Random thoughts on the world of wine, presented in no particular order.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Champagne Manifesto

In the world of wine, few wines are as romanticized as Champagne; there's an aura of luxury, romance, and celebration surrounding the word.  Champagne is what we use to greet the new year, to celebrate weddings and birthdays, what we splurge on.  It's... well, Champagne!

Oddly enough, though, it's often about as artisan of a product as Pepsi.  Often, in fact, it's about as industrial a wine as the Australian "critter label" contingent.  Champagne is, for the most part, dominated by the big luxury-good conglomerates (LVMH -- Louis Vuitton Moët Hennesey -- and Rémy-Cointreau are the best known of these).  What could be considered "big house" Champagne accounts for around 90% of the market, as of 2008.

Why are these wines bad?  Well, not so much bad, as suboptimal?  An analogy1 may be in order; imagine a vintner -- your favorite, be it Heidi Peterson-Barrett, or Michel Gassier, whoever -- releasing a new wine called simply "California," or "Loire," or "Piedmont," named after the grand region where the wine is from.  There's no vintage date.  The blend of grapes is left unknown, but they do tell you "some of the grapes are from here, some from there, but we can't tell you where all of them are from -- trade secret, you understand.  Yeah, there's no appellation on it, but really, isn't all that appellation stuff just too complex anyhow?  At any rate, the wine is luxurious, worthy of top prices -- it'll start at $40 a bottle.  We made a million cases of it last year.  So buy it."

You'd look at them like they were insane, right?  $40 a bottle for a wine with a million-case production run (by way of comparison, that's on the order of quantity of Yellowtail Cabernet)?  No vintage date, no appellation, no terroir?  No thanks.

Yet, this is exactly what the big houses do.  Consider Veuve Cliquot (owned by LVMH) -- their production is around 1.5 million cases annually, when you take into account all of their wines (base nonvintage, rose, demi sec, vintage, and Grande Dame).  The vast majority of the wine is made with purchased grapes (Champagne has about 19,000 vineyard owners, and the big houses own very little land).  Most of their wine carries no vintage date.  It's been stretched and manipulated through dosage to meet the requests of a focus group.  It's a product, in the truest sense of the word -- the planned, plotted outcome of a very rigorously designed process.

Sounds a lot like the story of Woodbridge, doesn't it?  Except, at least, Woodbridge is vintage-dated; they allow for some small variance from year to year.  It might be interesting... perhaps.  Or at least different.

It gets worse, though -- even the grapes the big houses buy tend not to be very good.  They pay by weight, not quality, for their grapes.  Good grapes for sparkling wine tend to be just a hair under-ripe, and low on water -- hence, light.  If you are a farmer with two plots of land, one with heavy, wet grapes that are not ideal for sparkling wine, and one with perfectly under-ripe grapes, and someone offers you money for weight, what would you give them?  I'd save the good stuff for someone who paid for quality!

So why is this stuff $40+ a bottle?  Is it worth it?

My answer would be a resounding "no."

So what's the alternative?

Récoltant-Manipulant ("Grower-Maker") Champagne.  The other 10% of the market.  Where the good grapes tend to stay.  You can tell a Récoltant wine by the initials "RM" on the Champagne code (generally on the bottom of the front label).  These are wines made by people, not corporations.  Wines with a sense of place, not ones that are poked and prodded into bland nothingness.

And, even better, these are not wines that are more expensive -- in fact, due to a lack of marketing costs (sponsoring polo tournaments and regattas is expensive, it turns out!) RM Champagne often costs substantially less than the big-house products!

Often, an RM wine will even carry the name of the village where the grapes were grown -- there's several hundred in Champagne, and some even have a cru (Grand or Premier) status associated with them.  I find, personally, that the pinot-heavy wines of Bouzy are excellent -- very lively, with gorgeous cherry notes.  For blancs de blancs, wines made only of Chardonnay, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger is excellent, with focused citrus and biscuit notes.

Note that I'm not recommending a specific label here -- the RM's available in my market may not be the RM's available in someone else's.  We're talking about wines with a total production in the thousands of bottles, so even with as small a slice of the market as they have, there's a lot of producers out there.  And, that small slice is growing -- it's around 10% now, while 10 years ago, it was 3%.

The best thing to do, really, is explore.  Come to your Champagne with an open mind, forget what you "know" about the big houses, and discover what terroir really means in sparkling wine.  So buy a bottle with an unknown name, a little "RM" on the bottom of the label, and the name of a town half a world away, and preferably one with the words "Grand cru."  Taste.  Enjoy.  Be a part of the revolution in Champagne.  Say "no" to wine as a product, and "yes" to wine as an expression of place.

1 This is lifted pretty much wholesale from Terry Thiese, who is the visionary leading the trend to RM Champagnes.  Good writers borrow, and all that,  but I felt I had to credit him.


  1. good article. although i am a defender of moet`s brut imperial, which improves massively, if you cellar it for another 18 - 24 months. it does not turn into a larmandier-bernier or a clos des goisses, but you'll have an astoundingly developped wine

  2. Great article! I really agree with opening up your mind to wine as an expression of place!