Tasting Champagne Terroir: Helicopters and Horses

by Jim Clarke
February 2008

Champagne, as a region, wants to have it both ways. They’re big on terroir, and aggressively hound anyone who wants to apply the Champagne classification to wine made elsewhere. They're looking to expand their borders a bit (at the moment, there isn’t enough plantable land to keep up with the demand for the wines), but selecting nearby vineyards and villages that are consistent with the terroir qualities is a difficult process.

But within the borders of the officially designated zone, the specifics of an individual vineyard rarely make it to the bottle unadulterated; most Champagnes are blends of different grape varieties from different villages. There is a system of crus, but while in Burgundy a Grand or Premier Cru may designate a specific vineyard, distinguished in character and possibly quality from its neighbors, in Champagne a whole village gets the classification. The system – called the echelles des crus – is more about setting grape prices than about character; not wishing to dilute their core message, the region’s official website, champagne.com, doesn’t even mention the cru classifications and their differences in quality.

While there are some single-vineyard Champagnes of great individuality, their reputation and small production means they call for a deep wallet – I’m thinking of wines like Krug’s ‘Clos du Mesnil’ (a mere 4.6 acres) or Philipponnat’s ‘Clos des Goisses.” However, it is possible to find affordable wines that bear the stamp of a particular village, especially from the cellars of smaller houses and grower-producers.

One producer focused on capturing a sense of terroir is Larmandier-Bernier. Based in Vertus, a village at the south end of the Cotes des Blancs, they have three wines that focus on individual villages from that part of the region. A visit to some leading biodynamic producers in Alsace and Burgundy led Pierre and Sophie Larmandier to adopt biodynamics practices in their own vineyards, both to improve the quality if the wines and for the health of the vineyards. Interestingly, they use a helicopter to spray their vines; a common practice in Champagne, but a jarring bit of technology when the spray is biodynamic. (Sophie tells me the financial and environmental cost is nothing compared to doing the same work with a tractor, and the chopper allows them to apply the spray promptly when called for, instead of the few days it would take otherwise.)

The Larmandiers also opt for a very low dosage (the sugar added at the end of the Champagne making process) in their wines; the sweetness of a higher dosage puts a veil over the character of the wine. In fact, their ‘Né d’une Terre de Vertus’ (“Born from the soil of Vertus”) receives no dosage at all. It’s 100% Chardonnay, and, while not labeled as a vintage wine, the current release is made from grapes from the 2005 vintage. Light-bodied and dry, it shows lots of mineral and flint notes, as well as some fig and quince on the palate, with an almost briny finish. Contrast that with the ‘Vieilles Vignes de Cramant’ from another village farther north on the Cotes. It’s creamier, and shows more fruit as well: quince and fig, yes, but also pear and a note of caraway spice. It’s also beautifully smooth and long. For a touch of Champagne terroir without the bubbles, they also make a wonderful Coteaux Champenois, from 100 percent Vertus Pinot Noir. It’s not imported into the U.S. but it's worth a mention; with smoke, earth, raspberry and blackberry flavors as well as superb structure and length, it’s a different and unusual way of looking at the local terroir.

Another producer putting vineyard character into focus is Pascal Agrapart. He uses a horse instead of a helicopter in one of his vineyards; in appreciation of his steed's hard work, a wine is even named after her. All of Agrapart’s vineyards are in Grand Cru villages, and they’re all Blanc de Blancs wines except for the Rosé. The house style leans toward malolactic fermentation and lots of old barrels, making for a more rounded, fuller style than that of Larmandier-Bernier. The Venus 2002 Blanc de Blancs Brut Nature is another no dosage wine, from old vines in Agrapart’s “home village” of Avize. It currently shows a lot of lime, quince, pear, and mineral aromas; it’s a bit closed, and I expect a year will bring on the smoky power that the 2001 is currently showing. The L’Avizoise 2002 is another 100% Chardonnay from different vineyards in the same village; it’s broader, already showing some smokiness and flint along with baked pear touches. It’s got a smooth texture and good length as well. Another wine, the ‘Mineral,’ uses Chardonnay grapes from two Grand Cru villages, Avize and Cramant (this blurs the idea of village terroir, but Champagne is like that). The ‘Minéral’ 2000 is brighter than the other wines, with more citrus and chalk, and a bit lighter body; that signature smoky touch appears on the finish.

There’s still not much to go on. It’s hard to really get a sense of village’s terroir without multiple examples, and with few producers making single-village (or even single vineyard) wines from the same locations, it can be hard to separate the producer’s style from the vineyard’s character. One of the joys of Burgundy, for example, is comparing several producer’s take on a vineyard, and deducing its fingerprint from what they have in common. Nonetheless, both Agrapart and Larmandier-Bernier are trying to minimize their touch, letting the grapes speak for themselves to a greater degree than many in Champagne. If these wines become part of your regular drinking habits, you’ll have vintage after vintage to find that core – time well spent.

Here are the wines mentioned above, with approximate retail prices, plus a couple more wines from individual villages to look for:

Larmandier-Bernier ‘Né d’une Terre de Vertus’ ($40)
Larmandier-Bernier ‘Vieilles Vignes de Cramant’ 2004 ($50)
Larmandier-Bernier Vertus Coteaux Champenois 2002 ($NA)

Agrapart ‘Venus’ 2002 ($96)
Agrapart ‘L’Avizoise’ 2002 ($53)
Agrapart ‘Mineral’ 2000 ($53)

Egly-Ouriet ‘Les Crayeres’ Blanc de Noirs NV ($100; a single-vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir from the Grand Cru village of Ambonnay)

Jacquesson Avize Grand Cru 1996 ($75; another great, powerful Blanc de Blancs; compare with the two Avize wines from Agrapart to find the essence of this village’s wines)