What Is Natural Champagne?
Perhaps we can agree on some general criteria. Welcome to Issue 6.
Normie wine nerds love to debate the merits of “grower champagne” versus the blending arts of the region’s hegemonic négociant houses.
Personally, I’ve always found the “grower champagne” designation to be rather weak tea, since it makes no distinctions about how grapes are grown, let alone how they are vinified. In no other region do we applaud winemakers simply for farming their own grapes.
Then again, who am I to judge? There is little agreement, in the wine world today, about what constitutes naturalness in a champagne.
If the sugar addition and yeasting at the heart of the region’s celebrated Champagne method raise few eyebrows among natural wine aficionados, it’s because everyone knows there is essentially no alternative. When a vigneron in the Loire or the Jura wants to experiment outside of an AOP charter, the resultant wine can be released as Vin de France. Champagne is different. Wines produced in the Champagne region either get approved for the appellations (Champagne or Côteaux Champenois), or legally they must go to the distillery. This has a certain chilling effect on risk-taking among Champagne winemakers.
For my forthcoming natural wine book (coming September 2022), I didn’t want to propose my own arbitrary definition of what constitutes naturalness in a champagne. Instead I tried to highlight the Champagne vignerons who, for reasons of their own, take the time and effort to involve themselves with the natural wine community.
For Champagne vignerons, social and commercial involvement with natural wine salons, natural wine restaurants, and natural vignerons from other regions is, as Trépail vigneron David Léclapart puts it, “always a philosophical choice, not a commercial choice.”
Vignerons like Léclapart, Vincent Laval, or Emmanuel Lassaigne could sell their entire production twice over to conventional wine merchants in Singapore, New York, and Beijing if they wished. That they don’t, and that, by contrast, they sell quite a bit to small-scale natural wine bistrots in Troyes and Nice and Rennes, tells you something about their priorities. The Champagne vignerons who enjoy the company of natural vignerons from other regions are those most likely to seek the greatest purity within the context of the Champagne method.
What does this mean, in real terms?
It means a commitment to organic or biodynamic farming, as at Champagne André Beaufort or Vouette & Sorbée, respectively. It means yields well below the gargantuan norm for the region, like at Champagne Ruppert-Leroy in Essoyes. It can mean a focus on vintage Champagnes (rather than blends of reserve wines), as at Champagne Georges Laval in Cumières. In many cases, it means zero dosage, as at Champagne Jacques Lassaigne in Montgueux. In some cases, it means parcel cuvées. It can also mean the opposite of parcel cuvées, as chez Charles Dufour in Landreville.
Naturalness in champagne usually means a sulfite addition in the range of 10-20mg/L at pressing, and none afterwards.1 It always implies a thoughtful approach to Champagne’s signature intervention, the addition of sugar and yeast at the prise de mousse. (The vignerons I spoke to all had varying preferences at this stage.)
At the risk of sounding like a philistine vis-à-vis Champagne terroir, these vinification gestures are what interested me most during my researches in Champagne.
Why? Because champagne production has long struck me as a kind of Black Box: a system viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without any knowledge of its internal workings.
More than red, white, rosé, or orange wine, champagne is a work of precision engineering. Its production involves multiple further stages, the nuances of which are all critical in determining a wine’s final profile: reserve wine blending, prise de mousse, rémuage, aging sur lattes, disgorgement, often dosage. The ensemble of these maneuvers is sufficiently complex that a taster (or, for that matter, anyone other than a Champagne’s own maker) rarely has a leg to stand on, when it comes to assessing production practices.
In the absence of this critical entry point, most of us opine about minerality, chalk, and terroir.
These things are obviously important, too. But invoking the primacy of terroir in a process-intensive product like champagne, in a region with so little organic farming (just 3.5% of its surface as of 2020, the lowest rate among French wine regions) is already more tenuous than with other wines, and so facile as to have been probably just slightly over-emphasized in most wine reporting.
So here’s a different take. It’s ISSUE 6 of the NOT DRINKING POISON newsletter: WHAT IS NATURAL CHAMPAGNE?
Inside you’ll find:
An interview with regional organics pioneer JACQUES BEAUFORT of CHAMPAGNE ANDRE BEAUFORT (including details on his signature practice of native yeast prise de mousse).
An ALTERNATIVE HISTORY of CHAMPAGNE TERROIR, as told by VOUETTE & SORBEE’s BERTRAND GAUTHEROT. (No paywall.)
A preview tasting of the stunning, soon-to-be-released COTEAUX CHAMPENOIS wines from Essoyes visionaries CHAMPAGNE RUPPERT-LEROY.
An interview with MONTGUEUX maestro MANU LASSAIGNE of CHAMPAGNE JACQUES LASSAIGNE, on the multitude of details that make a truly artisanal champagne.
A short essay on the common SHORTCOMINGS of COTEAUX CHAMPENOIS. (No paywall.)
A visit to Le Jardinot, the 0.88ha parcel of pinot noir and chardonnay in Polisy that yields AMAURY BEAUFORT’s first CHAMPAGNE produced under his own name, a long-aged 2018 that he released in late 2021.
A dinner at the stellar Reims cave-à-manger AU BON MANGER. (No paywall.)
An interview with Marne biodynamics pioneer DAVID LÉCLAPART, who from the 2020 vintage has begun employing CULTURED NATIVE YEASTS for secondary fermentation.
A visit with Cumières legend VINCENT LAVAL of CHAMPAGNE GEORGES LAVAL to Les Longues Violes, the 0.15ha mid-slope parcel from which derives the insanely rare cuvée of same name.
A chat with Troyes restaurateur JEAN-MICHEL WILMES about the origins of his influential natural wine institution AUX CRIEURS DE VIN. (No paywall.)
Dinner at LE GARDE CHAMPETRE and a short stay at THE RIVER HOUSE, the handsome farm-to-table restaurant and guesthouse, respectively, opened in the Aube in 2019 by a cast of collaborators including Aube vignerons Cedric and Emilie Bouchard and Paris restaurateur Juan Sanchez. (No paywall.)
An interview with Landreville dynamo CHARLES DUFOUR of BULLES DE COMPTOIR, who has recently begun a long-term REMISE EN CERCLE of his family’s archive champagnes.
If you seek to read further, I highly recommend Peter Liem’s gorgeous 2017 book on champagne, albeit with the proviso that I disagree with his delicate waffling vis-à-vis organic agriculture. Farming without herbicides or synthetic pesticides isn’t easy in Champagne, but it’s not easy in Burgundy or the Jura, either, where yields are generally lower to begin with, and harvests are later.
As organic and biodynamic Aube vigneron Emmanuel Leroy put it during a recent conversation, “We’re in a region where organics developed late. Because when we’re rich and it works well, we don’t feel like asking questions.”
Many thanks for reading, as always. Here’s to continued questioning of all wine regions, even (or especially) the rich ones.
Bénédicte and Emmanuel Leroy of Champagne Ruppert-Leroy have forsworn all sulfite addition since 2013.