The French-Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry sponsored a trade day on Tuesday, A Taste of French Terroirs. The event proved a great opportunity to sample Champagne from some great grower-producers: Breton Fils, Champagne Mailly Grand Cru, Champagne Marc & Fils, Champagne Paul Goerg, and Champagne CH. & A. Prieur, also makers of Champagne Napoleon. In general, these Champagne Houses are grower co-operatives or family run businesses.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Champagne: Highlights of a Memorable Tasting, an increasing number of independent grower-producers in the Champagne region are interested in making people think about Champagne in the same way as they would a fine Bordeaux of Burgundy. The importance of terroir as defined by the health of the vineyard, the soil type, climatic conditions and the artisanal skill of the winemaker are gaining resonance in understanding and assessing the quality of fine Champagne.
The grower-producers blend to a house style, but unlike the bigger houses that draw their grapes from a multiple of regions within Champagne, the grower producers typically limit their selection to vineyards from their own village. Consequently, one of the best ways to appreciate terroir is to try the wines produced by the smaller houses. Champagne Paul Goerg, for example, which was founded by a grower’s co-operative in 1950, makes Champagne primarily from the chardonnay grape. Its 120 hectares of premier cru vineyards near Vertus, just south of the famed Cotes des Blanc, have micro-terroirs that lend the wines from different vineyards unique characteristics. The south facing areas, for example, produce rich and supple wines, whereas the east facing slopes give the wine rigour and minerality.
Only 17 of Champagne’s 319 villages currently enjoy the highest Grand Cru status. The Mailly Grand Cru estate is a single vineyard 70 hectare site divided into 480 plots cared for by 80 winegrowers. The winery, a glass built building above seven levels of cellars and a kilometre-long stretch of chalk caves, makes an extensive range of highly rated Champagne.
As I tasted my way through some excellent Champagne, I couldn’t help thinking that these smaller Champagne Houses are one of France’s best kept secrets. Indeed, Lisa Perrotti-Brown of the Wine Advocate notes that “around half of France’s Champagne purchases are the produce of small, individual growers (Grower Champagnes) and co-operatives as opposed to the rest of the world where 90% or more of markets have for a long time been comprised of big brand loyalty.” (Grower Champagnes, eRobert Parker June 2009). In fact, the smaller Houses account for almost a quarter of all Champagne sales and have made good inroads in establishing new markets in recent years, especially in the United States. I’m guessing that with the current strength of the Aussie dollar we will start to see a lot more of the lesser known brands on our shelves.