The picture brightens in the world’s priciest wine region. There is no cheap Champagne, but there is also no bad Champagne, (although much of it is rather dilute).
The question in Champagne is one of character and individuality. Permitted yields in Champagne are the highest of any fine wine region in France. As only a small minority of growers estate bottle under their own names, they have no incentive to limit yields in the interest of quality. Their customers are either local co-ops, for whom concentration is not an issue, or the “Grandes Marques” négociants. These pride themselves on consistency, achieved in part by blending their wines from a range of districts within Champagne. Here again, with few exceptions, intensity of flavor is not the first priority. There is consistency, quality, and for the better Marques a true house style. But where is the character of the terroir, which can only come from a specific place, and then only from low yields?
Two hundred years ago all Bordeaux was négociant bottled. Château Lafite came from a dozen merchants who bought the wine in barrel and aged and bottled it themselves. Today great Bordeaux is Château bottled. Fifty years ago most fine Burgundy was also négociant bottled. Today top restaurants may avoid even fine négociant wines in favor of estate bottlers.
The third shoe is dropping. What happened in Bordeaux 200 years ago is now coming to Champagne. The percentage of Champagne sold by négociants has fallen below 50% and increasingly we are seeing Estate Champagnes of true individuality – vivid Chardonnays from the Côtes des Blancs, aristocratic Pinot Noirs from the Montagne de Reims and earthy Meuniers from the Vallée de la Marne. Many of these estate-bottlers offer a range with perhaps several different vintages from several grapes and/or top level blends. In response some négociants have begun to expand their range of bottlings with different bottling dates, blends and aging periods. It’s a great time for consumers to be Champagne lovers. All it takes is disposable income and a celebratory mood, both, alas, in short supply today.