Champagne Unveiled

France's iconic sparkling wine is shedding its air of mystique as both producers and consumers focus on the wine in the bottle
Alison Napjus
Issue: December 15, 2013

Champagne is lifting its veil. A culture built on marketing and glamour is finally embracing the wine itself.

The change has been fueled by a new kind of customer. Propelled by the maturing wine culture in America, where a thirst for knowledge is matched by the technology to share vast quantities of information, wine drinkers are looking beyond the famous labels and alluring images of Champagne and seeking to know the people making the wines and the vineyards they come from.

Going far beyond New Year's Eve, Champagne is being accessed in new settings, taking its place alongside still wines on dining tables and in cellars. In a fundamental shift, it is now being recognized as the unique expression of a place and its people.

These changing attitudes are connected to a paradigm shift among producers in the region. Historically, Champagne houses promoted their bottlings as a luxury product; the spotlight was on a house's name, image and prestige labels. Today, many producers are focusing on Champagne as a wine.

Their message is about what makes particular Champagnes distinctive, delivered in terms similar to those of still-wine producers. Instead of talking about which celebrity was spotted drinking which Champagne at a trendy club, producers are sharing information about specific vineyards or terroirs, along with grapegrowing and winemaking techniques that impart distinct character to the wine.

"We realize we need to let the wine shine," says Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, chef de cave at Louis Roederer, which produces Cristal, long seen as one of the ultimate "label" brands. "You come back to the real story of Champagne—the terroir, the vineyards."

Previous generations of winemakers mastered the technical aspects of their craft, thereby creating consistent house styles for their brands. Lécaillon thinks that his generation, though respectful of tradition, is building on that expertise to push the boundaries of what Champagne can be.

"I call it the avant-garde of Champagne," says Lécaillon. "We're in another world—more innovation. It's a winemaker approach, not a market-driven approach."

The house styles of the great brands were built on non-vintage cuvées. As France's most northern wine region, Champagne has traditionally relied on blending multiple grapes from multiple sites and, in the case of non-vintage bottlings, from multiple years. The idea was to offer consistency, even in difficult vintages.

With this current movement, however, producers are offering many new expressions of Champagne. For example, single-vineyard bottlings, which were virtually unheard of 50 years ago, are becoming increasingly common today. The concept of a single-vineyard wine is a talking point that consumers easily remember, and we'll likely see more bottlings in future years. But whether quality lives up to the hype is by no means a consensus.

Among the region's best versions are the two single-vineyard Champagnes made by Krug, from the Clos du Mesnil and Clos d'Ambonnay vineyards. The house considers these wines a counterpoint to the Champagnes that blend various sites, including both its vintage-dated and non-vintage bottlings.

"You show the purest expression in order to have people understand what blending 250 plots can do," says managing director Olivier Krug. "It's like explaining one violin in order to understand the symphony."

The first vintage of Clos du Mesnil was 1979, putting Krug well ahead of the single-vineyard curve. With only a few exceptions—such as Philipponnat's 14-acre Clos des Goisses site, which it purchased in 1935 and has been releasing in top vintages ever since—most single-vineyard Champagnes are newer to the market. Notable examples include Taittinger's Folies de la Marquetterie; Duval-Leroy's Clos des Bouveries; Lanson's Clos Lanson; and Chartogne-Taillet's Les Barres, Cuvée les Heurtebises and Orizeaux bottlings.

Not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Among this group is Frédéric Panaiotos, chef de cave at Ruinart, who holds to the model that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

"We experiment every year with special blocks," Panaiotos says. "Eight times out of 10, blended versions are superior. You get more complexity. And it's not about blending away bad years—2001 was really the only difficult year in this past decade."

Fueling the trend of site-selected Champagne is the success of the region's récoltant-manipulant, or grower-producers, who make wine from their own vines (as opposed to négociants, or houses, that both own vineyards and purchase grapes from growers). The popularity of the "small growers," as they're known, started gaining momentum in the 1990s, but has really taken off in the past decade.

Anselme Selosse of Jacques Selosse is one of the leaders of the small-grower movement. Looking back on his 40 years of winemaking, Selosse, 59, tracks the estate's progression: "In 1974, my parents were producing 6,000 bottles, and the rest was sold to the négociants. Now I make 57,000 bottles, and it's all only for Champagne Jacques Selosse."

That Selosse now bottles the entirety of his production under the estate's label says less about his ability to do so and more about the philosophy that drives him as a winemaker. "What winemakers everywhere and winemakers in Champagne have to do is produce a wine that will express the terroir, where it is born," he says.

This mentality is common among small growers. Partly it's a matter of making a virtue of necessity. While the larger négociant houses typically source fruit from multiple villages and vineyards throughout the Champagne region, most small growers own a limited number of vineyard acres, which tend to be located in and around one area or village. The growers' dependence on locally sourced fruit can impart a sense of terroir that might otherwise be blended away.

This distinctive character has made grower Champagne the darling of sommeliers, who use it as a guide to specific wine-and-food pairings, as they might use bottlings from different villages in Burgundy. Yet, for all the interest among U.S. wine directors and importers—who are constantly on the lookout for the next hot grower—the category still accounts for less than 5 percent of total volume in the U.S. market.

One up-and-coming grower-producer is Cédric Bouchard, 38, who is making Champagne from 7 acres of vines in the Aube region. Bouchard embodies the small-grower belief in terroir. "My philosophy is exactly Burgundian, but in Champagne," he explains. "I am always for pure parcels. I never blend a parcel—it's one parcel, one grape, one year."

There have always been special vineyards or parcels in Champagne, but this focus is far more common today, from small grower-producers to larger négociants.

"We used to mix parcels from the same village; now we vinify each village's parcels separately," says Duval-Leroy chef de cave Sandrine Logette-Jardin. "We think more in terms of parcels than villages now. It's a trend in Champagne."

But the proliferation of separately vinified and bottled plots can be attributed at least in part to climate change. Historically, vintages were declared only a few times each decade, when conditions were good enough to make a wine entirely from that year. It is only in the past 10 to 20 years that the region's growing seasons and harvests have been consistent enough to make an increasing number of single-vineyard bottlings viable, from both a production and financial standpoint.

While single-vineyard bottlings may be a growing trend, not all growers are as adamant as Bouchard in their winemaking philosophies; like the négociants, most offer non-vintage bottlings from multiple grape sources. Yet an important distinction remains. Most of the cuvées from bigger houses include at least small amounts of reserve wines, that is, stocks from sometimes much older vintages that add depth and balance to the blend. But many growers don't have the financial means or storage capacity to do the same; their non-vintage bottlings are typically dominated by the current harvest's fruit, with perhaps one or two other vintages blended in.

Climate change may also have a hand in another trend in Champagne, that of lowering the dosage. This is the small amount of sweetened liquid added to each bottle after disgorgement, in the final stages of Champagne production. The sweetness of the dosage determines how much residual sugar is in the finished Champagne. The lower the dosage, the less sugar in the wine, with the ultimate reduction being no dosage at all (called non-dosé).

In 2003, Wine Spectator reviewed a total of eight Champagnes that were either non-dosé (0 grams per liter residual sugar) or extra brut (0 to 6 grams per liter). This year, that number jumped to nearly 40, about 10 percent of all Champagnes reviewed in 2013. (For my complete tasting report on Champagne, see page 67.)

"It is true, with global warming we have raw material that is more mature, more structured, with lower acidity," says Damien Le Sueur, production manager at Taittinger. "Today, we never have a problem reaching the level of maturity we need—only in 2001 in the past decade. So we have to adapt the disgorgement and the quantity of sugar we use."

Most of Taittinger's lineup is bottled in the brut category (0 to 15 grams per liter residual sugar). The wines now range from 6 to 9 grams per liter, depending on the cuvée, yet only a decade ago, most of the bottlings were about 12 grams per liter.

This is also true of Moët & Chandon. In 2012, the estate presented a new version of its Brut Impérial, a bottling formerly labeled White Star. In the past, dosage levels varied according to country; the U.S. version had reached more than 20 grams per liter residual sugar in the early 2000s. Now, the brand is at the same level worldwide of 9 grams per liter.

The change was the result of extensive testing by Moët, which lowered the dosage gradually, over several years. "It was not a snap decision," says Moët's chef de cave Benoît Gouez. "The core consumers don't ask for a sweeter style, but they don't necessarily ask for a dry style. Instead, they're more interested in elegance and finesse. The American palate is more sophisticated now."

As U.S. consumers refine their palates and preferences, they are focusing partly on the technical details of Champagne, but more on what the wine brings to the table. The firm structure of these drier versions helps them pair better with food, and creative sommeliers and wine directors throughout the country are showing their more adventurous diners that Champagne can go beyond the aperitif portion of an evening, to be matched with any course in a meal.

"It's an extremely versatile category," says Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at Manhattan's NoMad restaurant, about Champagne with lower dosage. "Right now you see more people leaning toward this style. I find it compelling because it's bringing more conversation to the table, and it pushes great producers to help make Champagne into a wine category."

Pastuszak also collaborated with Champagne Billecart-Salmon on the production of an Extra Brut bottling selected for and poured exclusively at NoMad, designed with the restaurant's Fruits de Mer raw bar platter, among other dishes, in mind. "A lean, bright, clean style [of Champagne] doesn't really afford the chance of a bad pairing," adds Pastuszak. "As soon as you introduce more sugar you run the risk of a clash with another aspect of the dish."

Along with sommeliers, producers are exploring new ways to help wine drinkers enjoy their Champagnes with food. "We cater to gastronomy," says Charles Philipponnat, president of Philipponnat, whose lineup consists almost entirely of non-dosé or low-dosage wine. "We have many restaurants as customers, so our view is to provide a wine for different experiences."

In early 2013, Veuve Clicquot announced a partnership with French chef Joël Robuchon that sees the house's Champagnes featured in all of the chef's restaurants, as well as Robuchon cooking periodically at Veuve Clicquot's tasting room in the Hôtel du Marc in Reims.

Matching cuisine with Champagne may be what's driving its U.S. growth, allowing wine drinkers to experience their bubbly more frequently and in more non-traditional or casual settings. Despite continuing weaknesses in the U.S. economy, Champagne sales in the country climbed 1.2 percent in 2012, to about $477 million, according to Impact Databank, a sister publication of Wine Spectator. (By comparison, global Champagne sales during the same period saw a rise of 0.2 percent.) This increase mirrors the growth of sparkling wine consumption more broadly in the United States, which rose 14 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to Impact.

Champagne's growth is also being encouraged by producers, who are exploring new methods to bring consumers to their wines. Some are more serious approaches focused on the wines themselves, with many producers expanding their product lines to include bottlings with a specific hook. Henri Giraud's newly released Brut Champagne Argonne 2002 is vinified in barrels made from specially selected plots of oak trees from the Champagne region's Argonne forest. Marc Hébrart's Rive Gauche Rive Droite is named for the two sides of the Marne River, which runs through the Champagne region, and the locations of his grands crus parcels, which are blended in the wine.

Other approaches rely on the adventurous marketing that has long been a feature of Champagne. French designer Philippe Di Méo recently designed a $25,000 jeroboam bottle encased in 24-karat gold lattice for a limited number of 2002 Cristals. American artist Jeff Koons collaborated with Dom Pérignon for its 2003 Brut Rosé, with a select number of bottles from the initial release placed in a Koons-designed "balloon Venus," a miniature of the artist's well-known sculpture. Each bottle is priced at $20,000.

At the heart of these shifting mind-sets and growing trends is the curiosity of the American wine drinker. As the country's wine culture develops, and consumers start asking more questions, Moët & Chandon's Gouez thinks that it is up to producers to respond. "We all have a challenge to make Champagne more accessible and less intellectual—shortening the distance between ourselves and consumers, and making people feel comfortable enjoying our wines."

In the past, most producers were not particularly forthcoming with details about their Champagnes. They relied more on flashy images to convey a message about their product, making it hard to engage the modern wine drinker. Today, Champagne producers are more up-front about what's in the bottle, commonly offering a wider array of information. Back labels often include the varietal makeup of the wine, and many also list the wine's disgorgement date, a piece of technical production data that can help a wine drinker understand how the wine might be showing as it ages.

Some producers are using technology to take these changes a step further. Earlier this year, Roederer launched an app for iPhone and iPad that allows wine drinkers to scan a QR code on the back label of any bottle in its portfolio. The QR code takes the consumer directly to a page on the house's website dedicated to the specific bottling that was scanned. The page gives tasting notes for the wine, along with information about where the wine's grapes were sourced and what vintages went into a non-vintage cuvée or what the vintage conditions were for a vintage-dated bottling. And while the app was launched only this year, the company has included the QR code on bottles since 1998.

Social media is another new outlet to reach wine drinkers, and producers are using Facebook and Twitter in different ways to spread their message. Cyril Brun, senior winemaker at Veuve Clicquot, explains that the house uses Twitter to educate its consumers. "It's not necessarily about the brand itself, but more about sharing basic information."

This is a dynamic time for the Champagne region, and the future of Champagne in the United States looks bright. As the leading wine-consuming country in the world—and the second-largest export market for Champagne (after the United Kingdom)—America is forging ahead in its exploration of the region.

"Globally, Champagne has never been as good as it is now," says Gouez. "In terms of weather, winemaking, viticulture, improvisation—and a certain competitive environment that brings out the best from everyone."

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