focus on site-specific bottles from hallowed terroirs such as Cumières, Ay and Vertus.
The first-ever grower to bottle Champagne from a single site was Philipponnat, whose majestic Clos des Goisses has been a hallmark of terroir in Champagne ever since 1935. It was the proof that the finest Champagne is not a blend from different vineyards (as most producers would prefer, for the sake of convenience) but rather from one prized lieu-dit. Other important producers, such as Krug with its Clos de Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay, now do the same.
The Terre et Vins growers adhere to organic principles of viticulture, emphasizing non-chemical interventions and sustainable agriculture.
Over the past decade, there has been skyrocketing interest in site-specific wines from the young generation of Champagne growers. These growers are essentially doing the same thing that Krug and Philipponnat do — only at a lower price.
This revolution in grower champagne has been gaining momentum since the 1980s. Three names that are usually listed as playing a pivotal role in this movement are Larmandier-Bernier, Egly-Ouriet and Jacques Selosse. All of them make authentic terroir wines. Selosse has claimed that the important thing for them was to return to ancestral methods, when “the only way to make wines rich in terroir was to encourage a living soil and balanced yields and to use winemaking techniques that allowed the terroir to speak as clearly as possible.”
Some people have criticized these wines as being out of step with what most people expect from Champagne, but, as Selosse explains, “a wine should have a unique character and identity. It should be original. To be original means that it is abnormal.”
Alongside these “abnormal” trailblazers, there are a handful of other maisons de Champagne with a venerable history that have also been focusing on making a wine first and a Champagne second. This includes Jacquesson, Agrapart, Tarlant and Drappier. Some producers have even started going back to the ancient practice of bottling non-bubbly wines under the label Coteaux Champenois. These may be the closest things to the wines made by the famous Dom Pérignon.
This Benedictine monk is said to have uttered the immortal words “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” upon first tasting bubbly Champagne at the moment he allegedly invented it. The truth, of course, is far less glamorous. During Pérignon’s lifetime (1638-1715), Champagne was a still, flat red wine similar to that produced in nearby Burgundy. Sparkling wines, which sometimes occurred unintentionally, were regarded as flawed. (Ironically, one of Dom Pérignon’s main areas of activity was the search for ways to prevent effervescence.) Fizzy Champagne did not become the region’s preferred style until the 19th century.
So why not try some grower Champagne? These wines live up to Pérignon’s dream that the region could make fine wines using strictly natural methods and without any additives whatsoever. He was right — and drinking the stars has never been so good.