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Wine isn’t just a beverage. It’s a way of viewing the world— a living, breathing piece of history and tradition, which reflects the identity of the people and places in which it’s made.

Growing Pains: The Shifting Image of Champagne

Growing Pains: The Shifting Image of Champagne

JANUARY 8, 2015  |  Story: ZACHARY SUSSMAN   |  Illustration: JEN KRUCH

Growing Pains: The Shifting Image of Champagne

We’ve all been cautioned not to judge a book by its cover, and the same principle generally applies to wine. But who hasn’t bought a bottle based solely upon the image printed on the label?

Even if it doesn’t always indicate what to expect from a wine stylistically, label art exists for a reason: Whether in the form of a cupcake or the etching of a fancy chateau, it imparts some kind of story or message that informs our experience of drinking the bottle. Often, the idea isn’t so subtle. It might prove difficult, however, for the average drinker to decode the meaning behind a label like that of the celebrated Champagne firm Louis Roederer’s new 2006 “Brut Nature” bottling.

Designed by architect and designer Philippe Starck, the label bears little resemblance to any other in Roederer’s portfolioor, to be honest, the region at large. In contrast to the aristocratic ideals of “old world” elegance to which most Champagne aspires (just imagine the standard cursive script and impressive family insignia, framed by some sort of baroque floral trim), the blank square of Starck’s “Brut Nature” bears nothing other than the artist’s own minimalist, almost childlike or “Art Brut” (yes, pun intended) handwriting.

If this reads like a departure from the values we typically associate with Champagne, it’s for good reason. In many ways, the Starck bottling represents compelling visual evidence of larger changes taking place within the region as it transitions away from the luxury or nightclub stereotypes of the 1990s and early aughts. As such, the label’s bare aesthetic, “stripped of any superfluous embellishment,” as Starck describes it on the website, redirects focus upon the wine itself, which represents Roederer’s first release of a “non dosage” Champagne.

Often called “Brut Nature” or “Brut Zero,” this refers to a specific style of Champagne to which no extra sugar, or “dosage,” has been added. Although dosage has traditionally been viewed as necessary step towards balancing Champagne’s sharp acidity, today some drinkers view the practice with skepticism, claiming that it can obscure a wine’s underlying expression. For this reason, the “Brut Nature” category has become increasingly fashionable among a new generation of Champagne purists.

This is the same generation whose tastes developed alongside the rise of the so-called “grower” movement, which many credit for injecting an alternative spirit into a historically brand-conscious region.

Rather than follow the traditional model of selling their grapes to the large négociant houses, or Grandes Marques—many of which are owned by multinational luxury goods conglomerates like LVMH—these independent, often family-owned producers make their own estate-grown and bottled Champagnes, typically from the fruit of a single village or even a single vineyard. Hence the category’s meteoric rise in popularity here in the U.S. among a new wave of sommeliers, journalists and industry professionals, whose own ideological leanings the grower narrative implicitly mirrors.

“In the past, there was a fixed paradigm regarding what Champagne is,” explains Peter Liem, the author of ChampagneGuide.net. “It was controlled by a handful of prominent names, and everyone knew what Champagne meant. That definition still exists, but it’s just one dialogue. Now we have multiple paradigms, and Champagne can mean many different things. If, according to another dialogue, Champagne is also a real wine, the question then becomes, ‘What are its values?'”

Although the situation in Champagne encompasses a far more complex spectrum, it isn’t difficult to imagine how the grower movement’s success has benefitted from a certain “David and Goliath” dichotomy, pitting the agrarian values of the family farmers—with their claim to authenticity—against those of the large commercial firms, whose identities have traditionally revolved around maintaining a consistent “house style” for consumers to expect from year to year.

In this context, however, the most interesting aspect of Roederer’s release isn’t the fact that it’s a “Brut Nature” wine. The past few years have seen a general trend towards drier Champagnes, and several established brands—including Ayala, Feuillatte and Pol Roger—have already incorporated “zero dosage” bottlings into their lineups. Even as early as 1981, the storied house of Laurent-Perrier first produced an example, designed as the reincarnation of the “Grand Vin Sans Sucre” they developed in 1889 to be served at the restaurant in the Eiffel Tower.

What makes Roederer’s interpretation of the trend newsworthy is the marketing concept behind it, which spins a far more artisanal narrative than one might expect from the launch of a new Champagne from a “big house.”

Featuring several photos of the company’s vineyards near the village of Cumières, including a particularly bucolic image of a horse-drawn plow, the press kit that accompanies the bottle—much of which is reproduced on the Roederer website— frames the effort in terms of “a quest for authenticity,” involving a “great respect for nature” and a “deep attachment to the land.” Accordingly, their stated philosophy “places research and respect for the terroir on an equal footing” and “endeavours to respect the characteristics of each of the 410 parcels in the Louis Roederer vineyard.”

To be fair, the house has been moving in this direction for quite some time; it continues, for instance, to convert its approximately 240 hectares of vines to biodynamic viticulture. On some level, then, this terroir-driven angle doesn’t register as such a shock. But for a producer as iconic as Roederer—the very same house that produces a wine as frequently name-dropped as Cristal—to steer the conversation in this direction raises questions about Champagne’s evolving cultural landscape.

One way to frame the issue might be to ask whether, influenced by the cult success of the “grower” movement, Roederer and some of its peers might be embracing a more homespun, soil-based ethos. The extent of the grower’s impact upon Champagne as a whole, however, remains subject to debate. With the big houses still accounting for over 70 percent of production, not to mention the vast majority of international sales, the grower category certainly feels niche by comparison.

“Grower Champagnes have always existed, however they were not imported to the U.S. in a broad way until a few years ago,” says Francois Beall of Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, the region’s third-largest brand in terms of global sales. “A few importers decided to bring these wines to the States, and they have benefited from the attention that famous houses like Moët, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte and Roederer bring to the overall Champagne category. However, the percentage of the sub-category of grower Champagnes is small and likely doesn’t have much of an impact on public perception.”

This may indeed hold true in terms of total sales, of which the big houses will always represent the lion’s share, thanks in large part to the millions of entry-level, non-vintage Champagne sold as a mass-market luxury in airports, grocery stores, restaurants, nightclubs and hotel chains across the world. Given Champagne’s historic success as a branded wine, it’s difficult to imagine that this segment of the industry will be quick to abandon the lifestyle marketing upon which it has so heavily relied.

On the other hand, even if many of the larger houses dismiss grower Champagne as a different or insignificant category, the dialogue in which Roederer is engaging broaches the far more meaningful issue of whether, philosophically, the grower’s influence is blurring the lines between “big” and “small” and reshaping Champagne’s definition as a wine.

“Historically, Champagne has been marketed as a commodity,” says Peter Liem, the author of ChampagneGuide.net, an award-winning online guide to the wines and producers of Champagne. “If you want to talk about the influence of grower Champagne, what they’ve done is help bring the narrative back to Champagne as a wine. In that sense, it’s possible that their increased popularity has accelerated the efforts of certain houses to bring viticulture back into their marketing dialogue earlier than they would have otherwise.”

If the fundamental influence of the grower movement, then, has been to promote the wider recognition of Champagne as an actual wine—or rather, as an agricultural product as opposed to a Veblen good—it follows that, like any other expression of vinous identity, it should say something about the place from which it comes.

“In the past, there was a fixed paradigm regarding what Champagne is,” Liem explains. “It was controlled by a handful of prominent names, and everyone knew what Champagne meant. That definition still exists, but it’s just one dialogue. Now we have multiple paradigms, and Champagne can mean many different things. If, according to another dialogue, Champagne is also a real wine, the question then becomes, ‘What are its values?'”

Ultimately, as Roederer’s example illustrates (after all, the involvement of a world-renowned designer like Starck clearly represents some form of “elite” branding), this imperative doesn’t necessarily conflict with notions of luxury, which will always play a central role in Champagne. Even if the quest to appeal to consumers on a luxury basis hasn’t fundamentally changed, the artisanal narrative Roederer has embraced signals the broader ways in which our notions of luxury might be shifting.

Whether it comes to selling a bottle of ubiquitous entry-level “Yellow Label” Veuve Clicquot or the most obscure, limited-production grower Champagne, there’s always a story to be told. At this particular chapter in Champagne’s evolving history, the future will ultimately be shaped by which new story it chooses to adopt.

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