When Champagne Doesn't Fizz

Three hundred years ago, the wine produced in the Champagne region of northern France was famous throughout Europe, and it was a still wine. That is, it didn’t have bubbles, at least not intentionally. The region’s soil – some of it chalky, and much of it on hilly slopes – produced wines that were prized for their finesse and elegance though everyone knew the region was so far north it was often hard to get the grapes really ripe.

 Roederer Chef-du-Caves Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon joins me in the vineyards

Roederer Chef-du-Caves Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon joins me in the vineyards

Through a series of accidents that included exploding bottles, cloudy wines and harshly acidic wines in years of poor ripeness, the Champenois learned to capitalize on their wines’ shortcomings: they put the wine in strong bottles that wouldn’t explode when fermentation resumed in the bottle when the warm weather came, they found a way to clarify the wine without destroying the resulting (and now intentional) bubbles and they discovered that adding a bit of sugar to encourage those bubbles also tamed the acidity. And thus was born our modern idea of Champagne: clear, bright, well balanced and refreshingly effervescent.

And now Champagne Louis Roederer cellar master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon wants to change that. Lécaillon (at the right with me when he allowed me one year to help with the harvest in the Roederer vineyards) told Britain’s Decanter Magazine that he is considering releasing a still red wine from Champagne, made from pinot noir grown in one of his most prized vineyards. This is not as revolutionary as it may at first seem. Champagne produces still red wines all the time (it’s an essential component in making rosé) and there is a specific appellation for it, Coteaux Champenois. I’ve had still pinot noir from Champagne many times though most I tried are more akin to Beaujolais than Burgundy. It’s not a wine I’d make an effort to purchase and that is fine with the Champenois. I lost track of the number of winemakers who insisted, “it’s a good wine for making rosé but it doesn’t travel.”

 Roederer's vineyard in Mareuil sur Aÿ

Roederer's vineyard in Mareuil sur Aÿ

And that’s where Lécaillon thinks he is on to something. This is a rare instance of a well-regarded Champagne brand contemplating the release of a still wine under its own name. He says he’s been making still reds from this one plot in the village of Mareuil-sur-Aÿ for 13 years, along with many other trial plots throughout the region. I read the announcement and thought, “I’ve seen those grapes” – the plot is in the vineyard where I painstakingly (and not very productively) “helped” harvest a few Septembers ago. Lécaillon says that in 2015 he finally thinks the vines have given him a wine worth considering as worthy of release. It is, he told Decanter, “more (like) Côte de Nuits, but obviously it’s not Côte de Nuit.” One would not expect it to be like Burgundy, but given that Champagne is just 100 miles north of Burgundy some affinity is certainly understandable.

With only 3,000 to 4,000 bottles available from the one hectare plot, this isn’t a wine that can be readily commercialized, but what the announcement does indicate is that the same global warming that is allowing the English to produce decent sparkling wine in Cornwal, has raised the average temperature in Champagne three degrees over the past 30 years. That may not seem like a lot, but to a vine it makes a huge difference. With that temperature rise comes increasing yields and improving ripeness, and maybe, just maybe, a new era in which still wine from Champagne is again recognized as one of the world’s great red wines (and white too, since Lécaillon is also exploring still chardonnay).

In the meantime, please pass the bubbles so I can toast their prospects.