It was the best of times. It was the most demanding of times. A recent foray through the region of Champagne demonstrated the prosperity and the divisions defining modern Champagne.
Liébart-Regnier makes what we Americans know as ‘grower Champagne’. The family has owned property and vineyard land for 8 generations, beginning to make their own wine in the late 1960’s. As a family, with a hired oenologist, they produce less than 60,000 bottles of Champagne every year across 10 styles or cuvées.
Louis Roederer epitomizes a Champagne ‘house’, a conventional, large scale producer vinifying roughly 4 million bottles in a year across at least 9 styles or cuvées.
The great news for both of these produces is that demand for every level of Champagne’s price and production points is holding firm. The luxury drink market seems safe. Prices in Champagne for grapes, labor, machinery and bottles have not seen a dip in more than 6 years. The camps of itinerant workers harvesting the grapes have never looked as well-stocked with modern fifth wheel campers and the cars to pull them. It’s a good time to help pick grapes.
Despite positive cash flow, Champenoise are intrinsically nervous. Long production timelines, long distribution lines, sketchy growing conditions and fluid market conditions conspire to strain that same cash flow. Whether your winery is huge or tiny, large percentages are at stake every year.
Which may be why our hosts inquired after American tastes. The United States drinks the most Champagne, then Russia, then Britain – it has always been an export market symbolized in small ways like the anchor on labels of Veuve Clicquot. They are keen to know what we’re after.
Americans are pursuing both models for the time being. Louis Roederer makes capital-C Champagne, on the lighter side of texture and weight, with complexity, but with the comfortable, textbook, predictable demeanor. Open any bottle of Louis Roederer and I will happily drink it with you. While small producers make Champagne, as bubbly as any Grandes Marque, they know they cannot beat the large houses at their own game. So, they make capital-W wine.
Louis Roederer makes wine too, but the narrow scope of every large house’s wines is so narrow that they largely taste the same to most Americans.
Small producers, growers, with the latitude and injunction to stand out, make distinctive drinks. Less predictable, yes. Less expensive, usually. Less quality, not usually. Less character, not by a mile, or a kilometer as it were.
Quick snapshots of the wines:
Louis Roederer Brut Vintage 2012 was my favorite for the warm depth and range of the darker flavors for which Champagne is more than capable as it comes to room temperature. One of my companions preferred the Blanc de Blanc 2011 with its depth married to nervy minerality while the rest were enamored of the bright, brilliant and food-happy Rose 2013.
From Liébart-Regnier, the L’Instinct and L’Amelie provided the nearest bridge from conventional Champagne while the Arbane/Pinot Blanc/Petit Meslier blend was created from three lesser-known grapes allowed in Champagne and provided the unique, spicy, brilliant acidity and almond/brioche character at the “this is t for everyone” end of the spectrum. Open any of these wines, I will happily join you and we will have a memorable dinner!