by Matt Walls

Champagne: where the party’s really at

Sometimes I feel very lucky to be living in the UK when it comes to getting hold of good wine. Since the UK has historically been an importer of other countries’ wines, rather than producer of its own, the UK wine industry has tended to be open-minded and meritocratic when it comes to the wines it sells. This has led to a diverse range of countries, regions, grapes, producers and vintages, giving us excellent choice, and on the whole, carefully researched wide selections for at least the more established wine producing regions of the world. But there is one major region where we are letting ourselves down, and ironically it’s right on our doorstep: Champagne.

If you take a drive around the some of the 300-odd villages that make up the Champagne region, 90 miles north east of Paris, a couple of things immediately strike you. Firstly, how extremely clean and tidy everything is, and secondly, just how many small producers there are. It seems every main street in every village has half a dozen signs hanging from buildings advertising yet more Champagne producers you’ve never heard of. There are over 2,000 small producers making their own wines in Champagnes; if you’re from the UK, you’d be forgiven for thinking there were around 20.

The Champagne region makes a huge variety of different wines. They can be anywhere on the scale that runs from bone dry to medium sweet. They have more ways of making rosé wines open to them than any other region. The fruit can be all from one vintage, blends of a few recent vintages, or the majority from one year, but blended with a multitude of older wines. They can be single vineyard or multi-site blends. They can be varietal wines, or blends of up to seven different varieties. They can be released relatively fresh, or matured for many years either on the lees or post-disgorgement. Or any combination of the above.

This huge diversity, coupled with the fact that we are by far the biggest export market for Champagne (35m bottles last year, the second biggest being the USA at 19m bottles) might lead you to think it would be easy to find a massive variety of Champagnes in the UK. But it’s still not as easy as you’d expect. Just like Burgundy, here are hundreds of small artisan producers making brilliant, characterful, unusual, fascinating and great value wines. But the vast majority of restaurants and wine shops in the UK still concentrate on the ubiquitous Grandes Marques and other big negociant Champagne houses. Of the Champagnes we imported into the UK in 2011 just 1.5% of bottles were from growers. Japan imports less than a quarter the volume of Champagne we do – but it imports more grower champagne than us.

It’s understandable that supermarkets work almost exclusively with big brands (or co-operative wineries for their vast own-label requirements). They need huge volumes, and they value consistency and recognisable brands: all requirements that the smaller growers have trouble in supplying. But most independent wine shops and quality minded restaurants have been slow to catch on. Admittedly we are seeing one or two growers sneaking in to many selections, but usually just for the ‘house’ champagne. In the past five years we have seen more concerted attention by a handful of retailers who stock a large range of growers such as Armit Wines, The Sampler, Lea & Sandeman, Theatre of Wine, Berry Bros, Bottle Apostle, Define Fine Wines and Vine Trail which is great – but a drop in the ocean really, and very London-centric. Tom Jarvis from Bottle Apostle: “our growers (Tarlant, Veuve Fourny, Paul Déthune, Gallimard) are holding their own very well and getting a decent share of our Champagne sales… It is hard to comment on why independents might be relying on the bigger names, when they could be stung by a promotion at the nearest Tesco.” Why has the broader UK wine trade been slow to catch on?

When it comes to creating recognisable brands in the UK market, you have to take your hat off to the Champenois. At the sub-£10 end, there are many recognisable Australian and Californian wine brands that line the supermarket shelves, but at the £20+ end, it is only really Champagne that has managed to achieve this.

The Champagne making process is time and labour intensive, and the grapes are the most expensive in the world. This adds up to a costly product. The average cost of a bottle of wine in the UK still bobs along under £5 per bottle, but thanks to its intrinsically celebratory aura, this is one wine where many are prepared to make the occasional exception. And when spending many times the average retail price all on a single bottle, a reassuring brand is particularly valuable when making a selection. In a supermarket where there is no-one to help you choose, this is useful. But one of the principle benefits of good restaurants and independent shops is that there is someone to ask, and someone to help us make a selection when the wines aren’t recognisable.

Champagne is often bought as a gift, and the bearer may want the receiver to understand the value of their offering, and this is another reason a recognisable brand is preferred. Patrick Sandeman from Lea & Sandeman certainly sees this: most customers “will still opt for a bright orange label and recognisable brand when they wish to impress at a party or with a gift”. So it would be understandable for independent wine shops to stock a few branded wines for this purpose. But what about their core market, the wine lover – the drinker that wants to explore and drink fantastic wines, rather than simply show off the label? They are being under-served, particularly seeing as these wines can be such great value: Sandeman agrees “they offer such excellent value for money compared to most of the Grandes Marques”.

Other countries don’t share our lack of confidence when it comes to stocking artisan Champagnes. The US has embraced them, and it is relatively easy to get hold of a wide variety of growers’ champagnes. This may well have something to do with the proliferation of independent wine shops in the US market. But Belgium and Japan, the fourth and fifth biggest export markets for Champagne, have also been quick to adopt smaller producers – both import over 7% of their champagnes from growers. The dominance of supermarkets in the UK wine trade may make the Grandes Marques more visible, increasing the strength of their brands, but nonetheless, we are lagging well behind. It’s time the UK trade stopped fearing the strength of the big brands, and started getting behind the smaller producers like they have so well with the other famous regions of France.

The growers don’t have the volume to get big distribution. They don’t always have the in-house expertise to market or advertise their wines, and rarely the funds to do it above the line anyway. It is up to us to go to them. But it’s only a 2½ drive from Calais, so not that difficult to manage. Many grower champagnes don’t have the consistency of the big houses; some can be a little rustic or unusual, and some simply aren’t very good. So careful selection is important, and so is regular tasting of new bottlings, disgorgements and vintages. Sandeman also points out that because of their relatively small production compared to bigger houses “the introduction of small growers champagnes is not limitless”. Equally, some of the big negociants houses such as Louis Roederer, Pol Roger, Bollinger and Krug make terrific Champagnes, and shouldn’t be dismissed just because they don’t own all their own vineyards. But variety and discovery are surely all part of the fun of drinking.

In the UK, when it comes to fine wines, because of the strength of the Champagne brands many of us think we know Champagne better than any other region. If I asked a group of people in the average pub which Champagnes they liked, I suspect many people would state a preference; it would be revealing to ask the same group which Bordeaux wines they enjoyed – a stony silence would likely be the result. But the wines of Champagne are sorely underrepresented on these shores. It’s time we put that right. The good thing is we’ve got it all ahead of us to discover.

Here are twenty fantastic artisanal champagnes whose wines I have tasted recently and are well worth exploring:

Autréau (Champillon)
André Beaufort (Ambonnay)
Cedric Bouchard (Aube)
Coutier (Ambonnay)
Doyard (Vertus)
Egly-Ouriet (Ambonnay)
Juillet-Lallement (Verzy)
Lahaye (Bouzy)
Lancelot-Royer (Cramant)
Larmandier-Bernier (Vertus)
Georges Laval (Cumières)
Léclapart (Trepail) (David Léclapart is pictured above)
Lilbert (Cramant)
Pierre Péters (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger)
Jacques Selosse (Avize)
Soutiran (Ambonnay)
Tarlant (Oeuilly)
Varnier-Fannière (Avize)
J. L. Vergnon (Le Mesnil-sur-Oger)
Waris Larmandier (Avize)
 

Thanks to the Champagne Bureau for providing the data.


Leave a Reply