The paradox of champagne: What of terroir?
To contemporary France, the answer to the industrialisation and increasingly brand-driven mentality of the modern wine world is to work to express every nuance of terroir in its full detail. Its greatest wine producers are working at reducing yields, sorting fruit fastidiously to remove imperfections and working with purposeful inaction in the winery. Place of origin is everything, brand, to most, is nothing, and no vintage is ever the same as any other.
In this France, Champagne is the precise antithesis. Its very success has been built not just on ignoring these tendencies but, in some cases, on purposely, boldly, indeed, perhaps, necessarily, turning them completely upside down. Here, brands rule and blending of varieties, vineyards and even vintages is the norm. Fruit sorting is rare, high yields are not and the influence of the maker to mould a wine into a consistent style is paramount.
Eighty percent of Champagne is made by cooperatives and large merchant houses. Many purchase fruit from a large number of growers, and because pressing takes place at numerous press centres across the region, most are not able to check individual parcels. There is often no reward for fruit of higher ripeness than the legal minimum of 8.5 percent potential alcohol. And there is no incentive for low yields, so few are prepared to risk pruning and green harvesting for low yields in a region with a climate as uncertain as this. As a result, Champagne has the biggest problem of excess yields in all of France. One-third of Champagne is not fully picked each year and most growers leave the excess fruit on the vines for the birds to eat.
The answer is not as simple as it may seem…
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