Champagne’s terroir problem
The train to Champagne departs Paris every hour at 36 minutes past from Gare de l’Est. While the carriages might be from an past era, the trip isn’t long with the congestion and sirens of Paris fading away almost as soon as the doors close.
An hour out, the train slows down for its first stop in the town of Château-Thierry. The stop is clearly intentional as it’s there that the vineyards of Champagne begin to gush out along the slopes that fold and roll along the Vallée de la Marne, continuing until after getting off the train in Épernay. In September, just after harvest, some are on the cusp of flashing russet but regardless of leaf color, the vines themselves appear incredibly uniform.
The strict edicts of Champagne’s regulating body, the CIVC, are clearly seen as the vines show little difference with their upright shoots. In the first half of the year, these crew-cut soldiers will readily armed themselves with grapes only to then surrender them to harvest thus creating the world’s most famous sparkling wine.
It’s hard to get past the monotony of vines, such much so that you’d think Champagne was one producer’s massive vineyard. But, there is great variety in these vines what with 19,000 independent growers in the region who farm the 34,000ha of vines. This singularity is of course more recognized today with the rise of “Grower Champagne”, although apparently due to a loophole, the Récoltant Manipulant (RM) which would otherwise indicate this can’t always be trusted, but that was told to me by a tipsy co-owner of a cellar during a tasting so I don’t know how much of it is fact and the rest, bubble.
I visited one of these “Growers” last fall (not the tipsy one) in the Côte des Blancs called, Doyard Mahé. Set just outside the village of Vertus with a rumbling stream and old mill next to their cellar, it would take a great deal of effort for it to not be a charming setting. As has finally become the case at many French wineries, it was daughter, Carole Doyard who took over from her father and now runs the winery today making wonderful Vintage as well as Non-Vintage Champagnes.
A trip out to their vineyards immediately showed that while everything may seem the same at eye level, when you look down, there’s a world of difference. The photo at the top is the end of their vineyards on the right and the start of their neighbor’s on the left. They farm organic, their neighbor not. It might not be abundantly clear in the photo, but when you scratch at the dirt of their vineyard, it’s darker, alive and smells like, well, dirt. The neighbor’s plot smells nearly sterile.
This is an ongoing issue for Champagne as their northern latitudes make them very susceptible to rot and fungal issues so it’s difficult to work organically or even biodynamically although Louis Roederer is a massive proponent of the latter. There is movement in this direction however as over the last decade, organic viticulture has gone from a meager 0.5% of all the vineyards to a still small, but slightly less meager 2%. And there is more thinking in this direction as time goes on and they’re seeing warming vintages as shown by 2018 which was a blockbuster in terms of quality, quantity, and grape health. Climate Change has so far been a boon for Champagne.
The taste of Paris
There is however another lingering element in the vineyards of Champagne which is for lack of any other good descriptor, literal garbage. If you kneel in many vineyards in Champagne and want to feel that soil and take in the terroir, you’ll probably slice your hand on something sharp. For some 20 or 30 years actual trash from Paris and nearby Reims was plowed into the vineyards with the idea that it would enrich the soil and increase mineral content–an ironic concept in a region known for its high mineral concentrations in the soil due to the Kimmeridgian soils.
This was in fact one of the reasons for the garbage adventure in that they were having issues with Chlorosis wherein the leaves weren’t producing enough chlorophyll. Of course, no one was thinking in a holistic sense and the issue wasn’t the soil but how the vines attached to it given that re-grafting to American rootstocks was necessary to have vines that wouldn’t succumb to phylloxera. It turned out that these rootstocks did not get on well with the endemic soil of Champagne.
The real solution wasn’t dumping garbage but planting vines grafted to lime-resistant rootstocks typed as, “41B”. Curiously, this isn’t a fully non-vinifera rootstock and is a hybrid between Switzerland’s Chasselas (a vinifera grape) and Vitis Berlandieri (which is not vinifera and from Texas/New Mexico). While this was great to deal with the Chlorosis and has made for healthier vines, it comes with a downside as it ups the risk for phylloxera attacks since it’s only moderately resistant to the aphid that is still very much present. But, I can’t see this ultimately being a tremendous problem as the Champenois tear out and replant every 20-30 years anyways.
This is most probably more than anyone ever wanted to think about when popping the cork on the bubble. But, the net result is a soil that isn’t nearly as glamorous as the image put out by Champagne and unfortunately this garbage will only break down into smaller pieces with plowing. Getting it fully out, I can’t see possible as it was intentionally worked into the soil and plastic just doesn’t go away.
If you do find yourself in Champagne, have a look at the terroir and see all this for yourself. Keep in mind that the resulting wine isn’t affected by these bits of junk in the soil and while unfortunate, these vineyards are even able to be certified organic. Hopefully they’ll also be healthier and more robust which in theory, should lead to a better wine, or at the very least, one that doesn’t leave you sipping on trace pesticides.