The centuries-old, staunchly conservative wine making region of Champagne has long been dominated by a handful of historic, heavily-financed Champagne houses, whose legendary brands like Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot and Krug are fêted the world over. They buy up millions of bottles worth of grapes from across the region (from the 15,000 or so growers who actually own 90% of vineyard land), blending them annually to fit their house styles. But today, a new wave of Champagne growers is shaking up the old order by making their own wines, and in so doing, may indelibly broaden the definition of bubbly.
“After having been asleep for 30 years, Champagne is now very awake,” says Pierre Bérot, director of Caves Taillevent, the prestigious Paris wine merchants with branches in Japan and Lebanon. A keen nose for viticultural revolutions, Bérot observed the rise of independent winemakers in Languedoc in the 1990s, and the Loire in the 2000s. “Now Champagne has become the most dynamic winemaking region in France,” he says. Bérot traces the current fomenting in the region to a grower named Anselme Selosse, who brought Burgundian vinification techniques and terroir philosophy to Champagne in the 1980s. Grower-producer Cédric Bouchard agrees. With Selosse’s subsequent ascent to fame, “this idea began spreading among growers,” he says, “that we could manage alone, without the big houses–that we too could make our own cuvées.”
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Bouchard founded the minuscule wine property Roses de Jeanne in 2000 in Celles-Sur-Ources, and today at 37, he exemplifies the ambitions of this new generation. Embracing the Burgundian obsession for capturing subtle differences between vineyard parcels, Bouchard’s wine mantra, “one parcel, one grape variety, one vintage,” is almost heretical in a region where wines from different vineyards and years are routinely blended. “For me, each parcel of vines has a face, a personality; each vintage has a story to tell,” he says. Cuvées like Bouchard’s rosé, made from foot-crushed, pinot noir grapes fermented with natural yeasts, is born of the .071 hectare micro-plot, Le Creux d’Enfer, so-named centuries ago. Redolent of rose petal, quince and vervain, only 300-500 bottles are produced yearly. For wine critic Pierre Rovani, it’s “as pure a wine as exists on Planet Earth.”
Bouchard’s success is especially remarkable given his location—the Aube, Champagne’s isolated southern district, long disregarded as second-tier vineyard land by wine authorities and denied any grand cru rankings. In the Aube’s main growing area, the Côte des Bar, growers like Olivier Horiot, Dominique Moreau of Marie-Courtin, Vincent Couche, husband and wife producers Demarne-Frison, Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette & Sorbée, and Emmanuel Lassaigne no longer sell their grapes up to Reims like previous generations—they’re winemakers now. “A number of us of the new generation now put ‘Aube’ front and center on our labels,” says Lassaigne. “Why should we be ashamed? On the contrary.”
Indeed, if today his champagnes grace tables of chefs like René Redzepi or Pierre Gagnaire, Lassaigne credits the Côte des Bar’s chalky slopes of Montgueux where his 4 hectares of Chardonnay grow—and his infinitely patient, chemical-free approach to expressing this terroir, compared by some to Burgundy’s Puligny-Montrachet. Some years Lassaigne’s wines ferment four months—his neighbors’ less than two weeks. The result isn’t your typical ebullient cork poppers, but richly aromatic wines with understated, fine-grained bubbles. “In some ways, we’ve stepped outside of common notions of Champagne and are aspiring to a higher idea of wine,” he says.
Many take great risks pursuing this ideal, like Vincent Couche who, in the name of optimum grape maturity, practices zero-pesticide, biodynamic viticulture throughout his vineyards—something few have dared attempt in humid, pest-prone Champagne. Bouchard prefers imposing draconian yield levels through strict pruning, resulting in grapes with maximum concentration—but harvests at ¼ the average size. Their methods differ, but their aim is the same: revealing the enormous potential of a region “overexploited in volume, but underexploited in quality,” says Bouchard. “We haven’t invented anything new, we’re just getting back to what’s essential—the terroir.” It’s an over-used, nebulous expression to be sure (evoking a sense of place in wine) but somehow hearing it from the mouth of one of Champagne’s avant-garde, single-vineyard, grower-winemakers, it not only rings true—it sounds positively revolutionary.