The dirty secret about Champagne is that the water of that region is the most polluted in France – and possibly the world. Why? Because of all of the pesticides used in growing the grapes to be made into wine.
I learned this fact last week from Champagne resident, journalist, and wine educator Caroline Henry when I went to get a glass of water from the tap while visiting her.
Caroline lives in Hautvillers near Epernay, in the heart of Champagne. In fact, she lives just down the street from the abbey where the monk who developed the method of making sparkling wine, Dom Perignon, is buried. (Read more about Dom Perignon here.)
Taking in this news about pesticides, I quickly filled my glass with filtered water!
Not long before I met Caroline at the 2012 Wine Bloggers Conference in Portland, Caroline moved to Hautvillers. She didn’t plan to stay long, but has remained there in part because she’s intrigued that “whilst everywhere else in France people spoke about Terroir, and more specifically micro terroirs for the wine, this did not seem to happen in Champagne.” But on Champagne Day in October 2011, Caroline met a friend, Melanie Tarlant, at an event a group of growers including Tarlant had organized called “Terres et Vins de Champagne” which means soils and wines of Champagne.
About that first event Caroline says, “I tasted several single vineyard wines and was blown away by the differences in the mineral expression and this is why I decided to move a month later. I did not expect to stay so long, but
Champagne is complicated, and like with the wine, to really understand the soils and the people, it takes time. I still learn every day which is wonderful!”
Over the years, Caroline has become an expert on terroir in Champagne, and she’s written an amazing book about sustainable, organic, and biodynamic champagne, Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees.
During my visit to Champagne last week, I had the opportunity to experience three amazing bottles of biodynamic grower Champagne with Caroline and I tasted grower Champagne from three other wineries: one in Hautvillers where I met the owners, one in the visitor center where I chatted with the winemaker’s significant other, and at Elodie where I interviewed Elodie. I also emailed some questions to Caroline about the wines we drank as well as about terroir and other topics from her book.
In this two part post, I will focus first on my interview with Caroline and the wines we tasted and then in part two, my interview with Elodie, the winemaker at Elodie D which is a grower maker.
I began by asking Caroline what terroir means in the Champagne region, and how this might be different than how the term is used in other places.
“In France, and hence in Champagne, Terroir means place of origin,” Caroline says in reply.
“It includes the soil, the micro climate, the people and their traditions,” she continues. “Champagne, the wine, is a terroir product, because it is made by grapes of the delimited Champagne area, following the Champagne tradition (blending, second fermentation in bottle, etc). This is similar to why for instance Comte, the cheese, is a product of terroir – it comes from a place and it is made according to certain traditions. In English when we speak of terroir, often only the soil and the microclimate are taken into account.”
In the introduction to her book, Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees, Caroline explains why she focuses on how the people who make the wine interpret the expression of the soil. She believes that to express the soil, the winemaker needs to facilitate bringing the minerals in the soil to the plant which requires that water “be able to freely move in the soil.”
“With all the herbicides generally used in Champagne,” says Caroline, “the soil is often hard and impermeable.” During a heavy downpour, she says, you can see the water run off the land and erode the soil.
While this month’s French Winophiles is focused on the theme of Grower Champagne with host Martin Redmond of Enofylz, because of my concerns about the planet, I wanted to also feature wines and wineries that are sustainably certified, organic, or biodynamic. I tasted de Sousa at the Biodynamic Wine Conference which impressed me with the high quality at the price of comparable commercial bottles of Champagne. It was also one of my favorite wines from that weekend! But I’ll have to save my visit there for next time!!
While there are many reasons for choosing organic and biodynamic wines, I wanted to hear from Caroline why she thinks sustainable, organic, and biodynamic wine is so important to her and to our times: “Champagne remains the most polluted region in France and maybe in the world,” Caroline reports. According to Caroline, in Champagne
- 80% of vineyard surfaces has herbicides like Glyphosate or pre-emergent herbicides
- 20% of vineyard surfaces has no herbicides used; this includes vineyard borders and roads where it is forbidden to use them.
- 2/3 of growers use blanket sprays, with 90% use under rows.
If you visit Champagne in April, Caroline says that “the soil looks orange and really barren, something one would imagine Mars to look like.”
Since the living elements in the soil have been destroyed in order to control any possible threats to the vines and the valuable grapes that grow on them, Caroline reports that the Champenois must heavily rely on fertilizers to boost the vines as well as pesticides and anti-botritys products, to address the problems of mildew, odium and rot.
In the winemaking process, Caroline points out that “all kinds of products are used as well, the most common one being sugar which is generally used at every stage of the wine making. First to chaptalize before fermentation, then at bottling to start the second fermentation and then at disgorgement as dosage.”
Why so many products and sugar?
According to Caroline, “The main reason for all these products is that the champenois system is completely quantity focused, as the appellation maximum is set in terms of sales forecasts. The payment system is such that everyone considers this maximum to be the absolute minimum and to do this year after year, chemicals are needed. Needless to say that very little of the communication focuses on actual vineyard practices – it remains focused on celebration.”
What is worth celebrating is that the organic section is growing. One of the reasons, Caroline suggests, is that “People have lost confidence in conventional agriculture and viticulture and are looking for more sustainable alternatives.”
In Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees, Caroline “wanted to highlight that even in a region where the viticulture is very industrialized, alternatives exist, as well as inspire other producers who may be thinking of changing their practices, to show it’s possible.” But, she notes, it’s not always easy!
That difficulty explains in large part why in 2018, Caroline says that “there are only about 6000 hectares of vineyard farmed organically (either certified or in conversion) in champagne. The total vineyard surface of the region is just over 33,000 hectares. So you can see it’s only just under 2% of the total surface” that is cultivated organically.
For producers, Caroline reports that “It’s even less (around 100 of 15,000), and in volume of wine it’s less as well as it takes a long time before a winery releases its organic bottles (six years minimum — four years for the conversion and then two due to the aging requirements in Champagne). Moreover, as many organic growers do not meet the appellation maximum (amount of bottles the Champenois want to meet) on a yearly basis.”
Many growers who I have spoken to about whether they grow their grapes using organic or biodynamic practices have told me that it is not worth it to pursue certification – some have gone so far to say that the wines aren’t as good even though research shows that biodynamic wines score on average five points higher—or that certification is too expensive or hampers their abilities to deal with challenges in the vineyard. Because so many of the vineyards are very small due to division because of inheritance, unless all of your neighbors are following the same vineyard practices, it can be very difficult to get certified.
So I asked Caroline whether wineries really need to be certified as organic or biodynamic or is it enough to simply practice these techniques as they see fit? Caroline argues that wineries need to certify: ”I do not believe you can have your cake and eat it too. If it’s part of your communication, then you should commit and certify. Certification means sticking with the practices even in difficult years.”
Next I asked Caroline specifically about grower champagne. This can be identified by a small RM on the bottle which stands for grower and maker. Other classifications are CM where the grapes were grown by the winery then sent to a cooperative then sent back and NM (the most common) means the grapes were grown and then sold.
To Caroline, “RM is not necessarily better than NM or CM.” Of the 5000 RMs, “two thirds have their wine made in a cooperative and take it back before the disgorgement. When you disgorge, you manipulate the wine and hence you can be RM rather than CM. Furthermore, there are RM who have had to become NM because of inheritance settlements (e.g. they buy grapes from their siblings or children, but they still work the vineyards).”
What is more important, says Caroline, is the focus on sustainable growing: “Louis Roederer, one of the big brand NM’s, is in the process of organic certification and has been a pioneer on alternative viticulture for at least a decade. In contrast many RM do not work the soil or have any sustainable practices, and many have vineyard workers in the same way as merchants have, so to me this division RM, NM, is not very important.
During my visit, we enjoyed three very special biodynamic grower champagnes — and they each had a special story.
The first wine Caroline shared with me was Origine-Elle by Francoise Bedel; Caroline writes about her on page 165 in her book, Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees.
“She is the first biodynamic female winemaker in Champagne and her story to convert is beautiful,” says Caroline. “All her wine names have double meanings, and this wine name says the wine has its origin with her (elleis “her” in French). “Originelle” also means original – which I love.”
She first tasted Francoise’s wines at the Terres et Vins Champagne day tasting mentioned above back in October 2011. At the event each year, they award a prize to those they feel have done the most to promote the soils and the wines of Champagne. In 2017, Caroline was the winner of the Terres et Vins price which was first won Peter Liem. Now in its tenth year, the prize has gone to male writers – until Caroline won it!
“Receiving recognition from the people who share your vision is amazing and I was very humbled as the list of winners is impressive,” says Caroline. “The bottle we shared was given to me as part of the terres et vins prize. The wine was a blend of Meunier, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but a majority of Meunier.”
The second wine we tasted was 100% Chardonnay and entirely different—very rich and creamy reminding me of crème brulee. Named “l’artiste,” the wine was made by David Leclapart who appears on page 126 of Caroline’s book. “David is also a pioneer in the biodynamic movement in champagne and his story is beautiful as well,” says Caroline. The Chardonnay is from Trepail, which Caroline says is “a very chalky village in the Montagne de Reims, on the other side of Crouttes sur Marne. Chardonnay does well in the chalky soil of Trepail, and David’s ways of working the vines allows the more lucious and seductive expression to come out.
All David’s wines start with an A; l’artiste reflects the story between the vineyards, the grapes and the winemaker which is artistic, the wine is an artist.”
“The last wine we tasted was Cuvee B by Jerome Bourgeois,” says Caroline. The vineyards are also located on Croute sur Marne close to Francoise Bedel. But the wine was made of 100% Chardonnay. It was interesting to compare this wine with David’s wine as the soil is more clay and limestone based in Croutte sur Marne, hence the Chardonnay has more body then when its grown on chalk.” You can find Jerome’s story on page 174 in Caroline’s book.
What’s next for Caroline?
“I wanted to write about Petillant Naturel next, as I believe the ancestral way of making the wine is more natural,” shae says. “But I have not had much time to really research as I need to leave Champagne for this. But somehow I am still here as there are many new and exciting producers emerging and I want to talk about them. So my second book will talk about them, and will be similar to this book, only with different stories.”
Clearly a great place to learn more about the subject of terroir and organic and biodynamic wine in Champagne is from reading Caroline’s book! But what else can you do?
Taste as many wines as you can, suggests Caroline, “including the big brands – for they are what most people think of when they drink Champagne. To learn more about Champagne, Peter Liem’s Champagne!book is excellent. There is also cuvee magazine, which is edited by Stefanie Kohler who also lives in Champagne, and it has many stories about growers as well. Otherwise the producer’s website and their Instagram account should give you an idea of their way of working.”
If you want to know whether a wine you are drinking is certified biodynamic, you can check the label or on the Demeter or Biodyvin websites to see if it is one of the 28 certified producers. The appendix of Caroline’s book also lists them. You can also look for biodynamic tastings; check for example the Renaissances des Appellations (which may only be in Europe). In the US there will be a biodynamic wines to taste in Portland in November 2018 at a biodynamic farming event.
To order Caroline’s book Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees, go to Terroirchampagne.com, where she will confirm your order and ask if you want it dedicated; all 3000 books are signed and numbered and are printed on recycled paper.
You can also find Caroline on the web at:
- @carohenry (twitter)
- @missinwine/@terroirchampagne (instagram)
Stayed tuned for part two from me and check out what the other Winophiles learned this month by joining us on twitter at 8am Pacific following the hashtag #Winophiles and check out our posts: As a teaser, here’s a sample of what each blogger will contribute to the discussion:
- Jeff of FoodWineClick will be “Taking a Saber to Farmer Fizz“
- Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla says Skip The Butterbombs and Pair Champagne with Alpine Cheeses Instead
- Robin of Crushed Grape Chronicles will be diving into Farmer Fizz? An exploration of Grower Champagne
- Jane ofAlways Ravenouswill be Pairing Pizza with Grower Champagne
- Nicole of Somm’s Table will be offering 5 Champagne Toasts
- Payal of Keep the Peas serves up Champagne: Le Vin du Diable
- Lynn of Savor The Harvest will be sharing Fourth Generation Grower Champagne – Pierre Peters and Bourgeois-Diaz
- Jill of L’Occasionwill be taking A Closer Look At Grower Champagne With Champagne André Jacquart
- Martin Redmond of ENOFYLZ Wine Blog will be taking a sip of Grower Champagne From The Chalky Slopes Of Avize: Franck Bonville Prestige Brut Blanc de Blancs
Fascinating, Gwen. And what an experience you had during your trip. Thanks for sharing.
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Thank you Cam! Yes it was quite the experience! Very interesting traveling with just my son and I! (a lot less wine as you can imagine than I would have liked!)
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The Champagne region has long been known for what we now consider poor environmental practices. It’s good to know that progress is being made. In their defense, it’s a very difficult environment for organic viticulture unless the grower is prepared to lose an entire harvest some years, not everyone can afford that!
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As more people realize the impact that traditional and commercial farming is having on the planet — and as we have more climate change as well as increases in technology — I think we will see more and more growers switching to organic and biodynamic. But yes there is a real risk. It’s easy for me to say it’s worth it but then I need to also follow that commitment by buying these biodynamic and organic wines and featuring them here as often as possible.
Good to see Caroline mirror my thoughts about RM vs NM. One not inherently better than the other.I think there’s a tendency to think that all growers are leading the way in terms of biodynamic farming. But as Caroline points out Roederer is leading the way as an NM. Wonderful interview. Looking forward to Part Deux!
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Yes I thought that was interesting too! Made me realize that organic and biodynamic is a better distinction for me. However, I do think that growers can potentially express terroir better — especially if they are biodynamic.
What a fascinating piece! It is amazing to me to think that this libation so exalted comes from a garbage heap, sprayed with chemicals. I applaud the growers who are going organic and biodynamic, but I do sympathize with the small growers who find the certification to be too complicated and expensive. This piece points out that you need to do your research to find the growers and houses you want to support. That itself is two-fold, wanting to support people who are taking care of the planet and wanted to drink an untainted beverage. I would be interested to know how the chemicals appear in the final product. Fermentation can’t get rid of all of it I would imagine. Any insights on that?
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Yes there is research that indicates that people who have been educated on what pesticides taste like can identify them in wines. So yes pesticides are indeed present in the finished product. Scary, isn’t it? PS I don’t have the link to that research off hand but it would make a good topic for a future post.
Glad to know about Caroline. I’ll be in Champagne early next year, it’d be great to look her up. The discussion about sustainable agriculture, organic and biodynamic is increasing at every corner. While Champagne has been an area where farming these ways has been very difficult and risky due to loosing part/all of a harvest, as the climate heats up seems it could be easier. A conversation to have over a glass of Champagne!
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Immediately tracked down Caroline Henry and followed her. Fascinating!
Very interesting article. I am going to check out Caroline Henry’s book next and also follow her website and Facebook page. Sounds like your time in Champagne has already made you forget your aching feet!
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Thank you! And yes, you will love her book — it’s excellent! My feet are still injured and really slowed me down but couldn’t stop me from experiencing Epernay!
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