Ever since Dom Pérignon perfected the art of blending in the 17th century, the Champagne region has strived for consistency. By blending across grape varieties, terroirs and vintages, the Champenois have sought to iron out variation and create house styles that are seamless from year to year. Impressive and immaculate – if a touch unimaginative.
More recently, though, a more experimental mood has taken hold. Inspired by the trailblazing grower movement and egged on by increasingly inquisitive consumers, houses big and small are now releasing limited-edition cuvées that are more unorthodox: amplifying the unique characteristics of different varieties, vintages and terroirs; exploring ancient ageing techniques and cutting-edge viticulture; and setting out to challenge both palate and intellect. All of them reveal the region in a whole new light.
Charting new cuvées
It was at the height of the pandemic in 2020 that Bollinger chose to release its first (permanent) new cuvée in 12 years, Bollinger PN. Clad in a moody black bottle with a cryptic label, this protean blanc de noirs is designed to showcase Pinot Noir from a different village and vintage each year. The first edition, VZ15, put the spotlight on 2015 Pinot from Verzenay, a cru renowned for its structure and freshness; every edition will be a little different.
“Champagne lovers are becoming more and more discerning,” says Bollinger general manager Charles-Armand de Belenet. “They want to know about regional specificity and vintage variation and the character of different plots. We realised there was a strong need for a cuvée that took them on a deep dive like this.”
Around the same time, Billecart-Salmon also launched a collection of experimental, limited-edition cuvées under the name Billecart-Salmon Rendez-Vous. The first edition, No.1, was a riff on Pinot Meunier, a grape that’s usually relegated to a supporting role in grandes marques (if used at all). Featuring Meunier from three historic terroirs in the Marne and bottled extra-brut, it shows the grape at its most lifted and elegant – a refreshing take on what was once the most widely planted variety in Champagne.
Thanks to varietal releases from Billecart-Salmon and Champagne Gosset – as well as the increasing visibility of cult growers including Georges Laval, Laherte Frères and the rock star of Meunier, Jérôme Prevost – Meunier has become an increasingly hot topic in the past few years. But there has also been growing chatter about the other four varieties that are permitted in Champagne: Pinot Blanc, Arbanne, Fromenteau (aka Pinot Gris) and Petit Meslier.
Plantings of these grapes remain tiny – just 0.4% of total coverage – but producers including Moët Hennessy, Bollinger and Louis Roederer are experimenting with them behind the scenes. And thanks to a band of enlightened importers and retailers, more grower cuvées featuring these grapes are now seeing the light of day.
Artisan Champagne specialist retailer Sip recently introduced its subscribers to Champagne Perseval-Farge’s Les Goulats, a charming oak-fermented blend of Chardonnay, Arbanne, Petit Meslier and Fromenteau. Vine Trail, a top supplier to the trade, lists Benoît Lahaye’s Jardin de la Grosse Pierre, a field blend from a single plot in Bouzy that was planted with all seven permitted varieties (as well as a few more, possibly) in 1927.
And this summer, the perennially inventive Drappier – which was among the early pioneers of single vineyard and zero-dosage Champagnes – will release its first 100% organic, zero-dosage Fromenteau, made from a small plot of vines the family planted in the Aube village of Fleurie. “Consumers are more open than ever to tasting these newer expressions of Champagne,” says Charline Drappier.
The reason for experimenting with these varieties is not just stylistic, says Isabelle Perseval of Perseval-Farge; they could also provide an answer to the increasingly erratic and overheated vintages resulting from climate change. “There is a time lag with the old varieties of about 10–15 days for picking, which results in a staggered harvest and optimal ripeness,” she says. “Arbanne and Petit Meslier contribute a great deal of freshness to the wine, while having a “correct” maturity.’
Grape varieties is just one area in which the Champenois have been experimenting. Maturation is another. Champagne Tarlant’s single-vineyard Chardonnay, Argilité 2014, is vinified and aged in Georgian clay qvevri. “We like clay because it allows the wine to breathe, just like wood, but without imparting the wood character, so the clay terroir can really express itself,” says co-owner Mélanie Tarlant, who was inspired, along with her brother Benoît, to use qvevri after tasting Georgian wines at the RAW natural wine festival in London.
This 281-bottle, zero-dosage cuvée is as cerebral as Champagne gets: taut and lightly spicy, with an invigorating grip. Another house renowned for its maverick ageing techniques is Champagne Henri Giraud, which ages exclusively in oak, terracotta and sandstone. Last year saw the release of its first cuvée fully vinified in sandstone amphorae: Dame Jane NV rosé.
Producers are finding new ways to make wine – and new ways to talk about their techniques, too. In 2020, Champagne’s oldest producer, Gosset, released its 12 Ans de Cave à Minima, a non-vintage brut blend aged for an exceptionally long 12 years on the lees. Instead of consigning this esoteric detail to the back label, Gosset incorporated it into the name, using the kind of age statement more often seen on a single malt. “Consumers are increasingly curious about the winemaking process and want to know what makes original wines different from more widely available styles,’ says chef de cave Odilon de Varine. “They’re looking for originality and for wines with a special personality.”
Champagne houses used to shy away from advertising their eco credentials – perhaps the marketeers felt that too much green talk would take the shine off the luxury messaging (or that there just wasn’t that much to shout about in the first place). But as the environment has risen to the top of the agenda, sustainability has emerged as a new selling point for an increasing number of houses. Louis Roederer, which grows around 70% of its own grapes, has long been a champion of organic and biodynamic viticulture. Even so, some might be surprised to learn that the past two vintages of its prestige cuvée Cristal (the 2012 and the newly released 2013) have been fully biodynamic.
Focus on sustainability
At the other end of the scale, newcomers such as Champagne Clandestin, an up-and-coming micro-négociant in the Aube, are finding radical new ways to promote sustainable viticulture among their peers. Operating under the wing of Vouette & Sorbée, one of the great pioneers of biodynamism, Clandestin’s founders Benoît Dousset and Bertrand Gautherot have set out to help all the growers they work with convert to organics or biodynamics.
They also take the notions of terroir to a Burgundian extreme, vinifying and bottling grapes according to their geological strata (for example, Kimmeridgian and Portlandian) and exposition (north, south and so on). The results are superb, full of vibrant fruit, freshness and definition.
Some more forward-thinking houses have also been reviewing their packaging. In a bid to do away with carbon-hungry gift boxes, Ruinart recently unveiled the Ruinart Sleeve – a 100% biodegradable, paper cover that envelops the bottle like a sommelier’s napkin yet looks and feels like white leather.
The rise of still wine in Champagne
Amid all this innovation, there has also been a more unlikely resurgence in the making of still wine, arguably Champagne’s oldest tradition of all. Charles Heidsieck, Drappier and Louis Roederer will all release Coteaux Champenois wines this month – the first time Roederer has sold still wine in more than 50 years.
There’s a new generation coming through that is more artisan, more focused on craftsmanship, with a real feeling for the land and the place
With so much going on in fizz, why are we seeing this interest in Champagne sans bubbles now? Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon says, “It’s the same reason as why we are seeing more and more grower Champagnes, which is partly due to climate change. Forty years ago, making a single-vineyard wine would have been impossible, since we often had problems with unripe and rotten fruit. Being able to blend was key. But today it’s possible to make a good single-vineyard Champagne almost anywhere.
Coteaux Champenois is the next step: once you can do single-vineyard Champagne, you can say, “Okay, let’s remove the bubbles and see what happens.” It’s finally possible. At the same time, you’ve got all the changes in viticulture,” he continues: “more organic viticulture, fewer pesticides and herbicides, yields going down. And there’s a new generation coming through that is more artisan, more focused on craftsmanship, with a real feeling for the land and the place. It’s a very special time in Champagne.’