Champagne’s Next Revolution Is Now

champagne revolution jon bonne punch kaye blegvad illustration

Cumières is a tiny, labyrinthine town, a few streets running up from the Marne River’s serene banks, just a ten-minute drive from the major Champagne city of Épernay. It’s nearly impossible to find the yellow door of Champagne Georges Laval which, beyond a faded “Laval” on a plastic buzzer, is unmarked.

Laval’s cellar is as small as they come—a couple dozen barrels and a few wooden riddling racks—manned by just four employees who work by hand to turn out just 14,000 bottles each year from a tiny three hectares of land. I am a sucker for lusty, bold-flavored Champagne—the deeply fruited and almost chewy wines of Benoit Lahaye and Raphael Berèche come to mind—but Laval’s manage to be both profound and precise, with a spice aspect that’s hushed, like the appealing scent of curry being cooked in the next room. (Sadly, they are not cheap.)

Laval, who resembles an older, shaggier version of the actor Chris O’Dowd, is as genial as they come—until you get him on the topic of farming. His family has worked its parcels organically since 1971 in a region where you weren’t supposed to be able to do so—too much cold, too much rain and rot.

We walk up to his vineyards along the dirt road just above the village, past some of the best pinot noir land in Champagne: Les Longues Violles, Les Hautes Chèvres, Le Clos. While many of his neighbors’ vines display the compacted, naked dirt that’s manifest in Champagne—soils are often biological wastelands, dosed with herbicides and left as long as 20 years or more without being plowed or tended—Laval’s plantings are a picture of health. Deep grass and wildflowers burst between the rows.

“All of Champagne could be like this,” he tells me, wistfully. “And the wines could be better, complex, respecting of the diversity of their terroir.”

Take heart, Monsieur Laval. Champagne today is closer to your vision than it has ever been.

For years, I’ve been writing about a shifting balance of power in the region. But what’s happening now is beyond the shift that’s been talked about for the past 20 years—a decline of large, corporate producers and rise of small grower-producers—although it has something to do with it. The changes are far broader and deeper. Artisanship, an overused word many other places, is finally being accepted as Champagne’s future. So is a legitimate acknowledgement of precise differences in terroir—the latter a dramatic shift in an enormous region (it stretches more than 100 miles, with more than 33,500 hectares under vine) that has, for most of the past century, showed little interest in the specificity of its dirt.

This spring, I went there looking for new signs of change and found an ebullient revolution instead.

Today, the region’s best producers operate by a different set of rules—about how they farm, how they make wine and, crucially, how they think and talk about their land. They are behaving, really, in a way that pays more homage to Burgundy than to their own Champenois traditions, which typically value image over terroir.

And yet, while it’s tempting to lump Champagne’s revolution with those happening elsewhere—like the Loire—it’s not quite the same. 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.

Perhaps the biggest change is a new focus on farming, which may seem like a given in any world-class wine region. But for a place where not even a generation ago farmers still allowed gadoux—literally, the city of Paris’s garbage—to be dumped on their fields, it’s transformative.

This is one of the crucial differences between Champagne’s current upheaval and what’s taking place, say, in the Loire. If you go maverick in Anjou, there’s relatively little risk. But even Champagne’s most deliberate radicals—someone like Cédric Bouchard in the Aube, for example—aren’t abandoning the appellation. For all its shortfalls, Champagne as both place and symbol remains too strong to pass up.

This new focus has fundamentally changed how Champagne is made. Formerly, the art of Champagne was in the cellar; wines were constructed by all-powers chefs du cave who assembled them from a wide range of parcels. Their interest in farming was driven primarily by high yields and low costs. Grapes were rarely ripe enough to make potable still wine, a result once attributed to Champagne’s northerly latitude, but certainly amplified by a relentless push for a bigger crop.

Plenty of chemically abused soil remains, but as you drive along the D1 as it follows the contours of the Marne through towns like Cumières and Dizy, it’s easy to spot quite a number with well-plowed soils and cover crops. And good farming is not simply the domain of small farmers. It has worked its way up to forward-thinking houses like Champagne Louis Roederer, now not only one of the region’s largest landholders, but also arguably its largest organic and biodynamic farmer.

This kind of interest in farming has also moderated yields and changed the way that many of the Champenois are working in the cellar. The best producers are looking for ripe grapes that require no chaptalization (sugar additions to unfermented must), in an effort to highlight the pure flavors from their fruit. And if the typical Champagne cellar used to be a vision in steel, filled with high-tech presses and tanks, many producers are reverting to more traditional equipment, seeking additional finesse in the wines: gentle Coquard basket presses and, notably, oak casks and barrels for fermentation as well as aging.

It wasn’t long ago that tasting vins clairs, the base wines from which sparkling Champagne is made, was like gargling vinegar. Today many taste like fully finished still wines, at least in a ripe vintage like 2014. Their nuances are meant to be enhanced by, not reliant on, the presence of bubbles. For many producers, the bubbles are almost an afterthought.

The growing Champenois obsession with their vineyards is also a repudiation of the old philosophy that blending, and branding, matter most. Rather than vague palaver about starry-eyed monks and the business acumen of certain widows, top Champagnes today are discussed in the sorts of terms you’d expect for still wines: What vineyard did they come from? Did the winemaking allow them to accurately show their sense of place? Even fierce loyalists to the old traditions are acknowledging that terroir is the new common currency; Didier Gimonnet, one of the region’s masters of chardonnay, is set to release three Special Club bottlings to highlight the diversity of his parcels.

But terroir is still a slightly awkward conversation in Champagne. To the extent that it was discussed at all in the past, it was a discussion of three major areas: the Vallée de la Marne, the region’s workhorse, with extensive plantings of pinot meunier; the Cote des Blancs, south of Épernay, where chardonnay rules; and the Montagne de Reims, a semicircular band of villages historically renowned for pinot noir.

More than that, Champenois terroir was a blunt economic prospect, governed by the échelle des crus, an official village-by-village pricing system devised in the early 20th century.  Now obsolete, the échelle was allegedly based on quality but set just as much by convenience and politics; the 17 grand cru villages could nearly always sell grapes for more than those in premier cru villages. For most of a century, Champagne’s growers lived under this sort of officially sanctioned caste system.

It was no surprise, then, that ambitious producers in less-hallowed corners, like Alexandre Chartogne, Aurélien Laherte and Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette & Sorbée, began to question old assumptions about terroir. The new rules dictate that, while not ignoring the old belief about Champagne’s greatest sites, you need to at least embrace the possibility that the old ways didn’t necessarily give the most exceptional vineyards their due.

That’s most obvious in the Aube, the largely disregarded southern region of Champagne, home to some of the region’s most iconoclastic and innovative producers. But it can also be found at the doorstep of Champagne’s most powerful addresses. Chartogne works in Merfy, in sandier soils just outside Reims, part of a crescent of villages that are home to some of the region’s emerging masters; and Villiers-aux-Noeuds, where Emmanuel Brochet makes majestic, tension-filled Champagnes from his Mont Benoit vineyard, literally in the shadow of power lines that stretch down to Reims.

It’s much the same for Aurélien Laherte, who now works biodynamically in his family’s longtime parcels in Chavot-Courcourt, part of the Coteaux Sud d’Épernay, a band of villages that stretch south from Épernay, Champagne’s other major city. Long overlooked as a geographic outlier, the Coteaux Sud is now making a strong case for itself—in no small part thanks to Laherte.

“We don’t have a classification, so we have to create our own,” Laherte says. “Being in the Coteaux gives us a very open vision of Champagne.”

All these changes may be impressive. But are they permanent? I did wonder at times whether some of the new rules are more a matter of chasing fads. Champagne is nothing if not attentive to its customers’ whims.

Consider the rise of brut nature wines, made without the customary added dosage of sugar at the very end. The insistence on using no sugar at all, I suspect, is more fad than permanent change—although it’s undeniable (and welcome) that Champagnes are getting drier, and true believers like Laval make a strong case that full ripeness in the vineyard obviates the need for the practice. No different with unsulfured Champagnes—another theme that might be more an interesting experiment than a needed shift.

My conclusion, though, was that the hipster embroidery is mostly at the edges, even if the crowd surrounding the Tarlant table at Terre et Vins, struggling to get a taste of their BAM! (an abbreviation for the blend of pinot blanc, arbanne and petit meslier, three of Champagne’s more arcane grapes) could have been at a Sleigh Bells concert. I think the new changes have gravitas and staying power, even if they’re sometimes harnessed to make an ideological jab.

At least, that was the conclusion I reached during a visit with Benoît Lahaye in Bouzy. On one hand, Lahaye and his wife, Valérie, are the very image of Champagne trendiness: He’s rarely photographed without his workhorse, Tamise; he vinifies some wines in amphorae; he makes an unsulfured cuvée.

But poke a bit farther into Lahaye’s cellar, and you see an old-fashioned sorting table to de-stem his rosé, along with new gyropallets and a peristaltic pump. His recently built chai, kept cool by pressed-earth walls, is filled with rows of barrels tidy enough to make a Bordelais jealous. He shrugs off the combination of tech and tradition that might seem at odds. “We automate as much as possible in the cellar to spend more time in the field.” But there’s an important lesson. Champagne has become a place of means. Why shouldn’t farmers be able to innovate, and to control their image, as much as the corporations that have controlled the region?

And this is one of the crucial differences between Champagne’s current upheaval and what’s taking place, say, in the Loire. If you go maverick in Anjou, there’s relatively little risk. But even Champagne’s most deliberate radicals—someone like Cédric Bouchard in the Aube, for example—aren’t abandoning the appellation. For all its shortfalls, Champagne as both place and symbol remains too strong to pass up.

And frankly, there’s no need. Champagne can embrace its new rules and still be Champagne. I’m reminded of this as Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave and chief viticulturist at Louis Roederer, takes me up the Rue Jeanson, into the heart of the midslope of Aÿ.

Vines fan out in every direction along this broad south-facing amphitheater. This is no backwater; it’s the historic heart of Champagne, and for centuries, it has produced magnificent pinot noir for important wines like Dom Pérignon, Perrier-Jouët’s Belle Epoque and Pommery’s Cuvée Louise. Lecaillon isn’t boasting when he calls it “the Musigny of Champagne.”

He introduces me to his vineyard workers, who are replanting one parcel, La Gargeotte, with mass selections (specimens propagated from standout vineyards, rather than grown in a nursery) from his own collection. Gargeotte, along with several other nearby parcels, has typically formed the core of Cristal, its top wine. Roederer has become an example of how even big Champagne must evolve. It now farms 72 hectares biodynamically, and Lecaillon’s goal is to make Cristal entirely from biodynamic fruit by 2020.

Since taking over in 1999 with an unprecedented demand that he control both winemaking and farming, Lecaillon has been quietly made the case for Champagne as a region to reverse the decades of abusive farming in a region that can certainly afford it. It’s a sign that long-awaited change has finally come to a place that has long coasted on a sense of self-accomplishment.

Or, as he puts it: “The best Champagne doesn’t currently exist. The best Champagne is in the future.”

A Quick Study in the New School

NV Georges Laval Cumières Premier Cru Brut Nature ($85): Laval’s tribute to the finesse found in Cumières. Chardonnay dominates here (50 percent), and the latest release, mostly from the 2010 vintage, shows both the leanness of that year and the firm, rapier-like texture Laval wines have, one that highlights a complexity on par with great Burgundy. [Buy]

2010 Laherte Frères Les Vignes d’Autrefois ($70): Aurélien Laherte makes a point here both about the durability of pinot meunier and possibility of the Coteaux Sud d’Epernay. He mixes parcels from Chavot and nearby Mancy, on clay with some silt and a chalky subsoil, all dating to 1953 or earlier. The wine’s fermented in old Burgundy barrels. The result is spicy, intensely focused and concentrated in its flavors. (Also keep an eye out for Laherte’s Les Beaudiers rosé.) [Buy]

NV Varnier-Fannière Cuvée St.-Dénis Brut Grand Cru ($60): Denis Varnier showcases Cote des Blancs Chardonnay in its most sinuous form, and the St.-Dénis comes from a single parcel in Avize: the 65-year-old vines of the Clos du Grand Père (although those are in decline, and Varnier will shift to the Pierre Vaudon, a parcel also used by Roederer). Herbal and almost austere, until you taste the Chardonnay richness, which expands with every sip. (Disgorged January 2015.) [Buy]

2011 Emmanuel Brochet Le Mont Benoit Extra Brut ($75): Brochet’s Mont Benoit, a mix of clay-limestone and exposed chalk, sits isolated amid cereal fields, almost within walking distance of Champagne’s largest city, Reims. Its wines always brim with personality, highlighted by 11 months spent aging in large casks before sparkling fermentation begins. The result is an exotic and ripe wine. (Disgorged November 2014.) [Buy]

NV Benoit Lahaye Rosé de Maceration ($55): Lahaye’s rosé has nearly as much depth and personality as a red wine—it’s one of the best examples of the power found in pinot noir from the village of Bouzy. This example, based on the 2012 vintage, has deep red fruit flavors and a leathery, slightly tannic side from being treated like a red—with the grapes soaked a full 2 days on their skins. [Buy]

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