Champagne Week 2016

Champagne Week, the annual showcase of small but increasingly prestigious ‘growers’, took place last month.

My report is here, first published by JancisRobinson.com.

Regular readers know that we at Scalawine are not keen on the term ‘grower champagne’ or the term ‘grower’ for a certain kind of champagne maker. First, these ‘growers’ do far more than grow grapes – they make and market their own wine. But most of the ‘grower’ champagnes (58%) have their wines made for them by their local coop winery; they do not have their own press or winemaking facility. The other 42% are the true independents and we prefer to call them ‘single estate champagnes’ or champagne ‘domaines’. They are designated ‘RM’ on their labels (standing for Récoltant-Manipulant).  This is in line with the normal world-wide estate, domaine or ‘chateau’ model of what are usually family-owned, self-contained concerns which own their own vineyards and make their wines themselves, only from their own grapes. Burgundy distinguishes between ‘domaines’ and ‘négociants’ and we think Champagne would make itself clearer if it talked about ‘single estates’ or ‘domaines’ in the same way. They are of course, very different entities to the big ‘houses’ which typically do not own much in the way of vineyards and buy in most or all of their grapes.

The original article used the term ‘grower’ throughout, as it is still the commonly used term. The text here is the same in every way, except we swap the terms ‘single estate’ or ‘domaine’ for ‘grower’.

Most photographs are by the brilliant Australian photographer and champagne specialist Victor Pugatschew. There are more photos than the original publication. The photo above is of Anselme Selosse showing his wines at the Trait-d-Union group tasting.

Three to four champagne tastings a day is ferocious but fun. Champagne Week got off to a fine start at a champagne dinner at Anna’s Table in Reims with the Fa-Bulleuses, a group of seven women champagne producers who form one of the younger promotional groups which make up Champagne Week. Once on the tasting floor of each event my tasting group – four men and four women including a Chinese-Canadian, a Scot, a New Yorker and another American who happens to be based in Switzerland – hunts less as a pack than you might think. We stay in a vast and well-appointed AirBnB apartment in central Reims with discussion, champagne, food and writing up notes flowing into the nights. This was my seventh Champagne Week. The first (which I missed) was in 2009.

Champagne’s annual jamboree is a must-go for champagne trade specialists nowadays and not a few wine writers. Most events are in Reims and a quick walk or taxi ride from each other. The polyglot chatter at every tasting is from a big Asian contingent, Americans and every European country, as well as the sharply dressed young French wine professionals who spill from the Paris TGV each morning and fan out across the city. Champagne Week has become a remarkable success.

About a thousand tasters buzzed round Champagne’s honey pot on the four busiest days. This is admittedly a far cry from the 5,000 or so who go to the Bordeaux primeurs, where a new vintage has more immediate relevance (or did!) to buyers than is the case in Champagne where blending is king, vintage champagne represents only three per cent of production and where vintage wines typically see the light of day only after at least four to five years’ ageing. There is absolutely no primeur market for champagne. But there is a growing buzz about single estate champagne, which is what Champagne Week is about. You can taste and discuss vins clairs to assess the new vintage but the attendees are more interested in discovering new producers, new cuvées and networking.  The photo just above shows Géraldine Lacourte and Richard Devignes, proprietors of Champagne Lacourte-Godbillon in Ecueil, at the Les Mains du Terroirs group tasting.

Founding grouplet Terres et Vins de Champagne, alone in Aÿ in 2009 but still the senior grandee of the week, has gradually swelled to 23 producers with illustrious names on show such as Champagnes Tarlant, Agrapart, Bérêche and Chartogne-Taillet. Champagne Suenen (Cramant) was a new member this year. It holds its event for a full day in the banqueting salon of the Palais du Tau, Champagne’s most sumptuous address next to Reims cathedral where kings dined after their coronation. They sensibly limited numbers to 500 this year after the sunshine and a crowd of nearly 800 in 2015 made tasting harder than it should be and the wines too warm in the crush.

The wines on show are in promotional groupings of the truly independent small domaines, the RM (récoltants-manipulants) or independent family champagnes who make champagne only with their own grapes. In contrast, the big-name houses (the NM or négociant-manipulants) buy in most of their grapes to meet their need for high volumes and because few of them have substantial vineyard holdings of their own.

This year 21 different RM groups showed their vins clairs and finished champagnes, six more than in 2015. If you were a giant octopus whose tentacles could span Reims’ simultaneous tastings, you could taste three vins clairs and three or four finished champagnes from 300 different small producers, 16% of Champagne’s 1,900 récoltants-manipulants. Some attempt at avoiding clashes between the competing groups has been introduced. The week was even given a new highfalutin title, Le Printemps des Champagnes, this year with a website listing the main events. It could become hugely bigger in future. Some want it to stay cultish, but as trade shows go, Champagne Week is small beer compared with, say, the Milan furniture fair, which took place in the same week with 2,500 exhibitors and 250,000 visitors from 150 countries. Champagne Week 2025?  The photo above shows Cyril Janisson of Champagne Janisson-Baradon (Épernay) at the Les Mains du Terroir event.

The only big ‘grande marque’ champagne houses whose wines were on show were the elite boutique house Champagne Jacquesson, the Wine Society supplier Champagne Alfred Gratien, and three micro-houses: Champagnes La Veuve Fourny of the Passion Chardonnay group, Nicolas Maillart from Les Artisans de Champagne (some of whose members’ bottles are shown above), and Champagne Leclerc-Briant of Bulles Bio. But the big houses issue invitations to a selected few, and why not when a good chunk of the world’s champagnerati are in town? And then there are the ‘Offs’, the pop-up events on no official agenda. There is mild chaos, there is no ‘right itinerary’; it’s a bit snakes and ladders. You can seek new finds to import, glean material for blogs and wine publications, expand your mind or even meet your idols who make champagne, network and suck up the heady buzz.

Champagne’s small estates right now may be the only group of wine producers worldwide to have an audience that is young, cool and chic. It ticks boxes by being a little samizdat, not cheap or ‘good value’ but they project an image of being authentic, family-owned and artisan, as well as de luxe. Some of the big-house marketeers must be wondering how to react to the trend that is veering away from bling, from ‘celebration’ to ‘real’. Of course, grandes marques champagnes still dominate the market but this year single estate champagnes accounted for 5% of US champagne imports. These ‘domaine’ champagnes are strong in Japan, Italy, Germany and Benelux too. Only the UK seems to lag behind, its champagne market dominated by big brands and supermarket private labels. The UK may be top importer of champagne by a country mile for volume but this year it was overtaken for value by the US. The photo above shows champagnes of the Les Artisans du Champagne group.

Eight years ago Champagne Week’s pioneers were making two promotional points, firstly that a nucleus of high-quality, small-scale champagne producers had broken through with export sales and kudos in international markets. Under the radar they were, but an elite group of about 30 now export more than 70% of their production and achieve prices in line with, and more than many of, the big-brand champagnes. The four leading groupings (Terres et Vins de Champagnes, Les Artisans du Champagne, Les Mains du Terroir and Trait-d-Union) use Champagne Week quite rightly as an opportunity to blow the trumpet of success, thanking their international fans with part-party, part-tasting.

The second impetus for Champagne Week was to cock a slight snook at established Champagne. It did not spring out of the CIVC, the unifying guardian of the Champagne appellation. The message is that champagne and Champagne is about terroir as much as vast blends. Many of the producers from the core groups are organic, biodynamic or quasi-versions of both. Riper fruit, lower yields and working the soil rather than using chemicals is sine qua non for Champagne Week. The photo here shows the crowd at the Bulles Bio event.

Some commentators even talk about ‘terroir champagnes’ or ‘terroir-driven’ wines and for some the classical idea of terroir – that certain locales or vineyards make wines that taste unique – has slipped into a broader usage, whereby intention and methods alone guarantee ‘terroir’. If you do sustainable viticulture, hey presto you make ‘terroir champagne’. It implies all sites are great if you treat them right, a notion I find hard to accept. Some seem to imply a wine might earn the ‘terroir’ mantle before any one has even opened the bottle and tasted it. But what is clear is that Champagne, with climate change, has no choice but to reform its viticulture and many small récoltants-manipulants, as well as big house Louis Roederer, are in the lead on that.

The CIVC’s promotion of sustainable viticulture and the moves towards quasi-organic HVE (Haute Valeur Environnementale) viticulture reflects an increasing concern that a warmer Champagne makes berry sugars peak faster than flavour, and roots need to go deeper into the chalk water table to reduce stress and allow physiological ripening to catch up with sugar accumulation. Houses are following single estates into HVE. With early adopter Eric Rodez of Ambonnay were Champagnes Bollinger and AR Lenoble. The photo shows wines of Champagne Vazart-Coquart at the Les Mains du Terroir tasting.

One group’s session was an outstanding success. Although not new (this was their seventh

annual tasting) the Bulles Bio group of organic and some biodynamic producers for once held their annual event during Champagne Week. Seemingly from nowhere, with half a dozen of its members also showing in other groups, a good 600 registered visitors turned up at the Reims venue as well as many more unexpected tasters. If you have already broken though to some international recognition and sales, at least with connoisseurs, and if you have green credentials, Champagne Week seems to smile on you. For now, however, tastings organised by several smaller groups of producers seeking their first foreign buyers seemed rather forlorn and ill-attended. One big group, 42 producers of the Vignerons Independents organisation, Les Pépites des Indépendants, took a large space in the vast Centre des Congrès in Reims, yet although 138 tasters registered to attend, only 70 actually turned up for the all-day event. A more spread-out programme would surely help. The photo above shows Eric Rodez at the Les Mains du Terroir day, with his wines from Ambonnay.

Some trends beyond the siren calls of ‘green’ and ‘terroir’ were clear. Virtually all the champagnes I tasted during the week had a dosage no higher than 5 g/l. The proportion of extra brut and zero dosage champagnes is rising, along with the styling of designer labels in stark black and white and the continued return to at least partial oak fermentation. When the ringing dryness is matched with intense ripe flavours, complex reserve wines, some partial malolactic, skilled oak complexity and solid time on the second lees, these champagnes can be vinous wonders. But they can be hit and miss if they miss some depth.

The phrase ‘burgundy with bubbles’ seems popular but I worry if the mousse is sometimestoo aggressive and slightly explosive through too short a cellaring, or the fruit too obviously simple. A texture of finesse is surely critical for champagne along with winemaking and maturation that transcends fizzy fruit. All-Meunier champagnes are hot right now but when a brut nature style (0-3 g/l dosage) is applied to them, there can be little other than rather simple Meunier fruit and gripping acidity with not much in the middle. But boring the array of champagnes was not. And anyway, a golden seam could be mined at every group’s event: the clear quality of many vintage 2008s, with a fine balance and power in check for the future. This is clearly the best champagne year since 2002. The photo above shows Gerhild Burkard, a recent German Champagne Ambassador, discussing the wines of Champagne Alfred Gratien at the Les Artisans du Champagne event.

As so often, my highlights came via special invitations, when something special happens. The food at L’Assiette Champenoise (Champagne’s only three-star restaurant) was artfully matched with the wines of the Champagne Terroirs etC group. The Club Trésors (Special Club) group’s ‘off’ showed some impressively lively wines of the 1980s, and an inspired open-door invitation to boutique house Champagne AR Lenoble served, among other gems and vins clairs, a wonderful 1996 and a stupendous 1959 (see below). One group, Grands Champagnes, intriguingly made up of leading domaine Pierre Gimonnet, the very good co-op Mailly Grand Cru and the established grande marque house Charles Heidsieck, presented workshops one morning of new and older vintage cuvées. It was a brilliant educational initiative that other Champagne Week groups could do well to emulate. Lunch with Michel Drappier down in the Aube, along with Charles Curtis MW, with whom I often share the Champagne trail, provided me with a chance to try the very good Champagne Drappier Grande Sendrée 2008 just released (again, see below). But a thrilling highlight was a trip to Champagne Krug with some music. Feel the vibe indeed.

MY TOP 30 DOMAINES

Interestingly, of these, Diebolt-Vallois, André Jacquart, Pierre Moncuit, Ulysse Collin and Jacques Lassaigne do not belong, for now, to any Champagne Week group. Knocking on the door are a further 50 to 75 top estates and maybe 100-odd more who deserve attention and are improving fast.

Agrapart

André Jacquart

Benoit Lahaye

Bérêche

Chartogne-Taillet

Dehours et Fils

Francis Boulard

De Sousa

Diebolt-Vallois

Domaine La Closerie

Doyard

Egly-Ouriet

Eric Rodez

Franck Pascal

Marc Hebrart

Laherte Frères

Lancelot Pienne

Jacques Lassaigne

Janisson-Baradon

Larmandier-Bernier

Nicolas Maillart

Olivier Horiot

Pierre Gimonnet

Pierre Moncuit

Pierre Péters

Pierre Paillard

Selosse

Tarlant

Ulysse Collin

Vilmart

MY RISING STARS 2016

Jean Velut, Montgueux

Florence Duchêne, Cumières

Ruppert Leroy, Essoyes (Aube)

Robert Moncuit, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger

Dosnon, Avirey-Lingey (Aube)

MY TOP SIX WINES OF THE WEEK

No apologies that all bar one of these came my way outside the scheduled group events. That’s why Champagne Week can be so surprisingly surprising.

Krug 2002 Tasted after the 2003 and two Grande Cuvées (ID 314057 and ID 108001 on the Krug app if you want to know more), this wine moved Champagne Week onto a different plane. After we had tasted and made a first note it was repoured and the music track Bon Iver, ‘Perth (mi ka remix) Feel the Vibe’ was played. My note hardly changed. Inevitably I compared this wine with the many 2002 champagnes I have tasted before, from about 2006 onwards. It was so youthful, so cut-glass and lapidary, it reminded me of the 2002s released as early as 10 years ago. This is younger in terms of development than most post-2002 vintage champagnes so far released. Shimmery gold with emerald lights, this is tremendously pointed and detailed with a low hum of gentle weight and persistence. Savoury, austere, glacial but beguilingly delicate in texture and the sun is there in a blue sky. Whispery notes of charcoal tinder and greengage. This has a very long life I would say, but it will be great to taste its changes all the way through. Very contrasted to the bigger scale of 2003 and quite different from Grande Cuvée’s more burnished style.

AR Lenoble 1959 Served to my group by external relations dynamo Christian Holthausen at this Damery house, with owners Anne and Antoine Malassagne hosting us.

Drappier, Grande Sendrée 2008 Stately and honeyed, all rather young and athletic still, but a rich yet taut version of this vintage with surely a long future. Drappier’s prestige cuvée.

André Jacquart, Brut Expérience Rosé de Saignée NV Smoky and complex, but so winningly fresh. A maceration of 24 hours in the press, 80% Pinot Noir from Vertus, 20% Chardonnay from Le Mesnil, all made in used oak. New release.

Domaine Jacques Selosse, Les Carelles A solera lieu-dit blend of Chardonnay from Le Mesnil. Peel, pith and honeyed, gentle texture. Quite masterly and not at all oxidised.

Champagne Duménil 1982 (magnum) Sometimes you think it must be a lucky bottle, sometimes you know a producer so well you feel this would be good all along. I’m not sure. I do not know this producer too well. Disgorged December 2002. Matchstick, cream and lemon and gently fizzy. So young and so alive.

THE CHAMPAGNE WEEK GROUPS – In order of events – quite a few simultaneous

Les Fa’bulleuses

Origines Champagnes

Le Cercle des Createurs de Champagne Confidentiels

Meunier Institute

Les Mains du Terroir De Champagne

Bulles Bio

Champagne Terroirs etC

Grands Champagnes

Trait-d-Union

Terres et Vins de Champagne

Des Pieds et Des Vins

Generation Champagne

Verzenay Grand Cru de Champagne

Les Artisans de Champagne

Passion Chardonnay

Académie du Vin de Bouzy

Le Club Trésors de Champagne (Special Club)

Les Pépites des Indépendants

Grands Crus d’Exception de Champagne

Champagne For You (Vignerons de la Vallée de la Marne)

Les Contrées Ricetonnees (Les Riceys – Aube)

The photo below shows the April fields of rapeseed blooming by a peaceful cemetery  in La Côte des Bar (Aube)

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