"EXPAND YOUR HORIZONS" - Peter Liem on the Diversity in Styles & Terroirs of Champagne

www.finewinemag.com January 2011

We all have our comfort zones, and it's not always easy to deal with wines that fall outside of our boundaries. Champagne seems particularly susceptible to this: Sometimes people have a fixed idea of what Champagne ought to taste like, and wines that don't correspond to this image tend to get overlooked.

Part of this could be because Champagne has historically been sold by brand, and as with other brand-oriented products, consumers are often loyal to specific labels. It's not uncommon for wine drinkers who are otherwise adventurous in their exploration of the wine world to restrict themselves to a relatively narrow range of Champagnes.

It could also be linked to the way that we consume Champagne. Despite an increasing awareness of Champagne's virtues as a real wine, it's still generally drunk as an aperitif or as a social and celebratory beverage, where less thought goes into its appreciation.

Yet Champagne today is more diverse in style than ever before, and that makes for a potentially rich and varied drinking experience. To be sure, in the past there were always differences in style between the wines of various houses: the richness of Krug and Bollinger contrasts the delicacy of Perrier-Jouët or Delamotte, for example. But today, in addition to the classic houses continuing to produce outstanding Champagnes, there are a greater number of small producers making Champagnes that diverge more and more from the traditional models, challenging our conceptions of what Champagne can be.

Some of this involves decisions in the cellar, such as fermentation in barrel, longer aging on the fermentation lees, or a lowered (or nonexistent) presence of dosage after disgorgement. Yet most of the changes in Champagne can ultimately be traced to the work in the vineyards, as a new generation of growers is placing an increased emphasis on a more conscientious and exacting viticulture. This can result in Champagnes of surprising vinosity and mineral intensity: Cédric Bouchard's Les Ursules, for instance, has a resonant, Burgundian expressiveness that feels entirely original, unlike any other wine in the region. Franck Pascal's Tolérance Rosé boasts a sleekly concentrated fuselage of ripe fruit flavors, marked by the vivid, energetic tension that often characterizes biodynamic wines of any kind. Bérèche's Vallée de la Marne Rive Gauche, made entirely from pinot meunier vines planted in 1969, combines the rich fruitiness of this historically marginalized variety with the soft, earthy soil notes typical of this sector of the Marne.

Terroir, in fact, has played an increasingly more prominent role in newer styles of Champagne. With a greater focus on viticulture comes a concomitant interest in the expression of micro-terroir, whether it be individual sub-regions, villages or even single parcels, and tasting Champagnes from different terroirs can demonstrate how conventional perceptions about Champagne's grape varieties can be challenged.
The commonly perceived stereotype of blanc de blancs Champagne, for example, essentially fits the description of a Chardonnay from a Côte des Blancs village such as Le Mesnil-sur-Oger: we think of it as a linear, knife-like wine driven by its racy acidity and intense chalkiness.

Yet there are excellent Champagnes made from Chardonnay that don't correspond to that description at all. Gaston Chiquet's Blanc de Blancs d'Aÿ is a broad-shouldered, mouthfilling Champagne that reflects its terroir much more than it does its grape variety: in this case, the calcareous clay of Aÿ imparts body, along with a mineral signature that's darker and stonier than the crisp, hard chalkiness of the Côte des Blancs. In the very north of the Champagne appellation, Chartogne-Taillet makes a blanc de blancs from a vineyard called Les Heurtebises, in the village of Merfy, which lies on a limestone bedrock under a deep layer of sandy clay. This results in flavors that veer towards quince and stone fruits rather than citrus, with a distinctive minerality not unlike that of an Alsace Riesling grown on sandstone.

At the opposite end of Champagne, in the Aube district, Vouette et Sorbée's Blanc d'Argile is richly plush and tropical in flavor, anchored by a Chablis-like flintiness derived from Kimmeridgian marl. All of these are superbly expressive Champagnes that are well worth seeking out, but they might be a little surprising, even confusing, when you taste them for the first time, as they don't necessarily correspond to one's preconceptions of what Chardonnay-based Champagne tastes like.

You might like some of these wines or you might prefer more classical ones, and either way, that's not really the point. The fact that these Champagnes exist-that the Champenois are exploring their identities, asking new questions, pushing their boundaries-is a significant development in the region, and it ultimately makes Champagne a more complex and more sophisticated appellation. As wine consumers, we can only benefit from this.