Thursday, July 31, 2008

Redefining Champagne


More words on the proposed redefinition of the Champagne appellation, this time by Roger Cohen in today’s New York Times.

I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about this lately (almost exclusively from Americans, by the way — maybe we’re just the most cynical of the world’s wine drinkers). As regular readers of my blog will know, I am not disturbed at all by the expansion. I believe that the issue has been explored with thought and care, and that it has the possibility to relieve some pressure on grape pricing and supply without negatively impacting the overall quality of champagne (particularly the ones that you and I drink). I also prefer the word “redefinition” to “expansion”, as the latter is misleading: the outer boundaries of Champagne are not changing at all. It’s an exploration of the terroir within the current Champagne area to find out if there are suitable parcels of equal (or possibly even better) quality than what already exists.

Cohen makes a good point defending the project against those who scoff at this as merely cashing in by the greedy Champenois: this project was initiated back in 2003, and the first drop of champagne from any new parcels won’t be made until at least 2020, meaning that the entire process will take a minimum of 17 years. Hardly a timescale suitable for pandering to the masses, and in fact, it’s one that could possibly mean that the new plantings won’t even be ready until after the current boom cycle is over. So I think it’s clear that this isn’t simply an attempt to make a quick buck (which is impossible with champagne anyway).

The bizarre thing about Cohen’s article, however, is that he chooses to present the Champagne redefinition issue as an antithesis to globalization and the pressures of international taste, bemoaning the “Californization” of wines such as Chianti and Rioja as they embrace banal uniformity and praising Champagne for not succumbing to our “instant-gratification world”. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that point in and of itself — I agree with him that Champagne is to be lauded for its sense of restraint and commitment to quality regarding this issue. Yet I — and mind you, nobody loves champagne more than I do — even I might hesitate to promote Champagne as a champion of the resistance against globalization and consumer-driven bandwagons. Champagne can be as market-driven and manipulated as anything else, and it has certainly changed its appearance over the years in response to consumer demand. It started out as a still wine, after all, and in its sparkling form it was initially derided by wine connoisseurs much in the way that we might scoff at, say, wine coolers. Even when it became largely a sparkling wine, it was very sweet, catering to the tastes of the day (this is why the designations Sec and Extra Sec are actually sweeter than Brut), and the dry style only came to prominence in the 20th century, as the market began to prefer drier wines.

Today, one could argue that the style is in fact changing again to accommodate consumer demand, as dosage levels are dropping and a bone-dry or Extra Brut style is quickly becoming all the rage, whether or not the wines can harmoniously support that style. Of course, there are terrific examples of non-dosé champagne, and I’m an enormous fan of these wines. But as it was with Germany in the late 1990s (the effects of which linger to this day), I’m beginning to think that many people today insist on dryness at all cost, which can result in some pretty raspy and imbalanced wines. It will sort itself out, naturally, but my point is that champagne is as susceptible to market pressure as any other wine, even if this isn’t on full display regarding the expansion issue.

4 comments:

Jesse said...

I agree. Generally speaking, Champagne is no more innocent of trend-chasing than any other region. The wines being produced by the new communes around 2020 will probably resemble whatever style the world is drinking by that point.

Also,
In his article he mentions "...40 communes being added, and two being removed", do you know what those two being removed are?

Peter Liem said...

Yes, Chouilly and Oiry. (No, just kidding!) The two are Germaine, which I believe is almost entirely owned by Moet (perhaps they get somehow compensated somewhere else) and Orbais l'Abbaye (I don't know anyone who has grapes there).

Cliff said...

I completely agree. Colleen Guy's book, When Champagne Became French, is good on this problem.

tom stevenson said...

Just to clarify Cohen's piece. Although I agree that "expansion" is the wrong word, some of the 40 new villages are not "within the current Champagne area" thus it is not true to say "the outer boundaries of Champagne are not changing at all." However, although the AOC is being increased from the current 319 villages to 357, this is still significantly smaller than 407 villages delimited by the 1927 law. What the Champenois have failed to convey is that they SHRANK the region in 1951, when it extended to just over 46,000 hectares (compared to 35,200 today), when faced with the opposite situation: a slump in sales.