Spirit Guide: Champagne
Pop Star—Does Champagne need an overhaul?
It’s confession time: while I love drinking it, I never really got champagne. I don’t mean I don’t understand why it’s become the official drink of celebration—that’s a simple and understandable case study in expert marketing. No, what I don’t understand is the near-unqualified love my fellow wine geeks have for the bubbles, who revere the stuff with nary a reservation.
The irony is that if any other wine region in the world tried to get away with what are common practices in this rarefied corner of northeast France, there’d be a vino revolution. Take for example the practice of dosage, the not-spoken-about-in-Vanity-Fair-ads practice of adding reserve wine and extra sugar directly into the champagne bottle after some aging has taken place. Imagine if our Aussie friends added some sugar into their bottled shiraz to sweeten things up a bit—universal outrage. Imagine if those same dudes also eschewed both putting vintages on their wine and sourcing grapes from a swack of different vineyards from all over the region. To not drool over terroir or vintage is a hanging offence with the oenophile crowd, and to not embrace either is to essentially be a whisky maker. And I haven’t even started in on Champagne being the only place in the wine world where it’s copacetic to make rosé by adding red wine to white. All of this might even be forgivable if the stuff didn’t start at $50 a pop and go up from there in a hurry.
I take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone with my boorish tendencies. The most exciting thing coming out of Champagne in the past decade is the rise of two often-interrelated trends that seek to address Champagne’s anomalous approach to wine making. The first is the rise of grower champagnes, wines that are produced by the same person who owns and farms the land, and presumably is in a much better place than a big champagne house to bring a sense of terroir (and often vintage) in the region. The best way to explain grower champagnes is that they’re made the way everyone else in the world does it. They grow or source their grapes from identifiable plots of land grown in a given year and they bottle it with such information discernible on the label. Not exactly Che Guevara-type stuff, but their arrival in Champagne is big news. The second trend is to skip the dosage altogether. In some ways it’s even more radical, because it dramatically changes the flavour profile that consumers expect in even dry champagnes.
Notwithstanding all the hype behind these trends, finding them here can be a bit of a trick. A readily available good example is the excellent house 1. Larmandier-Bernier, whose terrific Rosé de Saignée ($100) is made in the proper way (skin contact gives it its colour), is grower- owned and has a very low dosage. The result is an excellent food wine, tight with some nice fresh flower notes. For a true brut zero or no-dosage wine there’s 2. Varnier-Fanniere Brut Zero Grand Cru ($65), a Sahara-dry all-chardonnay offering that’s zingy and appley fresh—more like a wine really. Both are exciting, interesting wines. Are they better than Dom? They’re interesting and occasionally stunning, but don’t go selling your LVMH shares just yet.