Take a glance at any of our growers’ Instagram accounts and you’ll know that it’s harvest time in Champagne. During our recent visit, predictably, the subject of the approaching harvest came up more than once with the producers we met. What was less predictable though was their thoughts on their yield. Expectations ranged from 0% to 100%, with some bemoaning rain-ravaged plots decimated by mildew, while others were barely affected. Sadly, extreme weather is becoming an ever-more common phenomenon with each passing vintage and, alongside this, a steady rise in the average temperature across the region.
Whilst little can be done to counteract chance weather events and vignerons are stoical about the need to weather these storms both figuratively and literally, the rise in temperatures is a bigger cause for concern that many are trying to combat.
The problem with warmer weather
Champagne’s crisp, clean and fresh profile has made it the envy of it’s more southerly neighbours for generations. Historically, the region’s cool, northerly latitude has always made these qualities eminently achievable to producers. However, as average temperatures rise across the region, it’s becoming ever-more challenging to maintain this classic style, as grapes ripen increasingly quickly, building sugar, body and rich ripe fruit.
What can be done?
The one obvious area to combat the rise in natural sugar is to not add any more of your own upon disgorgement. Adding liqueur d’expediton or liqueur de dosage is a technique almost unique to Champagne, whereby a small amount of sugar is added during the manufacturing process to combat acidity. You generally see it printed on a Champagne label either expressed in grams or as ‘brut’, ‘demi sec’ or similar. Here’s a run-down of the categories:
Brut Nature/Zero Dosage - 0-3g/ltr
Extra Brut - 0-6g/ltr
Brut - 0-12g/ltr
Extra Dry - 12-17g/ltr
Sec - 17-32g/ltr
Demi-Sec - 32-50g/ltr
Doux - 50g/ltr or greater
Tastes have changed over the years, with Century Russians favouring hugely sweetened wines that had some 250-330 grams of sugar added (far more even than Coca Cola!) but the general trend has been towards a drier style, with many producers now opting for non-dose, brut nature or zero dosage champagnes (as they are interchangeably labelled) to keep their wines as clean and crisp as possible.
However, as grapes continue to ripen faster and the harvest moves earlier where is there to go to retain Champagne’s signature style once ‘zero dosage’ becomes too sweet? One potential solution lies in the form of ‘cépages oubliés’, or the forgotten varieties.
What are the forgotten grapes?
Roughly 99.7% of the land in Champagne is planted out with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, but there are four more historic grapes that the Champagne AOC permit in the region which account for the remaining 0.3% of the land. These ‘legacy grapes’ are Pinot Blanc, Fromenteau (Pinot Gris), Petit Meslier and Arbane.
What happened to these historic grapes?
Essentially, they were outcompeted; Petit Meslier and Arbane ripen slowly and retain high levels of acidity, Fromenteau produced inconsistent yields and suffered from mildew, and Pinot Blanc was susceptible to botrytis. Conversely the ‘big three’ varietals happened to be well suited to the three main regions of Champagne, without competing with one another; Pinot Noir demonstrated a refined elegance in the Montagne de Reims, Chardonnay a fresh minerality in the Côte des Blancs and Meunier a rich fruit-driven palate in the Marne. Yields and quality for these grapes were consistent and strong and, as such, the other four ancient grapes fell out of favour.
Why are they making a resurgence?
They might not be able to reverse the trend in warming weather but, some of their former failings are now seen as assets in winemaking. Slow ripening and low PH levels are perfect for producers looking to bring freshness to their cuvées and balance ripe fruit. Furthermore, each of these grapes brings its own unique and fascinating qualities to the Champagne, making for more varied and interesting blends.
See for yourself…
As rare as these grapes are presently, you can still find a few Champagne makers working with them, including one of our very own growers…
Perseval Farge creates his incredible Les Goulats cuvée by blending Chardonnay with Arbane, Fromenteau and Petit Meslier. At £105 it’s not the cheapest bottle around but the cost is a reflection of the challenges of cultivation, tiny quantities (~1000 bottles per annum) and long maturation required. Refined, elegant and unique, it’s something everyone should give a go.
Or, take a look at our range of wines in this style by visiting our Crisp, Dry & Pure collection.