In his influential book Champagne Peter Liem speaks of a transformation in the region: a new wave of family growers who are paying closer attention to the farming; using their own grapes rather than selling to the big houses; exploring and working with individual vineyards and parcels like their near neighbours in Burgundy. In short: “the acknowledgement of Champagne as a wine like any other”.
It was 2011 and I was in San Francisco doing an internship at RN74. We received many exciting samples from wineries; who could forget a jeroboam of Cristal! But the bottle that was most discussed was a Champagne called Les Clos (now labelled Le 7), from artisan family grower Laherte Frères. The label was beautiful, a colourful drawing that conveyed freedom. That magical bottle revealed many things to me. The most important was that there were wineries in Champagne that were different, outside the well-known houses that I had studied and we are all familiar with.
There were wineries in Champagne that were different, outside the well-known houses that I had studied and we are all familiar with.
The different faces of Champagne
Changes have been stirring in Champagne for a while now. These changes involve the words vigneron, viticulture, soil care and human-scale wineries. It is incredible to think that quite recently this region was one of the most traditional in its rules and practices. Today we’re starting to see a different face to Champagne, with more individuals and personality showing. These vignerons stopped just being a supplier of fruit to to the large houses. They became a producer of grapes and wine, with their own labels, philosophy, and their way of seeing the world. Thus, suddenly the houses of Champagne were confronted with small landowners, and the diversity of the region increased hugely.
Today we’re starting to see a different face to Champagne, with more individuals and personality showing.
The vignerons are making a virtue of their small size. They're working closely with their land, often organically, and with a light touch in the winery to accentuate the unique qualities and characters of their vineyards. The consumer perceives that a human-sized winery has more traceability, and can control its production from A to Z. The houses buying grapes from 800 hectares of suppliers cannot work in the same way as the vignerons, because it is arduous, complex and because their model doesn’t work at this scale. It is interesting to visit both sides of Champagne - if you visit Grande Marques, you are going to live a totally different experience than if you visit only small producers. There is no other region where the big names work so differently to the small growers.
In Burgundy if you visit both Domaine de la Romanée Conti and a small producer from Comblanchien you will find similarities in the cellar. In Champagne the cathedral like chalk crayères of houses like Taittinger are another world to grower-producers like Selosse, Bérèche et fils and Jerome Prevost to name just a few. And the experience is different: at Taittinger you enter a huge cellar and go to a cinema to see a film about the history of the house; the growers often invite you into their living room to taste some bottles. There are no monumental underground cellars, there is no luxury or splendid history, but what charm they have and what relationships you build.
The people behind the bottles
I visit François at Hure Freres often, and over the years I see how his winery changes. The last time I went he showed me the new press with great pride, I also saw his wife with a new baby. The winery advances, the family grows. We tasted the wines at that long wooden table in the living room, it was cold outside, inside Francois's gaze is sincere. He talks about the work he does with his brother, under the guidance of his father, dedication, time, change and the improvements.
A whole generation of talented winemakers have emerged - the children of grape growers who started making their own wine in the late 1990s or early 2000s - who make wine first, Champagne later. At Hure Freres we talk about the vineyards, and a question that you could never ask a large house in Champagne: how many people work in the vineyard? In the case of Hure Freres, his family, and six extra people since they work organically and biodynamically, they need many hands - nine people for ten hectares!
With their new press they can crush more, but also small batches. This enables them to make single vineyard or parcelaire wines. “The problem with the traditional press is that it is very physical, it needs 4 people to handle it, and in a few minutes the color of the juice is brown” says Francois.
Every detail is thought through.
"Memoire [their reserve cuvee] is stored here" he points to a five-gallon barrel. What he likes about larger barrels is that the wine develops slowly and with more layers. And here appears one of the key words often heard in the homes of small producers: "solera", and "perpetual reserve". At Hure Freres they have a library blend dating back to 1982 – each year they use a little to add depth and complexity to some of their wines, and they top up the solera with fresh wine from the vintage. We continue the visit, an illuminated chalk doorway appears: "My father dug these tunnels in the seventies", everything was done by hand, with a pick and shovel." The single vineyard wines are riddled by hand instead of gyropallets: “They have a different bottle and we also make two thousand from each vineyard”.
"We dug this last part with my father in 1986, until we reached the neighbour's cellar wall." A year ago the neighbour retired and his daughter asked Francois if he was interested in buying the cellar. Francois' eyes lit up - a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a great addition to their cellar. "These days no one wants to dig or tunnel." We laugh and celebrate the news, the space, the joy of Francois sharing the news of the acquisition.
We go up for the tasting, the long table in the room, music and the noise of bottles are heard, the door opens and his children enter with his wife and the laughing baby. It is raining and cold outside, but the atmosphere is bright and the house and the winery are interconnected.