14 Nov Champagne’s Big Houses and the New Era of ‘Green’
In Champagne, big isn’t necessarily bad…despite what some may have us believe.
In recent years, much criticism has been levied at the region’s largest producers for their enterprising ways – their vast production figures and smooth marketing seen as inauthentic, less about quality and more about the bottom line.
It’s a conversation that has featured regularly within the inner sanctum of wine circles, dovetailing with the ascent of so-called terroir-driven champagnes. Energised, mineral, ripe and expressive, the best of the best from Champagne’s top growers are indeed worth beholding; a fine example of what sustainable, organic and biodynamic winemaking can be. It has also coincided with a time of soul-searching for the industry, still coming to grips with the reality of climate change and the need for sustainable vineyard practices to preserve its environment.
Reverberations of reform have been felt across the region.
With the parameters of quality having shifted from the cellar to include the vineyard, scrutiny is now applied at every level of input into production, starting with terroir; that all-inclusive descriptor of soil, topography, climate and weather.
But whilst Champagne’s top grower movement is often credited with sparking a reckoning with terroir, it is the major Houses affecting change on a massive scale. After decades of chemical farming being the norm, a sustainable winegrowing strategy is now widely accepted as the region’s future; designed to preserve and enhance its unique terroir for the sake of the environment, heritage and quality of wine.
No other House demonstrates the impact of change on a large scale than Louis Roederer. With annual production of 3.5 million bottles, Roederer is Champagne’s largest biodynamic producer, farming some 100 out of 240 hectares they own using biodynamic methods with plans to convert all vineyards by 2020. Biodynamics takes organic farming to another level – a holistic approach based on the cycles of the moon and nine approved soil preparations. Underscoring Roederer’s biodynamic pursuit is that 100 per cent of all estate vines are farmed organically.
Roederer’s cellar master, Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon, considers his role to be as much about farming as it is about winemaking. ‘Getting more terroir into the wine’, as he puts it, is further encouraged in the winemaking process.
“Our method is simple: single-vineyard picking, pressing, fermentation and ageing (410 parcels in 450 tanks) allows every single terroir to express its identity. Also, adapting winemaking to the requirements of the grapes to develop their full identity,” he says. “This à la carte winemaking keeps the terroir as pure, precise and authentic as possible until blending time.”
In keeping with his ‘think big, act small’ approach, Lécaillon emphasises the importance of setting quality objectives to drive everything from the vineyard to disgorgement.
“We do not see a conflict between quality excellence and meeting commercial demands as we have made our choice: quality first and quantity second,” he affirms.
Roederer was the first large producer to move in a major way toward sustainable winegrowing in the 1990s, blazing a trail that would see others follow. Lécaillon believes they demonstrated to both Houses and growers that an alternative way was feasible.
“They saw a famous traditional House endorse this new viticulture at a large scale and it probably reassured them,” he says. “It’s clear the Champagne region is moving strongly today. I don’t call it a grower trend but the ‘new golden era’! It’s great for the region and for the wines that will be crafted in coming years.”
Bollinger is another House making headways. Cellar master, Gilles Descôtes, spearheaded the revolution when he was the House’s vineyard manager, eliminating use of chemical fertilizers and orchestrating a gradual elimination of herbicides across 184 hectares of estate vines – making Bollinger one of the first Houses to do so. He is also trialing organic methods whilst encouraging growers he buys from to adopt sustainable forms of viticulture.
Descôtes prefers to talk about his philosophy toward the vineyard and winemaking as bringing about ‘purity and curiosity’.
“I like to make things as simple as possible, interfere as less as possible,” he says. “We made the choice to use organic farming on our red wine vineyards (like la Côte aux Enfants). The average yield decreases by 30 per cent when you make that choice, which is good for the quality of red wine and avoids a green harvest,” he explains.
To this end, his approach in the vineyard is complemented by his hand in the cellar. “We are working on new ways to follow maturity, on the wood effect in Bollinger wines, on old varieties and on the red wine process,” he says. “We stopped fining and moved to only one filtration as well as changing our dosage to make the wine purer.”
Sustainable winegrowing practices are the single biggest advancement in the quest for protecting and improving terroir from a heritage, environmental and wine quality point of view. It’s a topic that headlines the industry’s collective environmental agenda, spearheaded by the Comité Champagne – Champagne’s official trade association. Under its VDC (Viticulture Durable en Champagne) certification process, launched in 2014, the industry aims to achieve a 100 per cent sustainable winegrowing commitment.
Fronting the agenda is the preservation of terroir and biodiversity, controlling inputs, management of water and wastewater, by-products and waste, as well as energy management – among other things. Since inception, many Houses and growers have adapted their practices in their quest for certification to this and / or Frances’s HVE (Haute Valeur Environmentale), launched a few years earlier in 2009, signalling a reassuring leap in the right direction.
Elimination of harmful chemicals is now a key area of focus. After almost completely eradicating insecticides across the region, the industry body has now set its sights on herbicides which are still blanket-sprayed across 65 per cent of vines.
Champagne journalist and author of Terroir Champagne, Caroline Henry, has been reporting on the issue since moving to the region in 2011. She says no other House represents the significance of this than Veuve Clicquot – Champagne’s second largest producer at more than 18 million bottles annually.
“Clicquot began a zero herbicide policy last year – which is huge!” she says. “The House provides growers with technical support and a bonus for grapes farmed with zero herbicides. This, for me, shows that Champagne is really moving in the right direction.” She adds, “Because this movement is carried by the major Houses, they will eventually put financial pressure on growers to convert.”
Other major Houses that are making concerted efforts to attain higher standards in sustainable winegrowing practices (whether it be on estate vineyards, those they manage or by incentivising growers) include: Dom Pérignon, Taittinger, Philipponnat, Bruno Paillard, Duval-Leroy and Canard-Duchêne, with the latter two now producing certified-organic champagnes. In Duval-Leroy’s case, 200 hectares of estate vines are managed organically and Canard-Duchêne has 12 hectares of certified organic vineyards, whilst Bruno Paillard’s 32 hectares are organically managed. Another major House, Lanson, also lays claim to 13 hectares of certified biodynamic vineyards used to produce its organic ‘Green Label’ and even Billecart-Salmon employs biodynamic methods on its famed Clos Saint-Hilaire. Heading down a similar path is Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot and Thienot, each experimenting with organic / biodynamic methods.
Practising organics / biodynamics and being certified as such are two different things. And whilst some of these (and other) Houses may not be certified, it does demonstrate a level of commitment that exceeds Champagne’s VDC certification, which is more general in its ecological aspirations. These things combined, it signals attentiveness to Champagne’s terroir that goes beyond meeting minimum industry requirements.
What all of this translates to is a tremendously positive boon for Champagne as a region and brand – not the least of which is the quality and reputation of its Houses.
Looking to Champagne’s future, expect to see an enhanced commitment to terroir; which isn’t so much about single-vineyards as it is about the spirit of the region’s unique land, heritage and environment.
And as a consumer, expect wines of greater quality, conviction and definition from the Houses.
Above all, expect that big can be good…not necessarily bad.