One common stereotype of the French is that they’re stubborn traditionalists, uncomfortable at best, and resistant at worst, to change. And on the surface of things, champagne embodies this stereotype. At least in the UK, its image feels staid, expensive, and ubiquitous. We’ve been offered the same champagne brands for decades, with the majority of us - if we’re being honest - unable to pinpoint a premier cru if it exploded in our face.
It might not be this way forever, however; champagne, slowly but surely, has been changing for the better. As more and more producers get interested in the processes that have grounded their industry for so long, experimentation now leads the way, and we are only just beginning to sample the results.
"It’s 9.45am, but that hasn’t stopped Ben from uncorking a bottle, and pouring me a tulip-shaped glass"
The traditional blend of champagne comprises three grape varieties: two red grapes, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and one white grape, Chardonnay. To create the most popular, traditional blend, these three grapes are combined during the production process to create a balanced sip that borrows structure from the noir, a juicy fruitiness from the Meunier, and a clear, crisp palette from the chardonnay.
This standard blend has withstood change for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of the large houses (which are often owned by massive booze conglomerates) care more about buying and selling grapes for high prices than encouraging creativity. Secondly, the reality is that marketing small batches of experimental champagne is an incredibly tough slog.
When you’re competing against the million pound budgets of the grand houses, who dominate supermarket shelves, you’re already massively on the back foot. That’s without taking into account the years of ageing required to create fine champagne, when in that time, no money is made - whereas selling your grapes is immediate and profitable.
Amidst the increasing number of vine plots owned by multinational companies, grower-producers still exist and thrive, refusing to sell their land - for millions - in favour of maintaining small-batch production, and the independence to innovate.
Young makers Melanie and Ben Tarlant, the youngest generation of historic grower-producers Champagne Tarlant, are some of the most steadfast rebels against the mass production of champagne. Have they been approached by the grandes maisons?
“We’re blacklisted,” Ben scoffed when we spoke, while Melanie laughed along encouragingly. “We will never sell,” she added. “We are born from too much heritage.”
It’s 9.45am, but that hasn’t stopped Ben from uncorking a bottle, and pouring me a tulip-shaped glass (flutes are a bad idea, the wine can’t oxygenate properly). It is bold and complex; unlike anything I have ever tasted from a supermarket shelf.
We are sat in an extended wing of the Tarlant family home, surrounded by photos of their ancestors. Ben is late but his mother, also a champagne-maker, indulges in stories of the Tarlant family pictured on the walls around me - I get the impression that hospitality is the Tarlant’s second passion, usurped only by wine-making.
Not selling up has allowed the Tarlants to be wildly experimental. This year they have proudly sold the very first bottles of champagne ever to have been aged underground in clay pots, a style of wine production popular in Georgia.
“We have never tasted anything like this before, it's like speaking a language that you’ve never heard before,” explained Melanie. The first clay bottles came from the 2012 harvest, and in the time since then, the wine has sat ageing. “We are just starting,” Melanie continued as she held the finish product. “The first 12 bottles from the clay have just been shipped to Japan.”
Drawing a distinction against the steel barrels that champagne has been aged in since the late 19th century, Melanie highlighted the oxygenation that this wine undergoes, comparing it “to the wood-ageing process. The wine has a natural exchange with the clay.”
Away from the clay pots, the Tarlants have also been working to cut out one of champagne production’s more saccharine steps. In the past, disgorgement - the process of adding sugar to champagne - was almost a given, whereas these days, it’s a process that already feels a bit old-fashioned. “If we feel like the wine is needing dosage, we age it again until it no longer needs the sugar,” explained Melanie. “The idea is not looking for sweetness, but looking for harmony.”
The quality of the wine, Melanie explains, is actually down to the exact and frustrating science of timing: the timing of picking the grapes, of pressing them, and of storing the end result. “Everything is coming from the fruit,” says Melanie. “If you want to control your fruit’s quality, you have to work on it. My family have been making our own champagne for more than a century. The pruning is done not in order to produce a quantity, but to produce quality.”
Others experiment with the blending process, rather than the ageing process, in order to create something different. Hélène Charbaut, of champagne house Leclerc Briant (who age their bottles hundreds of feet below sea level), told me that their unusual blends stand out for their recipe, rather than their method.
Hélène explained: “Our rosé d’assemblage is made with 95% Chardonnay and 5% Pinot Noir. Normally in champagne, you find rosé d’assemblages with a majority of Pinot Noir, not a minority of it - that’s why ours stands out.”
Hélène lets me peek inside Leclerc Briant’s shiny new production facility in the heart of the village of Epernay. Down in the wine caves, carved into the chalk bedrock of the Champagne region, there is one stand-out aging barrel, glimmering from amongst the rows and rows of vintages.
"Boizel’s cuvée casts aside the rules about Pinot Noir being a balancing act in champagne, bringing it forward as a solo voice"
“The inside of this barrel is gold,” Hélène proudly explained. “The objective of the winemaker is to find the best way to make champagne, and gold is the most precious metal for biodynamic wine, which we specialise in. This will bring something entirely different - a different energy to the wine,” she said.
If independent producers are defined by experimentation, what does innovation mean to the grand champagne houses along Avenue de Champagne, Epernay’s central tourist attraction? I meet with Florent Roques Boizel, of Boizel Champagne, a mid-sized house on the Avenue with a considerable following.
“More and more champagne is consumed with food over a meal,” he said, as we drank. “With fish, with scallops, or something more powerful like a risotto with mushrooms”. If the end goal is to balance champagne with food, it is necessary to make new and varying types of champagne to pair with a large number of dishes.
Florent poured me a glass of his 100% Pinot Noir champagne, which he explained is “very rare” for a champagne house. “Our house is known for Pinot Noir dominant blend, so we wanted to show the character of the grape on its own.” As such, Boizel’s cuvée casts aside the rules about Pinot Noir being a balancing act in champagne, bringing it forward as a solo voice.
“This first release sold quickly, so we had to increase the production, and now it’s almost the same as the blanc de blanc [one of Boizel’s most popular cuvées]. We’ve had a great response to the Noir, especially when paired with food. It’s not a cuvée people know; it’s not something they will pick from a shelf.” Not yet, anyway, but with the liberated spirit of the modern grower-producers, we might have a whole new world of champagne to explore in the near future.
Adam Bloodworth is a freelance journalist based in London. Keep up with him on Twitter.
Adam was a guest of the De Venoge guest house on the Avenue de Champagne, one of the few champagne houses that accepts overnight guests.