If you can’t beat them… do something different
9th March 2020
How some independent Champagne makers are finding success by challenging accepted wisdom.
The usual version of this old saying is If you can’t beat them… join them. In Champagne that has traditionally meant looking for success by following the lead of the famous brands, but recently many small Champagne producers are finding that breaking some of the accepted rules can lead to success as well
If you had to sum up in just a couple of word, the great strength of Champagne on which the famous houses have built their fortunes, you probably couldn’t do much better than ‘Reliable and consistent quality’.
Champagne lovers have always been confident that the taste and quality of their chosen brand, be it Moet & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug or any other of the ‘Grandes Maisons’, would be the same year in, year out and wherever in the world they happened to be.
If you then asked these same brands how they were able to guarantee such consistency, they would probably tell you, apart from praising the skill of their winemaker of course, that the secret to success was blending, or assemblage to use the French term.
On further questioning, they would explain that the high levels of quality were only possible because of two ways in which blending is the key
- They own vineyards or buy grapes in many different regions of Champagne. With such a broad supply base they have the luxury of selecting only the best grapes to go into their famous brand.
They can source Chardonnay from the chalky slopes of La Côte des Blancs, full of all the energy and zing of citrus fruit and flower blossom.
They have access to powerful, robust Pinot Noir from La Montagne de Reims to give depth, power, structure and rich red fruit flavours, or for a softer, rounder feel, they can obtain their Pinot Noir from the more southerly vineyards of La Côte des Bar. Finally, they can turn to La Vallée de la Marne for the full, fruity flavours and easy drinking quality of Meunier.
In short, they can always find the best ingredients and blend them together to ensure the same high quality in their Champagnes year in, year out.
But wait a minute. Some years are better than others, aren’t they, so how to the Champagne houses manage in years when there is a disappointing harvest?
- Reserve wines
Well, once again the answer is blending. The simple yet ingenious system of reserve wines by which a part of the harvest from ‘good’ years is set aside to mature so that it can be used later to blend with wine from less satisfactory or less abundant harvests, is another key factor in producing consistent quality.
Although the same sound principles can be and have been, adopted by the smaller producers, of which there are 4,000 or more, generally speaking, they simply don’t have the same resources as the big houses and so they find themselves at an inevitable disadvantage. However, some of these small producers have been finding that it is best not to take on the big mason at their own game; a different approach is needed.
To understand this let’s look at two trends that have emerged in recent years and that have been driven by the small, independent producers.
- Single-vineyard Champagnes
Over the past decade or so and not just in Champagne, more and more attention and interest has been given to the notion of terroir and the specific characteristics of a particular, small geographic area and what these bring to the wine made in that area.
Taken a step further, this notion can be applied to individual vineyards and even to individual plots.
This is the antithesis of the classic blending approach. Instead of the traditional wide-ranging view, the focus is zoomed in to a single plot of land, but for wine lovers who wants to explore the full potential of Champagne, these single-vineyard wine (mono parcellaire in French) offer a fascinating and intriguing insight that, with only a few exceptions, you cannot get from the famous brands.
A leading exponent of this approach is La Maison Penet, which despite the word ‘Maison in the name is a small family owned producer with vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Verzy and Verzenay from which 5 single-vineyard offerings are made.
To have this number of single vineyard offering is exceptional but look at the range of any small producers these days and the chances are that you’ll find a least one single vineyard cuvée
The trend from wide angle to a narrow focus doesn’t always end up with the spotlight on a single vineyard Champagne.
For many years Champagne Pierre Gimonnet & Fils, one of the most respected independent producers with vineyards in some of the best villages of La Côte des Blancs, produced only blended cuvees. They felt it was essential to add a certain proportion of wine from their home villages of Cuis to all of their cuvees, to add the distinctive touch of freshness they were seeking in their Champagnes. However, even Pierre Gimonnet & Fils has recently launched single village (mono cru) Champagnes from Oger, Cramant and Chouilly.
Other producers have decided to focus on one particular grape variety as can be seen from the number of associations such as The Meunier Institut and Passion Chardonnay, that have sprung up to promote one variety or another.
Incidentally, if you are in the wine trade you can taste the Champagnes and still wines from these and many other associations during Le Printemps des Champagnes, an annual and week-long programme of tasting events that, this year, runs from 17th to 2nd April.
- Another manifestation of the willingness amongst the independent producers to bend some of the traditionally accepted ways of doing things can be seen in the growing number of them who produce a vintage Champagne every year, rather than only in supposedly ‘good’ years.
Naturally, there are going to be variations from year to year, but the thing behind this initiative is that every year has something unique to show and, with skilful winemaking, the results will be good, sometimes great and always fascinating for any Champagne lover who wants to explore the less obvious delights of the region.
Champagne Huré Frères in Ludes is a leading advocate of producing a vintage every year. The idea behind these vintage Champagnes, cleverly called Instantannée, is to take a snap-shot of each year and although the wine is a blend of wines from different grape varieties and villages, the concept of focussing on one year, every year, is another appealing example of bending the traditional rules and, what’s more, an idea that is finding favour with an increasing number of Champagne drinkers.
There is always more to learn about Champagne and more secrets to discover. A great way to do that is to go and live in Champagne, but if that’s not possible, the next best thing is to take a look at My Champagne Expert, an online course that will turn you into a Champagne Expert in your own right.
Jiles Halling is an Englishman whose career in Marketing and Sales for major international wines and spirits brands took him to the USA and Japan before spending 17 years living and working in Champagne. Jiles is the creator of My Champagne Expert – a brand new, comprehensive online course all about Champagne and other books and guides on Champagne
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