Your Champagne Questions Answered

Be it art, music, sport or, in this case, Champagne, a better understanding of a particular passion in life generally increases the pleasure and enjoyment you get from it. We posed your questions to our resident expert, Peter Crawford. Here's a selection of the best...

 "Upon opening what are the immediate indicators to warrant decanting older vintage champagne other than a non opened bouquet? Would love to know either way please."

Great question but, as with so many things in wine, there is no perfect formula. For me, choosing whether to decant typically comes from experience. If I’ve had a wine previously that has really improved once it has had time to open I will, in future, opt to decant it. Having said that, there are a few indicators that would have me reaching for a decanter regardless… The first, as you say, would be a closed wine, lacking on the nose and, the second, would be an older wine that still smells quite reductive – perhaps with notes of burnt rubber or petrol. Whenever I’m in two minds I pour a portion of the bottle into a small decanter whilst I enjoy the first glass. That way, you can follow a fresh glass with a decanted one and see how the two fair back to back. 

"What’s the vineyard with the smallest output in terms of bottles produced per year?"

As there are some 2,500 growers making Champagne, we can’t claim to know each and every one and how much wine they produce. There are some families who literally own one line of vines within a vineyard! In terms of bottle production though, the smallest winemakers we work with own between 2 and 3 hectares of land. This is about the limit that allows a reasonable ROI when you factor in the cost of owning equipment, labour etc. There are of course exceptions to this but another fundamental limiting factor is the size of the Champagne press a vigneron has access to. The smallest grape presses in Champagne process 2,000kg of grapes which works out to approximately 1275 litres of juice or 1,700 bottles. Of course, not all that juice may go into one wine – the ‘taille’ portion will likely be eliminated, some of the juice may go into a reserve and some may be sold off to a 3rd party – especially if the vigneron in question is in the process of becoming a Champagne maker. This is why we have plenty of producers making sub 1,000 bottles of any one cuvée in their range. A few of the smallest we work that you might wish to check out are Rousseaux Batteux (2.6ha), Oudiette X Filles (2.5ha) and Leclare Minard (2.3ha).

"How do you see the relationship between grower champagne and cru classification in champagne? Champagne classification is based on villages. Does the focus on lieu-dits provide enough material for re-evaluating the current cru classification to a different system? Is there any actual interest in touching this classification at all?"

France is something of an anomaly in its piecemeal classification system. As you allude to, classification by village is quite broad, especially when compared to Burgundy’s far more focussed approach just a stone’s-throw south. Of course there have been some re-evaluations through time – the latest being the elevation of Le-Mesnil-sur-Oger to Grand Cru status in 1985 – but even when speaking to vignerons, you find that there are both unexceptional portions of Grand Cru vineyard as there are overperforming unclassified plots. The rise in ‘lieu-dit’ or single vineyard wines does go some way to informally address this, with winemakers able to isolate specific terroirs and savvy customers able to identify quality wines on this basis. One thing I would say though, is that during my time visiting the region (20+ years), as temperatures have gradually risen and conditions have become ever-more challenging, it is largely the Grand Cru vineyards with their superior exposition, drainage and/or retention of water that can best handle environmental stresses and produce great Champagne even in tough years. As such, there is no real desire or push for reclassification from the majority of winemakers or pressure from the public to do so.

"What will happen to the quality of Champagne from Grand Maisons going forward when most grower champagne makers reserve their best plots to themselves? Wouldn't that mark the beginning of the end for Champagne houses?"

We’re in a bit of a bubble at the moment and, whilst it may look like Grower Champagne is taking over, the reality is that there is only so much market space for new growers and, crucially, around 70% of total production and 90% of all Champagne exports still comes from just 24 Grand Marques. If growers choose to hold back a few hectares for personal production it will have little impact. What’s more, all the Grand Marques hold plenty of premium plots of their own and many of them are jumping on the bandwagon of the grower movement with their own range of single vineyard wines that fit the narrative of sustainable, terroir focussed Champagne that is now favoured by many consumers.

"Do you think the current limits in terms of the amount of grapes per hectare that can be collected in the champagne region are still fit given the current climate conditions and the radically different conditions in which negociants and in-house grape producers work? How do you see the future of regulation of champagne?"

This is an interesting but complicated question. To answer the first part regarding quantities, the short answer is yes – the amount of grapes produced is far greater per ha than ever before. The situation regarding negociants vs growers, is a thornier issue. As you may be aware, last year a law was passed that permits a reduced planting density from 8,000 vines per hectare to around 6,000, by allowing 2.2 metres between each row of grapes (essentially removing every other row). Known as ‘Vignes semi-larges’ or VSL, the scheme has been touted as an environmentally friendly initiative to reduce stress on the land and time spent maintaining the vineyards, but the suspicion is that it paves the way for more mechanisation, as tractors would be able to access the vineyards. This would favour large negociants who have sufficient land to accept lower income per hectare for the reduced labour costs. Whilst it is a voluntary scheme at present, many growers have expressed concerns that the reduction in yield from VSL vines will ultimately affect permitted yields across the region, whilst quality will also plummet as lower density of planting will lead to less concentration in the finished wine, as each vine is forced to produce more grapes resulting in dilution of flavour. There are many ifs and buts presently but it will be interesting to see how it plays out over the coming years, particularly with regards to Champagne’s image as a premium product. Watch this space!

"Which champagne houses in the region do you recommend visiting for wine tourism – open to non-professionals, with tastings and nice cellars to visit?"

Wine tourism in Champagne has massively increased in the past few years. When I first started visiting you could knock on doors and have a quick chat and a wander around. Now, with the rise in organic and biodynamic practices, vignerons are spending more and more time among the vines and are less inclined to take visitors. Despite our obvious preference to choose Grower Champagne houses we work with, if you’ve never visited the region before and you’re interested in experiencing great cellars and understanding the production process, I’d still recommend Champagne Mercier, who do a really informative tour, whilst the cellars at Charles Heidsick, Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot are all wonderful. Of course, if there is a particular grower in our collection you’re dying to meet, please feel free to let us know your dates and we can always ask the question!

"Why do we accept that the French ‘found’ champagne when an Englishman knew about the process some 200 years earlier?"

It’s true that it was an English scientist, Christopher Merret, who first outlined the reason Champagne contained bubbles (considered an undesirable trait by the Champenois at the time) and, in concurrence with this, coal-fueled ovens in England enabled much stronger glass to be manufactured, which wouldn’t explode during secondary fermentation. So, you are right that it was essentially the English who pioneered and developed a taste for sparkling Champagne. Of course, 200 years ago, it wasn’t possible to create wine in the British Isles, so the Champenois were able to capitalise successfully on this burgeoning market among the wealthy British elite. They have successfully continued to create and promote a premium product very effectively ever since and, as with all good marketing, part of the allure involves bending the truth to fit a desirable narrative. The big question now though, is whether Champagne will be able to retain its renowned tension, brightness and finesse as temperatures continue to rise and acid levels step down… or will English Sparkling wine step into that mould?

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The smaller producers barely get a look in. That is, until now.