Mono-cru champagne is the new bubbly
Text: ALICE FEIRING
Pelted by icy rain, shivering in 6şC weather, utterly miserable, I poked about Mot & Chandon’s Les Sarments d’A˙ vineyard. Georges Blanck, Mot’s dapper head winemaker, apologized, as if it were his fault, but of course it wasn’t. The real reason that I, a veteran wine writer who should have known better, was risking pneumonia snooping around the vineyards of the Champagne region in northeast France was to see if the rumours were true: Was there a revolution underway?
You see, in 2001 the 25 million-bottle gorilla Mot had debuted a package of three different champagnes containing grapes harvested from a single vineyard, a concept known as mono-cru. The trio, called La Trilogie des Grands Crus, cost around $275. (One of them came from pinot noir grapes grown in the exact soggy A˙ vineyard where I ended up standing). Almost instantly upon the Trilogie’s release, other mono-cru champagnes bubbled up on wine store shelves. The very essence of the conservative champagne industry was being threatened.
Here’s why: Ever since the days of Ruinart (and a certain famously mythical monk called Dom Prignon), houses have blended wines from multiple vineyards in order to achieve the truly great sparkling white wines known as champagne. There were good reasons behind blending: Lack of sun and lots of rain in the region made it difficult to grow ripe grapes, so combining the product of various crops made up for a multitude of sins. In fact, the finely honed ability of each house’s blender to achieve a consistent blend became a source of regional pride. The first break with this tradition came in 1911, when Salon made a champagne from one village, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. This paved the way for a select few champagnes made not from blends but from certain famed vineyards, such as Clos des Goisses and Clos du Mesnil.
Then a decade ago, the stirrings of a revolution: Independent landowners/growers supplying the big champagne houses with grapes started saving some fruit for themselves to produce their own small-batch wines. A handful started to farm organically and even biodynamically (an ultra-organic form of farming bordering on the spiritual among its disciples). As the growers’ land tends to be literally in their own backyard, the wines were mono-cru-like in that they typically came from a single vineyard. In addition, some made true mono-cru champagnes, using one grape varietal from one plot of land and often from one vintage or crop year. These winemakers sought to express that je ne sais quoi called terroir, the character of wine-growing land, as expressed in the grapes it produces – a concept most of Champagne had denied by its traditional reliance on blending.
At the time, the expression of great terroir, especially in a wine previously known mainly for acidity and bubbles, was terribly exciting to me. I wasn’t alone; these champagnes became the darlings of wine writers.
Back among the densely mineral and chalky soils of the Champagne region, I met a winemaker who shared my excitement. Pierre Larmandier embodies all that is good about the small producer who also makes a mono-cru. A thoughtful and sweet man, he lives and makes wine in the chardonnay-growing town of Vertus, where he is now operating Champagne Larmandier-Bernier on biodynamic principles.
Yet even though he’s a wine maven’s champagne guy, with an international reputation for innovation, he gets no respect in his hometown. His uncle, Guy (also a champagne maker), lives just a few blocks away. The two barely speak. Uncle disapproves of nephew’s winemaking methods. Pierre makes several champagne blends and one single-vineyard bottling from a densely chalked plot on his property. His mono-cru, N d’une Terre de Vertus, was created when Pierre realized that the wine tasted better on its own than it did blended into traditional champagne. Terre de Vertus is bubbly yet winelike, with fresh bread and salty sea air aromas, expressing nutty, deeply rich and layered flavours and minerality.
I had to wonder why an international giant like Mot was trying to produce a niche artisanal product on par with those created by Larmandier and his fellow mono-cru growers (who represent only a fraction of the already tiny 2 percent market of small producers in the champagne business). Surely, they didn’t feel threatened, did they? Threatened, no; looking for respect and attention, perhaps. Mot’s Blanck said, “We want to show the world that we too are vine growers, we have beautiful vineyards and we know how to work them.” Blanck’s sentiment is lovely, but I took it as I would an announcement from a chocolate giant like Nestl, saying they were producing bespoke, handmade chocolates.
Shivering among Mot’s vines in A˙, I wasn’t convinced that it was a beautiful vineyard, nor was I convinced that Mot knew how to work it. In fact, the famed chalky white soil wasn’t “worked” at all – it looked dead. Chemical weed killers had clearly been deployed instead of vineyard plows. Scattered about were bits of robin’s egg blue plastic, evidence of the notorious “fertilizer” made from recycled toxic trash that Paris infamously sold to vineyards up until 1998. Some vineyards look and smell so delicious they make me want to speed home to crack open a bottle. To put it delicately, Le Sarments d’A˙, and many of the others I saw in Champagne, are not among them.
Blanck tried to persuade me that organic farming was impossible in damp Champagne, where disease and mildew can be difficult to control. When I pointed out the success of Larmandier-Bernier, Jacques Selosse, Jacquesson and Leclerc Briant – all making gorgeous single-vineyard champagnes – Blanck was not impressed. He did admit he would never compare his La Trilogie des Grands Crus “to something like Krug’s Clos du Mesnil, which is presented as the ultimate.”
Ah, Clos du Mesnil: a legendary champagne with a legendary price (about $540 per bottle). I met Krug’s young winemaker, Nicolas Audebert, at the walled-in vineyard, a tiny thing at 1.8 hectares. There we tasted the 1990. It had a strong coconut aspect, an edgy minerality with smoky and toasty edges and an undertone of mushroom. The note I was most attracted to was ginger. I blurted out, “If the wine is this good, can you imagine what it would be like if the soil were allowed to live?” Audebert politely asked what I meant.
“I’m sure you don’t have one earthworm in that soil. It’s a tiny vineyard,” I said. “What would it cost to farm here organically?”
Audebert repeated what seemed to be the corporate mantra (like Mot, Krug is owned by luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH): Farming more naturally in Champagne was impossible. As we talked about some of his peers and elders (like the owners of Jacquesson and Leclerc Briant) who have bet their vineyards on organic farming techniques, he became increasingly excited. Perhaps young Audebert might be jonesing to join these renegades and become a winemaker on the cutting edge of the Champagne new wave himself?
Not everyone views the new mono-cru offerings as a blessing. Robert Bohr, wine director of one of New York’s most inventive champagne lists at Cru, said, “Mono-cru champagnes have a tough battle to fight, and I don’t think it’s worth fighting. Mono-cru might be a marketing technique to get people talking about champagne… [but] these nuances are just too subtle for most champagne drinkers.” I tend to agree: These bubblies are postdoctoral drinking, champagnes for the wine intellectual, a geology and terroir lesson in a bottle. And it strikes me that champagne, the ultimate celebratory party tipple, is not a wine that most people want to think about in that way.
Through my Champagne journey, I heard of a Swedish writer who had preceded me at the vineyards. Just before the 2004 harvest began, when the weather had finally turned into summer and the whiteness of the soil seemed like chalk lines on the blackboard of the hilly vineyards, I finally caught up with author Richard Juhlin. (His book 4000 Champagnes was released last October.) Was it just me or was he also nonplussed by mass-market ventures that didn’t honour the small-batch artisanal origins of mono-cru? “When Mot released their mono-cru wines, it meant that the big houses couldn’t complain about [mono-crus] anymore; it was a trend they couldn’t ignore,” he explained. “But tasting them, I realized that they all tasted more like [blended] Mot than terroir.”
Indeed, after talking to the big champagne houses, I came away convinced that the blending tradition was firmly rooted – though with some work it might, like the packed chalky soils of Champagne itself, loosen up. And I kept thinking about Pierre Larmandier speaking with so much passion about the expression of the soil: Whether making a blend or a mono-cru, he makes a wine first, a unique expression of the terroir from which it has sprung. Without that, a wine holds no interest for him. That is the real champagne revolution. Unless I can taste the winemakers’ love for the soil – and the soul in their winemaking – most mono-crus will taste curious, but strangely flat to me. [ ]