Winemakers, the new guard

Sep 15, 2020 • 4 mins

For the last twenty years or so, small family producers in Champagne have endeavoured to set themselves apart, bolstered by a flourishing image of painstaking craftsmen working on handtailored wines, some of which sell for a fortune.

In the wake of a few pioneering figures claiming and assuming their role as emancipated winemakers - Anselme Selosse, Francis Egly, Pascal Agrapart – a battalion of producers continues to move Champagne forward with passion and spirit, distinguishing themselves through new methods and experimentation in both the vines and the cellars.

Single plot cuvees, oak barrel ageing, customised dosages and minimalistic dosage, organic or biodynamic viticulture, disgorgement and bottling dates clearly marked on the label... These craftsmen established new practices, upsetting the codes and shaking up Champagne. Their approach is a far cry from how things were done a few decades ago.

There are, of course, many who still choose today to grow their own vines, entrusting the production and marketing to champagne houses; the status of supplier remains a very comfortable position in business terms. It is worth adding that the average size of a vineyard is 2.74 hectares; 69% have less than 2 hectares altogether! These areas are far too small to merit the necessary investments for making a grand champagne.

So why do these winemakers want to manage everything themselves? Nearly 5,000 of them cultivate their own land and bottle their own production, looking for authenticity and a Champagne ideal. 

These small family-owned organisations, carrying the "RM" label (producers who grow their own grapes and make champagne exclusively from their own vines, "récoltant-Manipulant" in french) often from one village, are endeavouring to set themselves apart from the "giants" of the wine trade, each with its own style and a subtle combination of revenge and admiration for these huge houses which fly the banner of Champagne overseas. The best of them have today found their place, producing terroir champagnes in their image, over which the most specialised connoisseurs quarrel.

Craft winemakers unite

Liberated from the major houses, craft winemakers are uniting forces in associations and organisations to promote their wines and cuvées every spring, celebrating Champagne and everything it has to offer. The first group to emerge was Terres et Vins de Champagne created in 2009 by Raphaël Bérèche and Aurélien Laherte.

A second group appeared, the Artisans du Champagne, around Dehours, Gonet-Médeville, Pierre Péters and Gratien, then a third followed, Les Mains du Terroir, with Erick de Sousa, Champagne Philippe Gonet and Paul-Rémi Ariston & Caroline (Champagne Aspasie), then a fourth, Trait d'Union, organised by Sophie Larmandier-Bernier.

Today there are about 20 groups of winemakers, including: Les Fa’Bulleuses (100% women), Les Pépites des Indépendants, Académie du Vin de Bouzy, Les Contrées Ricetonnes, Champagne Terroirs etc., Grands Crus d’Exception de Champagne and Meunier Institut. A contagious sparkle! 

The lads from Marne (and elsewhere)

Anselme Selosse was the unwilling big brother to a first generation of pioneers, raising the terroir’s profile to one of prime importance and practising a demanding form of viticulture which took greater care of the environment. Francis Egly in Ambonnay, Pascal Agrapart in Avize, Pierre Larmandier in Vertus and Jacques Lassaigne in Aube were at the helm of this new generation, preaching the good word of the terroir or rather the terroir as an inspiration. There was never any desire to become a "front line"; it was more about doing things differently and setting the example. These Champenois winemakers opened the door in the early 1990s to another idea of Champagne, the one of crafted wines produced on a small scale which most often coincided with cadastral plots in their terroirs (unlike blended wines from major champagne houses, designed according to their supplies from the cuvées serving as ambassadors for the "house flavour"). Inspired by methods from Burgundy, these collectivism defiers cultivated their grapes in small quantities, replacing faux universal ready-to-drink wine with precise creations.

These pioneers have done the spadework and set a groundswell in motion. The movement’s ancestry often irritates young winemakers who believe they have found the Holy Grail by challenging their elders. Others, somewhat wiser, follow in their footsteps to find their own path. Pascal Doquet, Francis Boulard, Franck and Isabelle Pascal, Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, Alexandre Chartogne, Rodolphe Péters, Raphaël Bérèche, Janisson-Baradon, Ulysse Colin, Emmanuel Brochet, André Jacquart, Jérôme Prévost, Eric Taillet, Gonet-Médeville… Many have embarked on the journey towards champagnes with little dosage, working their land plot by plot, looking for purity above all and mineral edge first and foremost. The objective is to turn champagne into a gastronomic wine, following the example of grand Burgundy wines. More determined than ever, these crusaders of the green and fair order, without being idealistic, have redefined the contours of the winegrowing region, taking care not to erase its powerful imagery of fun and pleasure, a champion of French art de vivre.

Lower yields, grapes harvested at peak ripeness for fleshier and less acidic wines, reduced use of sulphur, extended ageing periods, promoting little-known areas... Everyone is behind the terroir to establish champagne as a wine served throughout a meal, not just as an aperitif or with dessert. As a keen supporter of wines with little sugar, Francis Egly is the first to fight for purity. « People must want to drink my wines. That’s very important.» He shares this vision of Champagne "wines" made with a low yield of ripe grapes with Anselme Selosse. His old vine cuvée from Les Crayères, a Grand Cru produced in 1989, was the first Blanc de Noirs.