Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Earth and wine in Champagne
Champagne is not dead!*
It is fairly telling that a tasting organized by a group of like-minded young Champagne growers and held on a sunny spring day in the town of Aÿ would drape itself in this rebellious slogan:
WINEGROWERS CONTINUE TO REVOLT IN THE NAME OF CHAMPAGNE'S TERROIRS!
One day, eighteen growers, pouring vins clairs and finished wines. Coming from all corners of the region, from Merfy, north-west of Reims, all the way down to Les Riceys, some 200km south, and all the way west to Crouttes-sur-Marne, almost abutting the Paris region: these were the vignerons of Terres et Vins de Champagne. If their vineyards were relatively far-flung, a shared spirit of revolt united them, however.
Revolt. The word is important. It snaps off the tongue; it is a banner and a flag of pride for the group: a front united by friendship. Ask anyone, even wine geeks who like champagne, and you're likely to hear that it is the most "artificial" of wines; that it bespeaks its terroir the least; that it is a marketing entity; that the landscapes of the region are dead.
To a large extent, commercialism and the lucre-seeking tactics of some big négociants have made this true.
But Champagne is budding. This new guard of growers—and what is equally exciting is that I can think of many others who are doing similar things in a similar spirit—believes in place. Believes in both tradition and the earth.
I was struck when Aurélien Laherte told me that his cuvée Les Clos, which is a field blend of all of the 7 authorized grape varieties in Champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, arbanne, petit meslier, pinot blanc and fromenteau) was not a wine that had been calculated with such and such a percentage of each to create a technical marvel. It was done as a "kind of archival act," he said, of conserving roots in the past, keeping alive those little berries that had their use (petit meslier keeping up the acidity in a warm year when the pinot meunier might get too flabby). "Who knows, if we have another vintage like 2003"—the heat-wave year—"we might be saved by petit meslier."
Some of the growers have ungrafted vines, like Chartogne-Taillet's Les Barres and Tarlant's Vigne d'Antan, both distinctive, and deep. Some forgo sulfur, such as Benoît Lahaye in his excellent cuvée Villaine. Many opt for low or no dosage, which ripeness allows for. We are worlds away from technical laboratories and vast quantities of wan juice tricked up with sugar and a little bit of old wine so that they taste the same from year to year.
These growers are aware of the land, the soils, the climate, and what their practices are doing. Pascal Doquet has been converting his vineyards to organic farming over the past decade, and he said with startlement that very quickly, the roots of the vines went from being spread out almost horizontally very shallowly beneath the soil to plunging downward—here, with the gesture of a hand, he showed the roots no longer rebuffed by the tight, unbreathable soil in which everything had been killed by pesticides.
But of course, the cool thing is that this is not just talk. Tasting the vins clairs showed the stuffing of what would be elaborated into finished champagnes. And those champagnes. They are so good. This is why we care.
At the end of the day, all I had in front of me was a comfortable train ride from Epernay back to Paris. How could I not beg a glass of Pascal Doquet Vertus here, or René Geoffroy Pureté or Bérèche Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche there?
I did so. I drank them down, and every drop was real good.
*By the bye, this lovely picture of vines in Vertus was taken by Pascal Doquet.