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André Simon Awards: Champagne

Peter Liem’s Champagne was this year’s drinks book winner at the André Simon Awards. Described as a, “work that was clearly the result of a lifetime’s knowledge” by judge Joe Fattorini, it was also praised for its high production values and superb maps.

Joe Fattorini and Peter Liem

On a warm spring day in the city of Reims, I’m in the small private tasting room at the Champagne house of Louis Roederer, a plethora of glasses arrayed in front of me on a large round table. I’m here tasting vins clairs, still wines from the most recent vintage, with the house’s chef de cave (or head winemaker), Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon.

Vins clairs are fully fermented wines that have yet to be blended and bottled for the second fermentation, when Champagne gets its signature sparkle, and these will form the base for Roederer’s vintage Champagnes – in this case, from the 2014 harvest. I’ve been sampling vins clairs annually with Lécaillon for a decade, an exercise that has become one of my favourite events of the year.

At Roederer, tasting these base wines is particularly intriguing because virtually all of these wines come from individual parcels. At this stage, most Champagne houses blend together multiple vins clairs from a given village – a number of Pinot Noirs from Bouzy, for example, could be combined in the same tank, or many different Chardonnays from Avize. Roederer, however, fastidiously isolates individual vineyards within these villages in order to create a more complex and diverse array of wines.

“I have 410 different parcels and 450 different vessels in which to ferment them,” Lécaillon says. This creates a great deal of work in the cellar, as all these wines must be kept in separate tanks or vats until completion. Yet for Lécaillon, it’s vital that each of these parcels is allowed to express its own individual character.

It’s often assumed – and even stated in much of the writing about Champagne – that base wines are essentially neutral, light wines with low alcohol and little fruit flavour. Yet to say so undermines not only the wines themselves but also the way fruit grows in this colder, northern climate.

Here, grapes can readily obtain physiological ripeness while maintaining a low degree of potential alcohol. This means that the wines are anything but neutral.

Tasting through Roederer’s vins clairs shows that fine wine is, first and foremost, an expression of the place where it’s grown. In the village of Aÿ, for instance, with its south-facing slope and proximity to the Marne River, wines are ripe and succulent, yet distinctions are readily apparent between individual parcels. Among the 2014 wines on the table, a Pinot Noir from the vineyard of La Villers in Aÿ is elegant and subtly fragrant, marked by the finesse of chalky soils.

Another wine from the nearby Goutte d’Or – an even sunnier spot – is more voluptuous, with complexity and length on the palate. In contrast to Aÿ, the village of Verzenay, which is on the northern side of the Montagne de Reims, yields cooler-weather wines that are less opulent. A Pinot Noir we taste from the Verzenay vineyard of Les Pisse-Renards is lively and focused, thriving on vibrant tension. But from a vineyard just 1,500 feet (450 meters) away, a wine from Les Basses Coutures is broader and richer, an expression of the heavier clay soils found there.

Even if base wines are capable of expressing their origins, does the wine in the bottle demonstrate terroir? Detractors argue that since Champagne is primarily a blended wine, its terroir plays less of a role in the formation of character. If hundreds of wines from different vineyards are blended together, the argument goes, individual voices are diluted, blurred, or canceled out. According to this line of reasoning, Champagne derives most of its identity from the winemaking process – the second fermentation in bottle and the subsequent ageing for many years on its lees (the spent yeast cells remaining from fermentation) – rather than from where it’s grown.

Along these lines, it’s tempting to think that only single-vineyard wines can reflect terroir. In Burgundy, for example, the expression of a single-vineyard site is the ultimate goal, a winemaker’s highest calling. This is, after all, what drives Burgundy collectors to pay such astronomical prices for wines such as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s La Tâche, which is an identifiably different wine from the domaine’s Richebourg. And while Dujac’s Clos de la Roche and Clos Saint-Denis are grown relatively close to one another, it would seem downright sacrilegious to blend these grand cru Burgundy wines together, as the prized characters of each would be lost.

Champagne, in contrast, functions under a different paradigm. It has always been a blended wine, even before it acquired its sparkle in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. While there are more single-vineyard and single-village champagnes being made today, the vast majority are composed of intricate blends.

This occurs for a number of reasons. From a practical perspective, blending functions as a form of insurance against poor harvests. Champagne is the northernmost winegrowing region in France, with a cool, damp climate that is marginal for viable grape growing. The Champenois also have to contend with perennial threats of hailstorms, spring frosts, and mildew. By sourcing grapes from different places within the region, producers diffuse risk and ensure fruit supply, even in years of inferior harvests.

Yet blending can also be used to make a wine more complex and complete. Here, terroir provides a diverse set of characteristics to base wines, allowing winemakers to use these as a chef might use different ingredients to compose a dish. For this reason, most Champagnes are composed of dozens or, at houses such as Roederer, hundreds of base wines from different villages, different vineyard sites, and even different grape varieties. Terroir is no less important in a blended wine than in a single-vineyard wine. What changes is its role.

Virtually all champagne houses have traditionally separated base wines by village. In Champagne’s Côte des Blancs, a growing area south of the Marne River, the village of Cramant produces wines that are rich in body due to the chalky clay soils there.

Farther south, the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger produces leaner, racier wines, as the relative lack of topsoil there causes the chalky bedrock to be more prominently influential. Winemakers have long valued both of these villages for their contrasting characteristics and use them accordingly when making blends.

Today, though, many of the best producers are seeking even narrower distinctions, making wines from individual parcels to produce even finer distinctions of terroir. Rather than relying solely on Chardonnay from Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, a producer might prefer to have several from specific vineyards within Le Mesnil: Les Chétillons, Les Musettes, Champ d’Alouettes, and so on.

This would not be news in Burgundy, with its long history of identifying and vinifying individual vineyards within a village, but the recognition of these marks a significant shift in Champagne. Furthermore, these practices of classifying base wines not by village but by parcel – or even narrower criteria, such as the individuals who grew the grapes on the vineyard site – is the opposite of diluting terroir. Instead, it proves the value of it.

Reprinted with permission from Champagne by Peter Liem, copyright © 2017. Published by Mitchell Beazley.

All these books have been shortlisted in the drinks category for the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards 2017 Founded in 1978, the André Simon Food & Drink Book Awards are the only awards in the UK to exclusively recognise the achievements of food and drink writers and are the longest continuous running awards of their kind. The first two awards were given to Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume for their outstanding contribution in the fields of food and cooking. Other winners include Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein.

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