A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also New wave champagnes 2018.
Draw near, children, and let me tell you how champagne used to be. It used to be a dream, a luxurious notion of superiority. Something to serve your friends knowing that they knew that it was magically and automatically better than any other sparkling wine.
It was a mysterious wine. Even wine fanatics knew little about exactly what went into each bottle, but its brands were some of the strongest in the world (and not just in the wine world). Its image was so powerful and protected that the wines sold at high prices without difficulty. Champagne was the envy of wine producers the world over, most of them struggling to make any impression at all in an overcrowded marketplace.
That was then but this is now. Champagne sales have been dented by the Prosecco craze. English sparkling-wine producers are crowing about their usefully high acid levels as the Champagne region warms up. The big champagne houses with their huge promotional budgets that did so much to build champagne's reputation are being challenged by a new wave of a completely different sort of champagne producer.
I was going to describe the new wave as powerful, but I'm not sure that's true. They are still a small minority and have relatively little financial power. Most (though not all) of them are small family enterprises rather than big international companies. They tend to promote themselves by grouping together into small associations and showing their wares every April during a relatively new phenomenon in the Champagne region, a week during which new-wave champagnes are shown.
Here is how to be a new-wave champagne producer.
Don't wear a suit
Ancien régime champagne people wear beautiful suits and Hermès ties. A typical new-wave producer is as likely to wear jeans, and certainly an open-necked shirt. At the recent third new-wave champagne tasting organised at London's 67 Pall Mall wine-focused private club, the champagne producers looked like the farmers that they are.
Be a grower…
Champagne producers are divided into houses (négociant-manipulant, generally denoted by NM in small letters on the label); co-ops (CM); and growers who make their own champagne (récoltant-manipulant, RM). (Own-label brands are denoted MA.) There are many uninspiring members of the RM category but it's the best of the champagne-making growers who are currently basking in the spotlight of fashion. Their ability to express a specific terroir eloquently, and to clearly signal the difference between various bottlings, chimes with the desires of the modern wine enthusiast who has long felt frustrated by the lack of information about, and tasteable distinctions between, champagnes from the big houses.
On the other hand, although too many champagne houses still turn out non-vintage blends of almost industrially produced ingredients about which the purchaser is told little other than the name of the brand, an increasing number of them are adapting to twenty-first-century desires and making wine with as much dedication to quality as the best growers (see Tim Hall's definition of new wave in New wave champagnes 2018). Champagne bigwig Bruno Paillard broke new ground in the early 1980s when he put the disgorgement (final bottling) date on the back of the non-vintage champagnes of his own eponymous champagne house so that consumers could distinguish between them. Krug have spelt out explicitly the history of every bottling since 2011. Despite their size, Louis Roederer earns the respect of the most demanding of champagne connoisseurs because they are effectively growers, owning and farming so many of their own vineyards, and because of their exceptionally early adoption of organic and now biodynamic viticulture.
The vineyards of Champagne can shock the first-time visitor. For years they have been the repository of Paris's rubbish and looked like messy grey post-nuclear wastelands. But things are improving and an increasing proportion of vines in the region are farmed at least sustainably. Most of the approved new-wave producers go further than this, however, and actively farm organically and some of them progress to even more demanding biodynamic practices. This is in line with the overall trend in most wine regions, with more and more Champagne vineyards as visibly green between the vines as they used to be.
Rather than making great big homogeneous blends, new-wave champagne producers now make hundreds of single-vineyard wines, or wines from single (preferably obscure) grape varieties. Chardonnay (solely responsible for Blanc de Blancs), Pinot Noir and its mutation Pinot Meunier are by far the most planted vine varieties in the region but varietal Arbanne, Pinot Blanc and Petit Meslier champagnes now exist and are rather celebrated.
The likes of Bollinger and Krug used to be unusual in their attachment to old oak barrels for fermenting and ageing still base wines for champagne but now the Champagne region is firmly on barrel salesmen's itineraries. Many a new-wave producer has been experimenting with both fermenting and ageing in oak; the small house of Henri Giraud has pioneered a return to oak from the forests of Argonne just east of Reims that was traditionally used in Champagne before the wholesale adoption of stainless steel in the late twentieth century.
Traditionally champagne was sweetened with a so-called dosage when each bottle was cleared of its sediment and finally corked before release. This was particularly necessary after a cool summer when acid levels were high. Nowadays a high dosage can help to mask the faults of tart young champagne made from over-cropped vines resulting in the sweet and sour nature of some cheaper champagnes, although in general, warmer summers have reduced average dosage levels. But many a grower-producer today wears zero or very low dosage as a badge of honour, sometimes inadvisably in my view. Champagne should refresh but not assault the palate with its austerity.
Provide maximum information
The telltale sign of a grower champagne (other than the letters RM on the label) is a back label positively stuffed with information, almost down to sock colour. Typically: exact assemblage of grape varieties, where they were grown, how the wine was made, including oak regime and policy on the softening malolactic conversion; date of original bottling in preparation for the second alcoholic fermentation; date of disgorgement; precise dosage in grams per litre.
The first wavelet of new-wave growers included Agrapart, Bérêche, the keenly priced Chartogne-Taillet (alas the price gap between grower and maison champagne has generally disappeared), Egly-Ouriet, Larmandier-Bernier, Eric Rodez, Pierre Péters, Jacques Selosse and Vilmart, but the wave is now a swell, and includes many more established names and bigger houses. I look forward to a veritable sea of top-quality champagne.
SOME OF THE BEST NEW WAVE CHAMPAGNES
I scored all of these at least 17.5 out of 20 in the last few months.
Drappier, Grande Sendrée 2008
£81.50 Hedonism and others
Geoffroy, Volupté 2008
£40.95 Champagne One, Yorkshire
Jacquesson, Cuvée 741 NV
£46 Huntsworth Wine and many others
A R Lenoble, Chouilly Blanc de Blancs, mag 14 NV
£58.33 Stannary St Wine Co and The Whisky Shop
Penet-Chardonnet, Grand Reserve NV
€98 Hardy, Berlin
François Secondé, La Loge NV
£33.20 Savage Selections, £44.99 The Winery
Vazart-Coquart, Chouilly Cuvée 82/12 Blanc de Blancs NV
£76.57 Scala Wine