Of Champagne and Serendipity, part 1

The subject of my first blog was prompted by an unexpected discovery.  While clearing a bit of space in the porch last week I thought to use the sturdy empty wooden box I had spotted to collect all the knick-knacks lying around.  To my delight the box was actually full, containing six bottles of Varnier Fannière Champagne!  I suppose I ought to tidy up more often, who knows what else I might find!

Despite being a self-confessed wino for twenty years, I’m a relative latecomer to the charms and intricacies of Champagne.  For a long time I’d see it as something for celebrations and posing without any inherent character as a wine.  The Champagnes I’d tried had been either terribly acidic (bye bye tooth enamel) or just bland – neither of which are good enough when the ticket price is so high.  Don’t get me wrong, if offered a glass of Moët I’d sup away, but it’s almost offensive in its inoffensiveness – it’s wet, fizzy and alcoholic but lacking in character.

Two books gave me cause to reconsider my stance:

Terry Theise’s Reading Between The Wines is an impassioned championing of artisanal wines, including “Grower Champagnes”.  Above all, Champagne can and should be treated primarily as a wine, and it can be a fine wine.  This might sound self-evident to some people but it needs to be stated explicity.

Michael Edwards’ The Finest Wines Of Champagne was the first of the Fine Wine Editions that I bought (or received as a gift, as in this case).  As well as an introduction on the history of Champagne and viticulture and winemaking of the region, this book contains engaging profiles of ninety producers, both big and small.  So engaging, in fact, that I resolved to travel to the area and taste some for myself!

The commercial landscape of Champagne has traditionally been dominated by grandes maisons (Négociants manipulants, the big names everyone has heard of, with huge marketing budgets) on one side and grape growers (farmers who happen to produce grapes) on the other.  Several cooperatives (Coopératives de manipulation) have bridged the gap somewhat, but it is only in the last five to ten years that grape growers making their own Champagne have come to prominence.

As the Growers (Récoltants manipulants) usually own small parcels of land within a distinct subregion of Champagne their wines are somewhat likely to reflect the place where the grapes are grown, compared to the consistent “House Style” which most big houses try to attain.  Of course viticultural and winemaking choices also have significant impacts, but the grower’s terroir (more on this elusive term in future posts) is laid bare without the blending regime of larger producers.

Ironically, despite prestige cuvées such as Louis Roederer’s Cristal, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Taittinger’s Comtes de Champagne being blended from sources all over the Champagne region, among the most expensive bottles available are Krug’s Clos du Mesnil and Clos d’Ambonnay.  These Blanc de Blancs (made from white grapes only, i.e. Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noirs (made from black grapes only, i.e. Pinots Noir & Meunier) respectively are made from tiny single vineyards.  Is this not a return to terroir?

More in my next post.

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