So much is written about the consumption of Champagne that it can sometimes feel more like an economic indicator than an exuberant aperitif. But whether sales are up, stable, or – as more recently – tanking, it’s important to look beyond the numbers, lest we miss the other big story: a rise in the overall quality – and diversity – of what is being produced.
At the IWSC this year, Champagne shone, with seven gold medals, 59 silver and 119 bronze. The trophies were spread across different categories, with the big established names sharing the limelight with a private label and a modish grower Champagne, reflecting the different shades of this gilded region.
“I honestly thought the quality was higher than I have judged before,” says Simon Field MW, a fellow judge on the Champagne panels. “The quality of non-vintage can depend on which base year is doing the rounds and a lot is coming from 2016, which is a very good year.
“I think the general mood music has been towards lower dosage and, as a result, there were far fewer sweet, confected notes among the big brands”, he adds.
Responsible for almost 90 percent of exports, one of the key points of difference for Champagne is the dominance of the so-called ‘grande marques’. The term (literally meaning ‘big brands’) is not a technical one, with most of the big names actually balking at its use, fearing it diminishes the product’s cherished premium status.
Champagne is the most branded part of the wine sector
“It is not especially meaningful,” says Nick Baker, founder of specialist retailer the Finest Bubble. “But Champagne is the most branded part of the wine sector, so it is a very significant term nonetheless, even if it’s not directly relatable for most consumers.”
Of the big names, Lanson was awarded a coveted IWSC trophy for its 2002 Noble Cuvée, the judges singling out its “beautiful evolution”, “superb structure”, “marked mineral acidity” and “long complex finish.”
Maison Mumm also stood out, with a gold medal for its RSRV Cuvée Lalou, Brut Grand Cru 2006, which was praised for its “generous, indulgent palate”, “delightful maturity” and “finely etched perfection.”
Champagne has long been revered by retailers for its ability to lure shoppers. It is often sold at a low margin, or even as a loss-leader, the assumption being that the pursuit of bargain bubbles will also lead to a spending spree in store.
So-called “private label” (or “own label”) normally destined for a supermarket’s premium range, is mostly catered for by large-scale co-operative wineries, although some established houses also provide smaller bespoke brands for the restaurant trade or select cuvées for luxury goods retailers.
“I thought private label was generally impressive this year,” says Field of the 2020 IWSC judging. “I was a buyer for 20 years, responsible for sourcing own label, so I know the amount of work that goes into it. The consumer is not getting short-changed one bit. Own label, when done properly, is far from a cynical means of disposing of wines you can’t sell elsewhere.”
Among the own labels, Waitrose burnished its upmarket credentials with a trophy for its Special Reserve Brut 2008, commended for its “elegant, glittering ostentatious”, “youthful mouthfeel” and “poise and potential.”
Although not a new phenomenon, so-called ‘Grower Champagne’ has popped into the wider public consciousness in recent years, as curious consumers have become more interested in the provenance and traceability of what they eat and drink.
There are more than 15,000 growers in Champagne, between them owning around 90 percent of the vineyards, yet most sell their grapes to the big houses or co-operatives, through long-term contracts. Grower Champagne allows the producer to retain control of the whole process from vineyard to finished bottle.
“Historically, Champagne was about covering the entire region with your sourcing,” says Field. “But as the growers gained in confidence and vintages became more reliable, site-specific became a virtue rather than a negative, so grower Champagne has in turn become more desirable”.
Of the family growers represented at the 2020 IWSC 2020, Cuperly Grande Réserve Brut Grand Cru NV was awarded a gold medal, and described by the judges as “beautifully expressive,” “powerful, yet refined,” and “smooth and sophisticated”.
Though the foibles of fashion may have played a part in the success of grower Champagne, it is more readily defined by its terroir than other bottlings, and arguably that sense of place remains critical to all good Champagne, whether the producer is big or small.
“By their very nature, growers are often dealing with small plots of few hectares,” says Baker, “the only difference with a larger house is that it’s from a collection of small plots. Terroir exists whether it comes from a grande marque or a grower Champagne.”