It comes as a surprise to most people to learn that Champagne even has different terroirs, yet Champagne is a region with five main vineyard areas – the Vallée de la Marne, the Montagne de Reims, the Côtes des Blancs, the Côte de Sézanne and the Aube – and seventeen Grand Cru villages.
The big, brand-name firms (which account for over 70 per cent of Champagne sales) are concentrated in the Vallée de la Marne, Montagne de Reims and Côtes de Blancs zones, in the north of the region around Reims and Epernay.
Few of these illustrious houses, like Moët & Chandon and Krug, own more than 30 per cent of the vineyards from where their grapes are sourced. Some possess no vineyards at all and make no apology for this deficiency. They argue that they are free to buy the best grapes (or ready-made wine) every year on the open market. Not holding land doesn’t preclude the production of quality Champagne claim these négotiants-manipulants (merchant-producers) correctly; it does preclude the production of wine expressive of terroir, though.
The big names promote their wines as coming from “Maisons” where master-blenders craft crisp bubbles from red and white grapes like icicles from rainbows. This is not simply a marketing gambit. Artistry is indisputably happening when Monsieur Krug blends up to 50 wines from 10 vintages to make his Grand Cuvée, though I can think of no other wine region where the art of blending has become more exalted than the actual terroir.
The elevation of the art of blending Champagne is a case of making a virtue out of a necessity. The region is sufficiently far north that growing grapes is a capricious activity; blending stocks of wine from different harvests and terroirs is one way to counter the vagaries of vintages.
However, making a house-blend with a safe, consistent style, absorbing differences in vintage, grape and terroir to perpetuate a brand is not the same – and certainly not as risky – as making a wine that’s expressive of terroir. To find such a wine, you have to seek out Champagne from independent récoltants-manipulants (grower-producers). Happily, there are about 2,000 of them, identifiable by the letters RM on labels. Some of the most interesting produce Champagne from the Côtes des Bar vineyards, 100 km south of Epernay, in the heretofore unfashionable and derided Aube.
Smaller, independent producers blend wines to make Champagne, too, but they do so from fruit grown in their own vineyards, not from grapes or wines sourced from any of the many thousands of growers across the region, and not based on in-house recipes.
The distinctions of terroir, grape variety and vintage make these wines more idiosyncratic than those from the big houses, and they do express the growers’ own villages. As one grower-producer puts it, “Champagne used to be singular, now it’s plural, with many winemakers, villages and styles.”
Sensitive to this appetite for individuality, originality and specificity, some big houses also produce single-vineyard Champagnes with an emphasis on provenance rather than blending. Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon and Bollinger’s Vieilles Vignes Françaises are supreme examples. But these cuvées are typically the houses’ most prestigious and expensive wines.
The good news this Yuletide is that you don’t need to spend a fortune to pop open a grower-producer’s Champagne with a taste of terroir that’s off the beaten track and blend. You may be surprised how well it accompanies Christmas dinner, too.