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Champagne: The 2023 Spring Preview
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | MAY 23, 2023
Champagne is one of the most dynamic regions in the world. Change and innovation continue at an increasingly fast pace. Many of the most coveted wines now command Burgundy-like premiums, a relatively recent phenomenon here. There’s a lot more going on beyond the obvious, though, and plenty to explore.
This report covers wines I have tasted so far in 2023, including those from a week I spent in Champagne this past March. The producer mix leans a bit towards the larger houses only because they tend to release their wines with more time post-disgorgement than the growers, only some of which have new wines ready to taste in the early part of the year. As is customary, my larger, more comprehensive report will follow later this fall.
Amphoras in one of the
cellar rooms at Henri Giraud, where they are a complement to the heavily
curated selection of oak barrels used for most of the wines.
Grower Champagne - A New Era
Grower Champagne has been all the rage for the last twenty or so years. For readers new to the category, grower estates are small, family-owned domaines that started making Champagne from their vineyards as contracts to supply larger houses expired, similar to what happened earlier in regions like Burgundy and Piedmont. These wines were frequently marketed as purer, artisan expressions of place – Champagnes with more personality, often made with a greater focus on sustainable viticulture and low-intervention cellar practices. They also cost, or used to cost, substantially less than grand marque Champagnes, which were often portrayed as essentially soulless corporate products with flashy packaging. It was a good story and often true. Over time, the maisons lost visibility on restaurant lists and in the minds of passionate consumers as grower Champagnes exploded in popularity.
Today, the grower Champagne movement has reached an inflection point. As I have written a few times in recent years, today we are witnessing a sort of convergence, where the differences between these two categories – once stark – are now far more nuanced.
The idea of small production, artisan Champagne made by a vigneron and their family offers plenty of romance. There is no question about it. But the realities of running a business that lacks scale can be pretty harsh. For that reason, many grower estates are quietly and gradually increasing production, introducing new wines and testing the upper end of the market with regards to pricing.
In the middle of a large cellar expansion, Francis Egly explained that he is comfortable growing his output now that his two children are involved in the business. Olivier Collin, who is marking the 20th anniversary of his domaine this year, proudly told me he bottles more lieu-dit Champagne than any grower as we tasted through a vertical of his Rosé de Saignée Les Maillons for an upcoming article. I did not do the math to see if his statement is totally accurate, but it doesn’t matter. The intent is clear. And that intent is scale. Scale that is necessary to survive and grow in today’s world. That said, increases in production are not going to turn small grower estates into large maisons. The difference in size between the two types of wineries remains significant.
Champs with his son, Thomas, at Vilmart, which has long been a beacon of
quality for polished, artisan, grower Champagne.
Investment is another hot topic. Many smaller domaines, including Pierre Péters and Vilmart, have impressive new cellars and/or tasting rooms. Brothers Raphaël and Vincent Bérêche spun out their holdings in Les Monts Fournois and created a new estate that is run by their cousin, Juliette Alips, whose resume includes stints at G.D. Vajra, Roederer and Château Latour. The Bérêche brothers have also decided to triple the price of Reflet d’Antan, their flagship wine, so they can make important investments in their business. “Most domaines our size use mobile equipment for disgorging and bottling,” Raphaël Bérêche explained. “We want to move these operations fully in-house so we can totally control the bottling process, which we believe is fundamental in improving quality. We are also very concerned about the lack of skilled labor in Champagne and want to be in a position where we don’t depend on outside contractors. Ultimately, my job is to ensure the domaine is in a solid position for the future.” Having some experience in this subject, I am certainly not going to criticize anyone who invests meaningfully in their business.
Prices for a number of wines have become stratospheric, à la Burgundy, as more and more consumers discover the most coveted growers and wines. Some of these prices strike me as absurd, but the market can move very, very quickly when production is tiny. For growers and wines that are established, it is what it is. I am more concerned with the trend of young producers with little or no track record commanding high prices. If the wines are good, the market may very well absorb those prices. If they aren’t, it’s a house of cards.
To be sure, many of grower estates aren’t the same sleepy domaines I started visiting 15-16 years ago. This is not to say the values of hand-made artisan Champagnes have been lost. They haven’t. But small grower estates have to adapt in order to thrive in today’s world. Finding value in grower Champagne is still possible, but it takes work.
There is change at the big houses, but it is slow. Roederer continues to be the most innovative of the grand marques. Roederer was the first of the maisons to focus heavily on organic and then biodynamic viticulture. The Brut Nature Champagnes done in collaboration with Philippe Starck and a bevy of new, small-production bottlings are further manifestations of a grower spirit wrapped in the luxury image of a grande marque. Bollinger has followed by adding several new cuvées to a lineup that was essentially unchanged for many, many years, if not decades. Ruinart has just recently released a new Brut Nature Blanc Singulier, which represents an important stylistic shift, at least for that wine. In short, the maisons are shaking things up.
Fred Savart with some
of his new glass wine globes, a modern-day version of the demijohn.
What’s New Under the Sun?
As is true around the world, the paradigm for Champagne has been turned upside down in the last thirty years or so. “When I came to Champagne from Bordeaux in 2000, the fear was rot,” Chef de Caves Vincent Chaperone explained at Dom Pérignon. "Hygiene of the fruit was the first parameter of quality. Today, botrytis is a second or third priority. Back then, we picked based on sugar and acid levels. The window from reaching ripeness to rot in most years was very compact. Alcohol potential was a pretty good measure of physiological ripeness. Today, because of climate change, we live in a time where there can be great disassociation between the elements of phenolics, aromatics, acidity and alcohol potential. We have other challenges, including excess heat and drought. Off aromas and flavors, like mushroomy notes (ACF-Arôme de Champignon Frais) are hard to detect because they only show up after fermentation.”
A recent development is the growing use of alternative aging vessels to retain freshness. These range from larger wood barrels and casks to amphoras made of various materials. Glass wine globes are the latest rage. Globes are a modern-day version of demijohns and have several advantages over oak beyond capturing freshness, including longer durability. Globes also require much less water to clean, which addresses the growing concern that a lack of water is potentially a long-term threat to viticulture and life overall.
The Coulon family, Louise,
Edgar, Isabelle and Eric, at their cellars in Vrigny.
A Look at Recent Vintages
These are a few observations on recent vintages in Champagne. Readers should note that thus far, a majority of the wines from the most recent years are either NV Champagnes or single vintage grower Champagnes where the vintage is not officially declared. Unlike other regions, gathering a complete view of a vintage in Champagne takes a number of years and is only possible once a representative sample of the top wines has been released.
Intense heat and drought have fundamentally changed the ripening cycle and altered the standard parameters used for decades to think about vintages. For example, in years such as 2015 and 2020, it is quite clear that some grapes were not fully ripe, as we will examine in further detail below.
Tasting vins clairs
and reserve wines at Roederer.
2022: A Solar Vintage
Two thousand twenty-two is going to be fascinating to follow. It was the second warmest vintage ever in Champagne (after 2018), as measured by growing degree day data provided by the Comité Champagne. Not everyone agrees. “I think of 2022 as a very dry year, but not especially hot,” Charles Philipponnat told me. “Yields were abundant, and that was a help. I see the wines as closer in style to years with higher yields rather than to very hot years.”
For sure, though, there is no other region in the world where the concept of “ripeness” is as variable as it is in Champagne. “It was a year in which we had to wait to get to the optimal ripeness we seek, which is around 12% potential alcohol, but I have plenty of colleagues who picked at 9% on the first official day of harvest,” Fred Savart explained, illustrating this point vividly. “All our 2022s are 12.5% or higher,” Guillaume Selosse told me. Vigilance in the cellar was critical. “We lowered the time on lees; the wines were rich on their own,” Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon highlighted as we tasted through several dozen samples at Roederer. "We plan to make all our wines," Ruinart Chef de Caves Frédéric Panaïotis relayed. "It was a challenging year. We had to stop picking in August because of a heat wave. Potential alcohols are in the 10.8-11% range, while pHs are around 3.15 as opposed to a more typical 3.08 or so."
The 2022 vins clairs I tasted are gorgeous. Extrapolating that into an analysis of quality is much harder because so much of Champagne is based on the art of blending. Moreover, the reality is that producers are likely to present only their very best examples of the year at this stage.
The embryonic 2022s offer quite a bit of richness, that is obvious. But is this Champagne? As alcohols creep up, the gap between vins clairs vinified for the purpose of making Champagne and still wines like those one might taste from barrel in Burgundy is narrowing. This is one of the reasons why Coteaux Champenois as a category continues to grow.
The quiet end of day at Billecart-Salmon’s
Clos Saint-Hilaire in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. Quality is up across the board at
Billecart these days.
2021: Cool & Rainy
Two thousand twenty-one was a cold, wet year. Fruit struggled to ripen in many places. Some wines will be down substantially in production. At Roederer, the only vintage wine is Cristal. That’s it. At Selosse, production for the Aÿ and Ambonnay lieux-dits was so heavily impacted by frost that the small amount of fruit that survived was picked and co-fermented for what will be a very singular vintage, tiny production of Contraste. I missed the vins clairs last year, so my early thoughts on the year are based only on a small sampling of reserve wines. A clearer picture will emerge in about a year or so, when the first 2021-based NV Champagnes hit the market.
2020: The Modern Day Dilemma
Two thousand twenty is shaping to be an irregular vintage in Champagne. Some of the 2020-based NV wines I have tasted so far remind me of the 2015s in that they have a slight vegetal quality. These notes are not quite as strong as they were in 2015, but they are there. Achieving phenolic ripeness without soaring alcohol has become the biggest challenge in Champagne today. Finding balance in the vineyard is very, very hard in warm, dry years. It will be interesting to see how the vintage develops. Five years ago, a top grower was not especially pleased when I noted a vegetal quality in his wines. Today, there is no question it is there. At the same time, those green notes are less evident in the very top cuvées from 2015. If the past is any indication, readers are advised to approach the 2020-base NV Champagnes with caution. Naturally, it will be a number of years before the tête de cuvées are released. A more complete vision of the year will be possible at that time.
2019: Potential Greatness in the Making
Two thousand nineteen was a dramatic year punctuated by two unprecedented heat spikes. I was in Champagne for the first, which took place between late June and early July. Temperatures soared and remained high for several days, resulting in fruit that burned on the vine. The second spike, a few weeks later (I was in Chablis for that), was suffocating in its intensity. Even so, the 2019-base Champagnes I have tasted so far are gorgeous, exciting wines. The vintage reminds me a bit of 2012 in its exuberance and creaminess. I look forward to tasting more wines as they are released. The tête de cuvées will start showing up in a few years’ time. For now, the 2019-based NV Champagnes are immensely pleasurable.
2018: A Bit Much
Two thousand-eighteen is the hottest year on record in Champagne. Yields were also quite generous. The 2018-base Champagnes are attractive but also decidedly light in feel and structure, most likely a reflection of high yields. I find the wines lacking in the mid-palate creaminess found in years such as 2019. Although 2018 is not a vintage with obvious shortcomings (such as 2020 and 2015), many wines lack the character and depth of truly important years.
Readers can look forward to a series of smaller articles in the coming weeks and months, and then a large report this fall.
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