Deep under the skin
Each year towards the end of April, the small producers of Champagne, known as grower producers, organise a series of tastings where people from the trade and press get the opportunity to taste the best of what these artisanal producers have created. The international organic and biodynamic wine consultant, Hervé Jestin described the experience as:
Maybe among the best wine in Champagne you can taste… there is a very convivial, very quiet, very fun atmosphere among the visitors, among the growers. There is avery nice exchange between the growers. It is very interesting. Of course it is possible to taste vey nice wine everywhere.
Hervé Jestin describes the scene
One of the wonders of Champagne is not just the history, the quality and variance of the geology, or the huge variety of style on offer, but, for me it is the producers knowledge of their land, vines and processes that they bring together to work their magic.
The names of the tastings reflect the craftsmanship that goes into the making of the sparkling wines, such as Terre et Vin (Earth and Wine), Artisan Champagne, Mains de Terroir, Bulles Bio (Organic bubbly), among many others. There are masterclasses given by local professionals taking us deeper beneath the skin of the region, imparting knowledge and experience that gives another aspect to the experience of champagne.
Carl Edmund Sherman discussing vinification in oak barrels
Discovery of expression
I recall speaking to someone from Bordeaux who, when the subject turned to champagne, rolled his eyes and said “it’s just all bubbles!”. Having made at least two trips a year to the region for the last five years or so, such a comment makes me wince with displeasure.
The large “Houses” known as Grand Marques, that produce the large volumes of styled champagne that is drunk the world over are overlords of the international champagne market. The Grower Producers are the farmers turned winemakers who have turned their attention to their land and fruit to weave a new small scale level of magic. Although they may struggle to reach the far corners of the Earth, as do their large-scale cousins, they do however conjure the spirit of the place where the vines are grown, their terroir.
The region is vast, stretching from not far East of Paris down towards northern Burgundy, and there are seven grape varieties that can be legally blended for different characteristics. We mainly only taste chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, but others that have traditional roots in the region are becoming more widely used as climate changes and diversification to preserve quality means experimentation is necessary.
The levels of alertness on display when the liquid touches the palate can be profound. For the newcomer it is hard not to be self-conscious, for who would really take such a pursuit so seriously? But if that were the case, why would people spend so much to listen to an orchestra, visit the finest art exhibitions, or be part of any other pursuit that glimpses purity in expression or pleasure?
All of this is reflected in the diversity of the attendees. Familiar faces from previous tastings arrive from as close as Paris or London and also as far as China, the US or Australia.
Alison Smith Marriott - aka Bon Vivant DC, founder of Washington DC's Champagne Week
It’s has been of huge interest to me how the Champagne region has placed the importance of protecting ecology and reducing their carbon footprint, at the heart of their production values. Earlier this year I caught up with Thibaut le Mailloux - Director of Communications, at the Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC), the local governing bureau for the wine region, who said:
“I never heard of a sustainable plan like the one Champagne has, which is not only covering viticulture and winemaking but all the dimensions of champagne making, selling and shipping.
We did interact with the glassmakers and this interaction ended up with a lighter bottle reducing the carbon footprint of every bottle by fifteen percent. This is not a winemaking thing. We didn’t say ‘this is the responsibility of the glass producers!’
We said, ‘We want to be responsible of the sustainability of the region therefor we will go as far as interacting with producers of everything that is around the wine.’
As far as I know we are a leading region in terms of sustainable development. We’re covering everything from vine to shipment. We’ve started in the year 2000 by assessing the carbon footprint and today we are showing results whilst many other regions or companies are showing plans or projects.”
Talking sustainability: Thibaut de Mailloux - Director of Communications, at the Le Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne (CIVC)
In the vineyards, many of the grower producers and some larger houses are doing everything they can to phase out chemicals as much as possible. Organic and biodynamic processes are used widely and techniques are shared creating a collegial attitude towards evolving away from decades of toxifying the land.
All of this is a benefit to us consumers, as well as the producers themselves. Stopping the use of chemicals takes courage and a lot of time. The vines have to regain their resilience and the soils have to be brought back to a rich state of microbial life.
We see that life transported into the wine as an intrinsic vitality returns to the drink. The growing use of biodynamic practices is quite strange. There are people who produce their wines using Steiner’s rules and yet have no idea why it improves their wines. Some of the biodynamic champagne I have tasted have been out of this world. Good examples those made by Valérie and Benoît Lahaye, Jean-Sébastien and Benoît Fluery or Champagne Leclerc Briant.
Hervé Jestin believes the energy in the wines can be measured and it is off the scale of anything seen from conventional production. I have heard other accounts, both in Champagne and from Roussillon, of biodynamic wines being left open on the side for a week and not losing their vitality. A typical wine usually turns bad after sixteen hours or so.
As a grower said recently in conversation, “we have been been producing wine for thousands of years and only using chemicals for fifty years. Of course we can go back to nature!” There are still challenges, as Hervé points out, with regard to treating mildew and other natural foes, but the improvements in the quality of the wine is fabulous.
Red wine in Champagne?
It probbably sounds more anomolous than it really is, due to the fact that Champagne was producing still wines before it produced sparkling. However, all that pinot noir being produced across the Montagne de Reims finds its most famous expression in the grand cru village of Bouzy. This evening tasting in the centre of Reims has the most relaxed atmosphere, hosted by some of loveliest wine producers in the region. The wines are very good too. On the first circuit I tasted the Bouzy Rosé Champagne, made with Bouzy rouge and blended to make a rich red ripe fruity bubbly. On the second way round it is time to kick back and indulge yourself in the Bouzy Rouge pinot noir. Watch this clip below for a glimpse of the power of Bouzy Rouge!!
Bouzy Suzy introduces the joys of Bouzy Rouge
Moving around a room tasting, there sometimes comes a moment where everything is just right. The wines are sparkling, the acidity crisp or creamy, the fruit ripeness and balance and length just right, and so on. Then in an unsuspecting way your glass is filled with an inch or so of bubbly juice that is held to the nose for the primary inspection. The nose twitches, the brain gets an endorphine rush and the mind turns a blank page. This is when there is something so special in the glass that it's pointless to describe except to say that the winemaker has excelled himself.. we are tasting the stars perhaps?!
For me this happened several times on this visit. Certain wines assumed a magical prowess that defied my expectations of what a sparkling wine could do. Imagine the gentle elegance of red fruit from pinot noir, suspended on the tongue, sending incredible messages through the sensory system to the brain. The flavours linger, delicate, perfect, almost freakish. Then gently they ebb away leaving the mouth wistfully refreshed.
A selected few of the many great champagnes we tasted: