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Champagne Biz and Farmer Fizz
By Rebecca Murphy
Feb 12, 2013
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During a visit last fall to the Champagne region of northern France sponsored by the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne or CIVC, I was reminded of the diversity of size and style of producers.  Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon is the increasing number of growers who make their own wines.  The official term for them, which you will see on their bottles is Recoltants-Manipulants (RM).  Wine marketer and poet-philosopher Terry Thiese calls these wines “Farmer Fizz.”

The traditional model has been for growers to sell their grapes, still wine, or even sur latte (wine in bottle that has been through the second fermentation, but still not finished or labeled) to a Négoçiant-Manipulant, (NM).  These are the big Champagne houses that finish the second fermentation in the bottle, disgorge and add the liqueur de dosage, add cork and wire cage, label and market the finished wine.  Imagine the resources it takes to take a bottle of Champagne from the vineyard to the market.  Those big Champagne houses have provided the resources necessary for building an international market and the high-quality, luxury image of Champagne.

Two growers presented an interesting contrast.  Pascal Doquet’s family are relative newcomers to Champagne.  His father and mother, Michel Doquet and Nicole Jeanmaire joined their respective vineyards and started a winery in the Premier Cru village of Vertus in 1974.  Members of Alexandre Chartogne’s family can show records of their involvement in viticulture in the tiny village of Merfy from the mid 1600s.  Doquet’s vineyards are in Premier Cru and Grand Cru areas on chalky soils.  Chartogne’s vineyards in Merfy are on mostly sandy soils and the vines are on their own roots.  However, Doquet and Chartogne both make grower Champagnes and are adamant in their insistence that organic farming of their grapes is essential.

First a note about organic viticulture in the Champagne:  it’s really difficult.  This is a cool climate region at the 49th parallel, where grapes struggle to ripen.  High acid, low sugar is the norm for grape ripening here, the perfect combination for the base wine of Champagne.  You won’t hear people complaining about climate change here.  There has been a noticeable lowering of the dosage level in the past seven to ten years due to warmer conditions.   It’s also humid, so mildew and oidium are often vine problems and the organic solution of “Bordeaux mixture” doesn’t always solve the problem.  The growers’ choice is to lose certification or lose grapes. 

One of the goals of big Champagne houses is to produce a multi-vintage cuvee, or blend, of wines from many different grape sources as well as reserve wines from older vintages that consistently reflects a house style.  For example, Taittinger’s Brut La Française is delicate and ethereal while Bollinger’s Special Cuvée is robust and toasty, and you can count on those styles from year to year.   A grower Champagne may show more variation from year to year even in a multi-vintage blend, since the grower will not have the array of choices to blend for house consistency.  However, what he will have is this:  the unique character of a specific place to show in his wines. 

Pascal Doquet’s vineyards are in Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites.  The soil in these sites is mostly chalk.  It’s quite distinctive, bright white in color, seemingly solid, yet amenable to vine roots probing deeply in search of water, which it can hold like a sponge.  Doquet made the decision to convert to organic farming and was certified in 2007.  His focus is on the health and vitality of the soil.  He guided me through some of his vineyards to show me the difference that organic farming can make.  Perhaps his vines are not picture-perfect in terms of neatness, but his soil is alive.  I was able to easily pick up a handful of topsoil, loose and friable.  In contrast, we walked a few rows over to vines owed by a cousin and farmed by what is called these days “traditional agriculture” methods, but really just dates from post World War II.  No non-vine plants growing here:  all is neat and precise.  However, the soil surrounding the vines is hard as a rock from the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and machinery that compacts the soil.  It would take a pick ax to penetrate it.

Doquet says he wants to “feel the deep roots in his mouth” when he tastes his wines.  He also says he makes his wines for the table.  I’m not sure I taste deep roots in his Champagnes, but I do think his wines show elegance, focus and finesse.   His multi-vintage cuvee is a Blanc de Blancs NV ($47), so it’s 100% Chardonnay.  It shows light yeasty, lemon curd and pear flavors with vibrant acidity and a long chalky finish.  His wines are imported by Robert Kacher. 

The top soils around the little village of Merfy are sandy, in some cases mixed with clay and several feet below the topsoil there is chalk.  So, the devastating phylloxera invasion of the mid 1800s that nearly destroyed all the vinifera vineyards in Europe had little impact here.  The insatiable root louse doesn’t like sandy soils, so the vines thrived.  In fact Chartogne-Taillet still has vines on their own roots where the topsoil is sandy.  In the areas where there is more clay mixed with the sand, the vines are grafted onto root-stock.

Alexandre Chartogne took over from his parents in 2006.  It wasn’t what he had originally planned.  “I worked for Volkswagen.  I knew we had a great history, but I didn’t appreciate what my parents were doing.”  He believes that having terroir in the wines means respecting the soil.  “I didn’t want to be just a wine grower,” he said.  “I stopped all herbicides and pesticides.  We use a horse for plowing so we don’t compact the soil.  We graze sheep in the winter to eat the grass and give some fertilizer.”
 
His meticulous farming pays off in the wines.  The multi vintage wine is called Cuvée Ste-Anne ($47) with mostly 2007 and smaller portions of 2006 and 2005, 60 percent Chardonnay and 40 percent Pinot Noir.  It is softly fruity with ripe pear and citrus, with yeasty, buttery brioche notes, round and accessible focused acidity and balance.  It’s quite charming and ready to drink.  Chartogne-Taillet wines are imported by Michael Skurnik.