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NIGHTCLUB or VINEYARD – WHERE IS THE FUTURE OF CHAMPAGNE?

The world’s most famous sparkling wine has had an attitude adjustment in fine wine circles – but has the rest of the world caught up?

Big bottles, supermodels and a price tag that will make your eyes water. Champagne has a certain attitude attached to its straw-coloured bubbles that ensure it is sold around the world as a luxury product and a statement of celebration and wealth. There’s a reason the phrase ‘poppin’ bottles’ and names such as Moët, Cristal and Dom Pérignon are thrown about in songs as frequently as scantily clad dancers shake their derrières.

But of course Champagne is still a wine and for those of us not at the club or worried about it staining our silks (just in case you don’t follow everything LL Cool J says that’s a rap reference) the taste is far more important than the branding.

From the grower revolution to changes in viticulture and pairing it with hotdogs, this is the future of Champagne. Hint: less of LL Cool J, more of Frerejean Frère Blanc de Blanc.

Champagne has always been one of the most solid, reliable wines across the entire world. Despite its northern climate, frosts and sporadic warm summers Moët tastes like Moët each time you grab a bottle, as does Bollinger, Taittinger, Laurent Perrier, the list goes on. No other wine region even comes close for consistency, and no other region has such prolific brands which ring out across the world just as spirits do.

The only way Champagne brands can achieve such a notion as a brand is to blend. These Champenois make their wine in the same way master blenders working in Scotch, rum and American and Irish whiskey make their spirits – with reserve stock, constantly adjusting which vintages come together to create the Champagnes we know and love. While this may seem strange in a world where wine changes by the year, the Champagne region is one of the only places able to do this because it has a built up a stock of reserve wines and has had years to develop distinct styles.

The question today is where can the region go from its current perception of money and clubs, rap lyrics and luxury; above all demand. Because times are changing and the world has fallen in love with the concepts of provenance, craft and small-batch. It’s here that Champagne’s story gets interesting.

Although the appellation is currently under review, Champagne’s future will never be to grow the amount of production.

“Champagne currently produces 312 million bottles per year, which is only 12% of sparkling wine production in the world,” says Francoise Peretti, spokesperson for the Bureau du Champagne in the UK. “The very maximum we could ever produce would be around 315 million. So we’re at capacity. Where Champagne is going is not looking for more wine or even higher prices – it’s about growing the value of the category.”

This revision of the appellation started back in 2009, when growers approached the authorities to check over all the possible plots of land they could grow grapes and see if there was any historical reason that land could once again be used for Champagne vineyards. But even if a few more plots are added, Francoise is right – the future will never be in volume. 

With such a limited amount of land in which to grow the grapes to make Champagne, you’d think the big houses would own it all, but for some reason they barely own any vineyards. Instead smaller growers sell their grapes on, just as in Cognac. This has many benefits, as the brands essentially get to pick the best quality grapes they can find – and they pay good money for them, ensuring everyone comes out happy. But blending grapes from across the entire region means the very concept of provenance, even terroir, is lost. When regular drinkers talk about Champagne it’s the entire region in one broad-brush stroke – rarely do you hear someone asking about specific villages.

Not everyone likes working in this way of course, and so growers began to make their own Champagnes. This isn’t a new concept at all, and in fact drinks writers have been tracking the increasing demand for grower Champagne for the last 20 years. Interestingly the UK is one of its biggest markets, we can’t get enough of artesian bubbles. 

“Small producers are interesting, affordable and increasingly the darlings of sommeliers,” says Tom Harrow, wine director for Honest Grapes. “The problem is what we like intrinsically, what captures modern interest, is to know the name of the farmer that reared our beef. But in Champagne everyone buys grapes from everyone and the Champenois are not hiding this, but they’re also not keen on you knowing it. There is nothing craft about big brand Champagnes.”

Grower Champagnes are such an easy sell. These are the farmers who toil in their vineyards to make a limited number of bottles which they live, breathe and die by on whether we like the wine. There’s passion aplenty and it often translates into incredible champagne.

One of the main venues in London Championing this is Bubbledogs, an unusual restaurant that serves outstanding grower Champagne alongside tasty hot dogs. But why opt for unheard of fizz?

“These grower producers are like artisans, they touch every step of the way of making a Champagne and I believe you can taste the attention to detail and their personal passion in them,” says owner Sandia Chang. “Plus, the big brands don’t really need my help to help them promote their products; they are just doing fine.”

Humble Grape, with venues in Battersea and Fleet Street, have also decided to promote small brand growers, by importing wines from the family-run Soutiran vineyard in Ambonnay,

“Our ethos is single vineyard, small family producers, organic, hand harvesting, natural environment and people who look after nature, so grower Champagne makes a lot of sense to have in our venues,” says Humble Grape founder James Dawson. “Soutiran is family owned, their whole vineyard size is nine hectares and they pay so much attention to their vineyards. A few years ago you didn’t see bakeries and cheese shops on the high street but it’s all coming back, and this is a way to go deeper into Champagne and understand how flavoursome and complex it can be as fantastic local produce.”

Of course it’s not just London, or even the UK going crazy for grower Champagnes. And unlike the balance of people such as James and Sandia, who have decided to focus on one style of Champagne in their venues, some people have taken this to the extremes.

 “Big Champagne erases such diversity through the art of blending, which blurs distinctions in the interest of turning out products that are as identical from one year to the next as canned soda,” writes Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay in Secrets of the Sommeliers. “Among other mass-production practises that compromise fine-wine standards are extreme chemical and mechanical manipulation of wines in the cellars, irresponsible agricultural practises, and yields aimed at quantity over quality.”

Fighting talk from America. Is there so much wrong with ‘big Champagne’?

“Without big brands Champagne wouldn’t be where it is today,” says Dawn Davies, Master of Wine and buyer for the Whisky Exchange. “I love grower Champagnes, we have one of the biggest lists, but I understand that we have to have the big guys too. Sustainable viticulture is being driven by the CIVC (Comité interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne) and houses such as Bollinger and Pol Roger are producing amazing quality in this way. You can’t blanket the big brands and say they are destroying everything, it’s totally naive.”

Tom from Honest Grapes agrees. “There is room for both, and it’s important for people to understand this. Furthermore the big brands work allows them to buy the best grapes and make something greater than the sum of its parts.”

The brands aren’t blind to these movements either, and plenty of them have released vineyard bottlings on top of their already popular vintages. But despite the stir these sentiments have within the small bubble of wine enthusiasts, grower Champagne will never represent the entire future for the region. It’s a mere 4% of the American market and big houses have all the cards, the budgets and they’ve had relationships with growers going back over 200 years so beyond your own vineyard, as a grower, you’ll be hard-pressed to expand. There’s also the inheritance law in France which says everything must be split equally so even if your parents do own a vineyard, all your siblings must be on board to continue the business together. And there’s not many of us who could work for years alongside bratty sisters and brothers, especially when the land is worth so much.

Pitting the grower Champagnes against the brands is just one way to look at this issue. Another approach is to understand a brand’s non-vintage is a deeply personal expression of individuality.

“Champagne, production is limited. It can’t be a mass-market product by definition,” Francoise reminds us. “From the moment you say Champagne it is quality. We explain why this quality is constant because of the way the blends work. I think that when you get to know Champagne well, you realise that within the appellation’s framework there are amazing expressions of individuality. I’ve been working with it since 1985 and I don’t know any other region where the harvest is decided individually, whether or not they’ll produce a vintage is totally decided by each house and what reserve wines they’ll keep and use. It’s an amazing expression of individuality.”

As picked up by Dawn and Secrets of the Sommeliers, vineyards haven’t always been the most carefully attended to aspect in Champagne. But this is changing, and is one way the rise of grower Champagnes have been able to influence the region at large.

The future of Champagne production is very much towards how it is farmed and how the region talks about its own soils. Terroir is finally being spoken about in Champagne.

“Champagne is still Champagne. It’s not out to upend all its traditions. Rather, it’s engaging in some long-needed soul-searching to figure out how to become a more honest, interesting version of itself,” writes wine expert Jon Bonne in the American publication Punch.

Ultimately Champagne is slowly evolving, and it’s progression towards sustainable farming is exciting for everyone who enjoys the regions beautiful bubbles. It will always be a marker of celebration however, and it’s unlikely to get away from its luxury, club image either. But for those in the know, Champagne is starting to offer more and more in terms of opportunities to try new wines, new vintages and to be constantly improving the known brands. It might not be quite be jumping with both feet into the modern era, but Champagne is at least approaching, with caution.