Depressing News From Champagne

Perhaps less emphasis on terroir and more on sound farming practices Is in order: Rotten Vintage Challenges Champagne's Reserves | Wine-Searcher News & Features

This says it all: “to express the terroir, one needs to have a living soil and thus refrain from using herbicides”, explained Raphael Bérèche, a founding member. He is frustrated with the very slow pace at which the Champagne region is shuffling towards more ecological vineyard practices, especially as eliminating herbicides results in better wines: “Working the soil adds more freshness to our wines, our pHs are lower and our wines are naturally more balanced with a longer finish.”

Quantity over quality reigns. However, from the small amount of vins clair I tasted with Frederic Miniere of his 2017s. they tasted beautiful to me. But of course, he treats his plots with care and with revering the ecology. And I can tell you that more than one vigneron I visited with told me that preserving the grasses between the rows and letting it compete with the vines properly is how they get vines to go deep, to dig and find the beauty in the soil. Killing the grasses makes no sense, at least according to the guys who walked me through their vineyards. These same guys are also the ones making 100,000 bottles, not in the millions and certainly not in Reims and Epernay behind the gates and walls of the maison-looking mansions and grounds.

Very eloquently said, Frank!

Here is a shot that tells a nice story. This is Bertrand Gautherot (of Vouette et Sorbee) holding up 2 vines, of equal age. One was raised in a chemically applied (dead) vineyard, the other biodynamically. In the one on the left, the roots cannot/choose not to go deep, which is where the real soil lies, the terroir if you like…where you have the limestone, the chalk and the stuff that is below the initial layer. On the other hand, you revere the ecology, you let the grasses go, you encourage biodiversity and the roots chase the good stuff, they dive, not die on the surface.

This isn’t magic. This is money. It takes effort, cash and sweat to make these wines from the independent vignerons, many who are being squeezed out by the poor farming practices because that is where the cash lies. Dead soil equals volume, equals quantity…not quality and certainly not good farming.
Chemically farmed on left, biodynamic on right...which goes deeper for the treasure of the soils.jpg

Aren’t most growers small land holders who’s land value is enormous? They grow some grapes, make a huge profit from it by selling to large companies. Why change? Maybe large corporate holdings are not so bad? They have more inclination to change.

I was told on this trip that one hectare in Ambonnay is 2 million Euros. The price of land there is sick, and when there is some need in the family to sell their share, and the domaine wants to keep that piece in their control, they buy out the family member who wants to exit rather than see the plot disappear into another’s hands. It’s hard to tell there from the naked eye who owns what. Like in Burgundy, it seems based on what I could learn this trip that even the plain in Ambonnay is subdivided. You have for instance Dethune owning I think 7 hectares and also Benoit Marguet having some property (not sure of his holdings or relationship to it as I didn’t get to ask him this) but the acreage is enormous. And so few of them are farming in the old ways, for quality and vineyard transparency. Again, my opinion from what I gleaned in my conversations this past week.

I mean, they used to use trash from Paris as fertilizer; not sure the old ways are necessarily best. I think in many cases they’ve made a significant effort to improve quality in recent years, where in years past, when they just sold their grapes to the great houses not so much.

Quality wasn’t priority #1 in the old days. They could get away with it because of great marketing and the “manufacturing” of bulk wine into a sparkler.

I will try to comment on a number of topics above:

  1. This article paints the 2017 harvest as more dire than I think it really is. Some folks think it is horrible, others think it is a normal NV year. To me, it is clear that it is the worst since 2010-2011, but I am not convinced it is any worse. For some producers it probably is, for others it will be better. For those that did poorly due to rot, it is because of laziness in what was picked and pressed. Others did poorly because they lost key vines and grapes to frost and rot - they didn’t have enough good stuff to pick and press. There is also some fear in Champagne that the press is making 2017 sound like an awful vintage already and that folks will avoid it - similar to what happened with 2011. This has already led some to decide against making some 2017 vintage wines even if they felt the quality was there. They don’t want to deal with wines not selling or having to be discounted.

  2. When it comes to getting the roots to dig down deep, biodynamics is great, but there are lots of other ways too. Essentially you need the roots to find nutirents by doing deep down. This means not fertilizing the soil with typical chemicals and working the soil to get rid of the shallow roots. If the nutrients are going to sit on the surface and/or you have easy access to nutrients on the surface, why would the roots ever dig down.

  3. As for grass between rows of vines, there are different schools of thought on this. Letting nature take its course and grow in the vineyard is fine, but some will also take the steps to actually plant grass and different vegetation in specific ways. Some believe in grass in every row, some every other row, some not very much. Sometimes, depending on the year and orientation of the vineyard, grass can be a negative if not controlled properly and naturally. It really depends. I say this just so that people don’t equate grass with great vineyards and no grass with poor vineyards. It isn’t that simple. What you really want is soil that isn’t compact, is full of natural life beneath the surface, and encourages the vines to dig deep and fight for nutrients - it is this stress that leads to good fruit. Oversimplification, but a vine living an easy life is going to give you a fat, boring grape without proper concentration.

  4. For a grower, Champagne isn’t much different than Burgundy. They may only own a few rows of vines in a vineyard. When you have a dozen or more owners of a plot, it is difficult to ensure that what your neighbor does doesn’t affect you - especially if you have very different philosophies on growing.

Brad, I enjoy your POV and am glad to see you keep adding to these threads. Your experience gives me something to learn each time you share.

It did come up a few times this past week in my visits that the grass and vines compete, which is good for the complexity overall when the vines have to work harder for what is down below. I guess too what left a deep impression on me was the idea of ‘compact’ soil that you remark about above. When I walked through the Gerbais plots in Celles, the Mousse plots in Cuisles, or the Sorbee plot in Buxieres, there is a spongy, soft, pliant quality to these organic vineyards. And when Bertrand did the side by side with the soil up on the plateau above his plot, on that ridge above the windmill, his soil had a vibrant, deep smell of moist earth, it smelled alive, vibrant. The plot that was farmed with chemical applications directly across from his was compact, glued together in large pieces, sticky. It smelled of nothing and had no essence of the life of the soil from Bertrand’s side. That comparison, as simple as it was for me, left me with a lasting impression.

I think we ought to take a step back and cut some of the growers some slack. As Brad notes, many have so little land that it may not make sense to try to make wine out of the grapes they grow. Others maybe have enough land but not enough capital to build a winery. Maybe others would like to but have family obligations that don’t give them the time to start a new venture. So, who wouldn’t try to make the most money they can? It’s probably not that they hate the earth or don’t “revere” the ecology; they’re just trying to make ends meet like everyone else.

Of course, bad Champagne is bad Champagne, and that is fair game to criticize. But that’s really the fault of the houses that make a bad product.

David, we all vote with our dollars and inside of that, what we believe in. Whether you buy organic or sustainable is up to all of us, with our economic votes. I am not assessing fault for how they grow or who they may sell their harvest to. I simply am choosing to vote for those who I believe in what they do that align to my values.

As I witness the profuse use of Round-up and other chemical weed killers, plus chemical “fertilizers,” I am envious of the vineyards’ bottom lines. Costs pennies to use those chemicals. I, for one, have not felt it was the right thing to do, and use organic fish emulsion as fertilizer, and have weeds dug by hand. Expensive? Incredibly. But I do it because I think it is the right thing for our land - we all draw on wells here for our drinking water. Does it make my wines “better?” Who knows. But I feel better having done what I can do to contribute to sound land and water. The profit comes from the wine sales side - certainly not from farming a small piece of land correctly - organically.

You like a little fishy nuance in your water? neener

Trying to stir up a maelstrom there, John? [cheers.gif]

I understand. And to be clear, I buy many of the same producers you do. Ultimately, I think it boils down to the fact that you view that choice as a morality/values decision, and I don’t.

GREAT pic, Frank.

I visited Anselme Selosse a few years ago. Got in his jeep with his dog and drove out to the vineyards. He was not excited about showing me his vines but showing me his grass and weeds growing in between them

John’s just bored. He will find something else to focus on [cheers.gif] soon enough.


It would mean a lot for you to contribute why you dig weeds out by hand. There is a recent belief by many that the more weeds, grass, growth in the vineyard the merrier and this isn’t always so. In my experience, a lot depends on region, climate, exposition, location, etc…, but I think it would be very educational for you to share why you do what you do. It helps to show that there is no one right answer, but many wonderful paths you can go down in the natural world.