Friday, February 11, 2011

Hung up on Classification, Champagne Style

I think that the lines that distinguish grower Champagne from big house Champagne are too rigidly drawn. If a producer farms their own grapes and makes wine from those grapes, we say that they are making grower Champagne. If a producer like Francis Boulard, for example, buys just over 5% of the grapes he uses to make his wines, do we still say that he makes grower Champagne? Most of us would say yes, and that's probably because his practices in the vineyard and in the cellar reflect the values that are encapsulated within the grower Champagne ethos. We're willing to give a little, in other words, when categorizing producers and their wines.

Entry hall at Champagne Louis Roederer.

Unless those producers are operating on a large scale. Consider Louis Roederer, for example. Roederer is a huge estate that owns vineyards all over Champagne, over 200 hectares in total. Roederer's range includes a non-vintage Brut, three vintage wines including a Blanc de Blancs, a blended Brut, and a rosé, and then Cristal and Cristal Rosé. All of these wines are made exclusively from Roederer's own grapes, except for the non-vintage Brut. That's right - Cristal is a grower Champagne. And if you're ready to dispute this, thinking that the farming is Monsanto-style industrial, think again. Listen to what Peter Liem has to say in his overview of the house on ChampagneGuide.net:
...Roederer has completely stopped using systemic herbicides and is increasingly investigating more environmentally-friendly methods of viticulture, even attempting trials at biodynamics beginning in 2007 (following a seven-year period of “cleaning” the relevant parcels), which has since been expanded to five hectares in all. Another 25 hectares are planted with cover crops, tilled and worked organically, and the house is seeking to gradually expand these practices in the future.
The grapes are estate grown, viticulture and cellar work is conscientious and modern, and yet I do not think that anyone who pays attention to these things would classify Cristal, or any of Roederer's wines as grower Champagnes. Unless I am misunderstanding the definition of grower Champagne, Roederer's wines are grower wines, except for the NV Brut.

The point of this, actually, is not to convince you that Roederer makes grower Champagne. The point is that our thinking about grower Champagne might be a bit too rigid, having been shaped by marketing forces that although more romantic and not as well funded, are still marketing forces, in the end.

Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon pouring 2002 Cristal.

What would you rather drink - Cédric Bouchard's Roses de Jeanne or Roederer's Cristal? Until recently I would have immediately chosen Bouchard's wine, and although I'm not sure right now which I consider to be the finer wine, in the past I would have always chosen Bouchard based on my ideas about the stylistic differences between the two houses. But you know what - Bouchard sells a wine that he didn't farm or make, wine that was made by an old friend of the family, a wine called Inflorescence La Parcelle. If you bought that wine before the 2007 vintage, you are buying wine that Cédric Bouchard selected, not farmed or made.

And there's nothing wrong with that! I love Inflorescence, and the fact that Cédric Bouchard didn't farm the grapes or make the wine himself doesn't make it a lesser wine. The fact that Roederer is huge and a luxury brand doesn't make Cristal a lesser wine. Rappers and bling aside, Cristal is among the greatest wines of Champagne, and if you reject it based on dogma about grower versus big house Champagne, you are shooting yourself in the foot.

2002 and 2004 Cristal, and pretty tasty too.

And here's another thing - I don't see how any Champagne can be considered to be "natural wine." Almost without exception, commercial yeasts are added to the bottle in order to initiate secondary fermentation, and that goes against the "natural wine" formula. So Bouchard, Selosse, Lassaigne, and all of the rest of them, everyone is equal when it comes to not conforming to "natural wine" standards.

Ever find yourself not buying Pierre Peters Champagne because it is too popular, a Terry Theise big house within the world of grower Champagne? Ever find yourself turning up your nose at a glass of Roederer NV Brut in favor of another, perhaps lesser wine because Roederer is a big house? Every find yourself secretly thinking that some or other grower Champagne really doesn't taste so great, or secretly enjoying a glass of big house wine? I have, and it's all pretty silly. Pierre Peters makes utterly fantastic Champagne, truly fine wines, and so does Roederer. The Roederer NV Brut will surprise you if you drink it with an open mind. Actually, I have no idea what you'll think of it. But neither do you, unless you get rid of the presumptions that we both have about big houses and grower wines. These presumptions grew out of noble ideas, but we might not need them anymore, as we become more sophisticated drinkers who can think for ourselves.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Brook,

I think it is worth mentioning that storage conditions, in my experience, is better for grower champagnes in term of travel to the US and warehousing, tends to be better with small grower champagnes. This has to do with the philosophies often found behind the decision makers of people who support growers and how they value the product. The larger houses seem to suffer from more neglect in this regard, in my own limited esimation.

As storage can have such an effect on the final taste of a champagne in one's glass, I actually prefer to, in general, purchase grower wines.

I do like Cristal 2002 Rose a great deal. I think good bottles showcase a superbly amazing wine. But not all of the bottles I have had have been pristine.

Levi D

Sharon said...

And here's another thing - I don't see how any Champagne can be considered to be "natural wine." Almost without exception, commercial yeasts are added to the bottle in order to initiate secondary fermentation, and that goes against the "natural wine" formula. So Bouchard, Selosse, Lassaigne, and all of the rest of them, everyone is equal when it comes to not conforming to "natural wine" standards.

Not quite. Vignerons like Francis (not Frances) Boulard, Anselme Selosse, etc., use indigenous yeasts for the secondary fermentation.

I quote Anselme from my visit to him two years ago:

"Pour la deuxième fermentation alcoolique on utilise des levures indigènes."

In the fall, during the first fermentation, he keeps some of the fermenting wine (or pre-wine, bernache if you like) and freezes it.

When it's time for the secondary fermentation, he slowly unfreezes this and uses it to start the secondary fermentation.

Francis Boulard writes about this on his blog, as well.

You post is a bit of a backlash, Brooklynguy. No one is that rabid about grower champagne, f'real.

Timothy said...

Really am loving all the Champagne posts. Making me want to set up a little experimental blind tasting of my own. I think it's very important to keep reminding people of the foundation of their biases and that while large scale agriculture certain CAN be bad, it doesn't HAVE to be bad.

Brooklynguy said...

Thanks for these comments. I didn't know that about Selosse or Boulard. Sharon. Thanks for pointing it out. Although I do see a degree of grower rabidness in NYC, my post isn't meant to be a backlash against grower wine. If it's a backlash, it's against myself and others who have been content to dismiss big house wines because they don't fit the grower paradigm, when the wines can be great and the house might actually not be so different in farming and winemaking from grower houses.

Sharon said...

Some people may go overboard about grower cred, but unfortunately, it's based on a bunch of reality, as well. I applaud your openness to quality from any source, but the overwhelming reality is that big houses are far less attentive to some of the characteristics prized by growers—first and foremost vintage/parcel variation....

Yes, it sounds like 12 year old me saying R.E.M. had sold out with "Document" to say that Pierre Peters is too big a grower. On the other hand, I think size has reduced quality for a very respectable concern like Pierre Gimonnet.

It's all about nuance.

It was highly instructive to go with a couple of non-specialist friends to two tastings at Caves Augé in December: first, big-house champagne; second, grower champagne. The differences—and the reactions of my friends—were striking.

And I think another huge part of the problem is price. (Though perhaps not as much in the US, where all champagne prices are high.)

I am surprised by your enthusiasm for 02 and 04 Cristal. But that has always been a wine I don't "get."

Joe said...

I think part of the problem is that "grower" doesn't really mean anything. Is it truly a "category"?

But it doesn't take much time in the vineyards of even famous places in Champagne to give you the willies about the state of agriculture, whether the (huge yield of) grapes from the grim industrial plots find their way into a small or a large label.

And the people who turn out a million cases a year of DP cannot in any way be doing the same work as someone like Ledru. Not to say that wines like DP are not totally heroic examples of completely brilliant industrial winemaking, but it is not the same. Scale matters. It's no guarantee, but it does make things different.

And as Levi mentions, as a practical matter for consumers in the US, the importers and wholesalers who are set up to get that bottle of DP into the liquor store in Lubbock are not always taking the same care of the wine as the folks who get Ledru or Peters into CSW.

SFJ

Mark Ryan said...

I used to be blindly pro-grower Champagne until I visited the region during the 2007 harvest. We visited 3 of the most esteemed growers who regretted the black rot on the Pinot Meunier grapes yet they threw EVERYTHING in the press! These were Gran Cru vineyards and they weren't about to waste anything. Now, I never buy Champagne without tasting first. It's a minefield - not all growers are great at what they do (and conversely, with Roederer, some are superb at what they do).

jqmunro said...

BG,

Always very interesting reads. The amusing part of the pro-grow argument is that the finest examples ever made of champagne come from the big houses. 1996 Winston Churchill, 1996 Krug Clos du Mesnil, 1996 Dom Perignon, 1988 Krug, 1988 Salon. These are some mind blowing wines, abosolute absurdity, the equal of which I haven't found amongst the growers. I do admit there are some very nice wines made by the so called grower, but they are just that.... very good.

JQM

The Wine Mule said...

Ahem, yes, there is the small issue of cost. I haven't tasted 2002 Cristal and don't really expect to, for that reason.

As for the larger question of NM vs. RM, quality is quality. According to Andrew Jefford, Roederer is the only large-volume house that actually inspects all its purchased fruit. Never mind the practice of certain large houses buying wine sur latte and au clair.

And just for a bit of perspective, RM Champagne is still a very, very small fraction of the market, and based on that alone I don't think "Cristal" or any other big house requires defending...

Brooklynguy said...

I don't know if I did a poor job of writing this post, but I'm not meaning to further a RM vs. NM argument, or to say that I prefer one type of wine, or to insult growers or defend big houses.

Really - all I meant to say is that I, and I bet lots of people, would dismiss Roederer's wines, and perhaps other big house wines, simply because they are classified as big house. And some of them, in fact are farmed the same way as grower wines, and some of them are great wines. We should try them and think for ourselves.

There are conscientious growers and bad ones. Same for big houses. In the absence of these categories, drinking without that kind of stimulus, for some of us grower wine lovers, it might be surprising how good some of the big house wines are.

Clotpoll said...

Once again, I feel like a real dinosaur. I can remember in the late '80s/early '90s trying to sell Lassalle, Guy Larmandier, Cattier, etc...and just getting cow-faced looks of incredulity from store and restaurant buyers alike. Going into an explanation of Premiers/Grands Crus, different terroirs and winemaking regimens was guaranteed to be met with yawns and shoulder shrugs after about 20 seconds. The market at that time was all about Dom, Cristal and Krug; all the rest be damned.

Now, I can walk into good stores in NJ, and even the clerks suddenly know all the differences between Cramant, Le Mesnil, Ambonnay and Bouzy.

I guess it's just the wine world's version of narrowcasting.

Aaron said...

Hope I'm not too late to the sock-hop to make some kind of meaningful contribution, but before this topic has been examined more than six ways from Sunday I'd like to offer an anecdotal observation. At the wine shop where I work we were tasting through the wines of Joseph Perrier, who as I understand it farm approximately 30% of the fruit they need for their current level of production. The owner of the house was describing his wines, all of which happened to be (to my palate) remarkably average, especially given the prices asked. Their tete de cuvee is called Josephine, and when I asked him whether they had made the wine in 2000, he gave me a scathing, incredulous look as if to say, "what kind of idiot would make a prestige wine out of that mediocre year?" In my experience tasting Champagnes from smaller growers and even some conscientious big houses (many of whom had produced lovely, cerebral 2000's), I'd never heard someone write off an entire year with such contempt.

In that exchange I saw what carves a philosophical divide between winemakers, whether they happen to own their own vineyards or not. This man saw the 2000 vintage as nothing more than a disappointment, an economic limitation, at best a write-off. More thoughtful producers, even if they weren't overawed by a vintage, tended to at least shrug and point out the unsung virtues of a tough year, maybe even the charms to be found therein. It's distinctions in disposition like this one that, I would argue, are more meaningful than whether one owns the deed to the land where the fruit comes from - although respect for the vagaries of nature does seem to occur more frequently among 'RM's than in the case of producers who are not tied to a particular place as the source of their livelihood.

Just my 2+ cents' worth.

Clotpoll said...

I think there's something to be said here for the American habit of taking any subject and wringing the life out of it through analysis. Perhaps this is our way of making the world smaller, more knowable and less frightening.

Anonymous said...

@Clotpoll --

Yes, that's it. Americans *think* too much, and this enables them to understand the world around them and live without fear... Brilliant!

-- John

Henry Jeffreys said...

This is a really thoughtful article. Thank you.

Alex Halberstadt said...

A terrific series of articles, Neil. Sounds like a great trip.

Recently I finished an entertaining book about Bollinger written by the British author Cyril Ray in the early 80s. In it, he describes grower champagnes essentially as bottles that farmers sold by the side of the road outside Reims at prices that were a fraction of what the houses charged. His take on their quality is fairly dismissive. It's interesting that here in the US, about 25 years later, many serious wine drinkers have come to an inverse prejudice. (To seriously dispute that this prejudice exists is silly—try finding a bottle of Roederer or Bollinger at a good restaurant in lower Manhattan.) The quality and market share of the growers has skyrocketed in the last few decades, thanks in part to the growing interest in natural and sustainable wines and the work of some passionate importers and sommeliers. Yet I'm always stumped about why, in these discussions, we tend to denigrate one at the expense of the other. The two camps do have tangible stylistic differences, but the best among both growers and houses make thrilling, unique wines. We are incredibly lucky to have access to so many of them.

tista said...

Well, I too am very late into the game, but I would like to clarify the initial illustration on commercial vs natural yeasts.

90% of the yeasts used in Champagne are natural and endemic to the region; Whether they are "farmed" and distributed commercially or let to spontaneously attack the grape must for the first fermentation. The principal yeast strands distributed in Champagne were identified in the region.

Whether a champagne producer buys yeasts from a local lab or selects a "natural" yeast and freezes it at home, the yeast is not more or less natural; the fact is that in both cases the wine is farmed and inocculated to provoke the second fermentation.

I agree to a degree that there is a difference between the commercially-farmed yeast and the "homemade" yeast, but the process is sensibly the same and there is no additional product in either; both inocculate and both add sugar!

There is a larger difference between inocculating with a homemade yeast and producing a "pétillant naturel" from a spontaneous first fermentation, which is sometimes made in the Loire.

Anonymous said...

A few observations:
You're absolutely correct that Roederer is pretty darn good. But they're among the very best of the negociants, growing a very high percentage of their own grapes and focusing on quality. But what about Veuve, made in the millions of cases? Certainly not the same quality, focus, artisanality.

And regarding Cristal, my question is where's it from? Is Grand Cru on the label? If it's not from Grand Cru grapes, why not, given that price? What sort of terroir does it represent? Nothing more specific than generic 'Champagne'? These questions become more and more important as the appellation is allowed to grow and grow, incorporating ever more flat, mediocre vineyard land in the name of increased production.
My only 2 or 3 experiences with Cristal were completely underwhelming especially given the crazy price.

To the poster above who said all the great Champagnes come from the big houses, clearly you've not had much Chetillons from Peters.