Still wines from the legendary home of sparklers are becoming more common, thanks to climate change
The sparkle in great Champagne is known all over the world. So why is the region increasingly making wines without the trademark bubbles? And are these new wines any good?
Those were the first questions that came to mind in the spring, when Champagne house Louis Roederer, famed for its iconic Cristal, released a bubble-free pinot noir and a matching Chardonnay under a new label called Hommage a Camille.
Many more of these still wines, known as “coteaux Champenois”, are coming from both grandes marques and top grower-producers. By far the majority, perhaps 90% are red, made from pinot noir, meunier — or both. The rest are Chardonnay, with a few producers using unusual forgotten white varieties, such as Petit meslier, pinot gris and arbanne.
The Comite Champagne trade association estimates that about 75,000 bottles of coteaux Champenois are produced annually. The number is growing, but it amounts to a smidge compared to a typical 300 million bottles that sparkle each year.
The term “coteaux Champenois” was created to describe still wines from the region in 1974. But only in the past few years have producers begun taking the idea more seriously by launching new examples and exporting them.
Champagne house Charles Heidseick first debut four Chardonnays, each from a different village (Villers Marmery, Vertus, Oger, and Montgueux), last year. Its first no-fizz red, Ambonnay Rouge, will arrive in the US in October. Cult grower Jacques Lassaigne released its first pinot noir last year; Tarlant has several still wines, including a skin-contact Chardonnay aged in Georgian clay qvevri that resembles an orange wine!
I will cut to the chase: Some are delicious, others not so much, and most are works in progress. Inevitably, people will compare them to Burgundy, but the best reds are lighter, with less richness; whites are light, lively, chalky.
None is a bargain, but if you want to be au courant, try at least one.
The role of climate change
Climate change is the big reason behind the new still-wine rush, says Cyril Brun, Charles Heidseick’s chef de cave. Global warming allows grapes in this famously chilly region to ripen fully, giving wines more weight and flavour concentration.
The rise in the temperature in Champagne over the past three decades has been 1.1C, which also can advance harvest dates as grapes reach ripeness earlier. Last year it started on Aug 7, the earliest in history. Hotter days and nights can result in lower acidity, which means less of the freshness and zing that characterise traditional Champagnes.
In some ways, though, winemakers are going back to Champagne’s roots. Long before the monk Dom Perignon — so the legend goes — figured out how to put bubbles in the bottle, still wines were the region’s norm.
The method of adding sugar and yeast so the wine will ferment a second time, in the bottle, transformed the typically tart, acidic base blend into a more palatable cuvée with a unique style. The accidental discovery proved a boon to winemakers. Even so, they compensated for poor years by blending different varieties, vineyards and vintages.
So still wines were sidelined. Only a handful of producers in the 20th century took them seriously. One trailblazer was Bollinger, which has been crafting its rare La Côte aux Enfants red in top vintages since 1934.
The first still wines that I tasted long ago were from the village of Bouzy, a pinot hot spot known for still wines since the 17th century, and where a handful of producers keep the tradition alive.
In the far south of the region is Rosé des Riceys, an area known for centuries for non-sparkling rosé (Louis XIV, who was King of France from May 14, 1643 until his death in 1715, was supposedly a fan).
Few producers exported any of them because few people wanted to drink them. Until now.
“Today there are more examples commercially available than at any other time in the modern day,” emailed Peter Liem, author of the award-winning Champagne: The Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region. “The majority of champagne producers, large and small, make at least one version ... they’re rapidly becoming ubiquitous.”
How wineries are transitioning
Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon, chef de cave at Roederer, insists climate is important but not the only reason behind the recent trend. “The main story,” he says, “is about the change of farming with organic or biodynamic and deep-rooted vines.”
After Lecaillon converted Roederer to organic farming in 2000, he noticed that those viticultural practices, combined with climate change, resulted in the sort of riper fruit with personality that is needed for still wines.
“The new old farming is key to the project,” he says. “To make coteaux Champenois, you need to think differently from the beginning.” The last still wine Roederer had made was in 1961, when Camille Olry Roederer, a fan of still wines, oversaw the company.
This time around, Lecaillon’s first step was identifying vineyard plots with high clay content whose grapes could deliver density and a tannic structure. He replanted with the goal of creating a still wine, using selected vines from Burgundy, with more vines to the hectare. He changed pruning practices and cultivated the vines to encourage stems and grape seeds to ripen more than he would want for wines destined to have bubbles. He says you have to focus on “catching the tannins” to give the wines their own personality.
In 2014, he began conducting experiments. After four years of trials, he found the sweet spot with the 2018 vintage, fermenting the wine with 40% whole clusters of grapes — rather than removing all the stems — to boost structure and add texture, and aging the wine in just the right type of oak barrels.
Making a Chardonnay, Lecaillon emailed, was easier — he selected the same vineyard plot used for Roederer’s last still wine, from 1961. He is planning more and this year, he will make a second pinot noir called Milnon.
The best coteaux Champenois are not just blends intended to become Champagne, to which a producer decided not to add bubbles. They have more character and personality than this and styles that vary widely from one producer to another. Think of these as wines in evolution.
They are still not easy to find. Only 36 bottles of Etienne Calsac’s Photogramme, a terrific blend of “forgotten” varieties Petit meslier, arbane, and pinot blanc, will arrive in the US in November. Mid-gold in colour, it has aromas and tastes of dried apricots.
10 Coteaux Champenois wines to try
2019 Robert Barbichon Coteaux Champenois (US$45)
This certified organic red from the Cóte des Bar is light, thirst quenching and racy, with strawberry and pomegranate flavours and a mineral finish.
2018 Bereche et Fils Les Montées Rouge (US$90)
A blend of pinot noir and meunier, this cuvée is aged in barrels for 18 months and has floral aromas and pure red berry fruit flavours.
2017 Gonet-Medeville Ambonnay Rouge Cuvée Athenais (US$92)
A husband-and-wife team produces about 80 cases of this dense, ripe, cherry-scented wine, which comes from a tiny plot of pinot noir vines planted on steep slopes in 1905.
2019 Jacques Lassaigne Rouge Cheres Vignes (US$94)
Light and perfumed, this pinot noir is from a plot of 70-year-old vines in Montgueux, known for its chalky soil. This has some of the succulence of a delicate red Burgundy.
2018 Benoit Dehu La Rue des Noyers Rouge (US$100)
Dehu makes three micro-cuvées from the same tiny parcel of red meunier grapes: Sparkling wines and red and white still wines. The red is loaded with ripe fruit flavours and resembles a good Burgundy.
2015 Bollinger La Cóte aux Enfants (3 bottles, US$490)
Made only in the best vintages, this charming, silky textured, intensely fruity yet spicy red, aged in small barrels, comes from a steep, grand cru pinot noir vineyard in the village of Ay, whose reds were favourites of King Henry IV.
2018 Louis Roederer Camille Le Mesnil-sur-Oger blanc (US$164)
With aromas of white flowers and minerals, a taste of citrus and minerals, and some of the tangy edge of chablis, this all-Chardonnay cuvée is both subtle and intense, with a satiny texture. It comes from a small parcel named Volibarts.
2018 Louis Roederer Camille Mareuil-sur-Ay rouge (US$195)
Fresh, delicate and subtle, this wine from the Charmont vineyard plot has charm, tangy raspberry fruit and the structure to age. It is not wildly complex, but it is lovely to drink and has refined elegance and a texture as smooth as suede.
2018 Henri Giraud Cuvee des Froides Terres (US$200)
Fleshy and rich, this has powerful aromas that suggest cherries, as well as a raspberry and spice character.
2017 Egly-Ouriet Ambonnay Rouge (US$225)
Situated in Ambonnay, a top village for pinot noir, this organic producer is a still-wine trailblazer and a pioneer of the grower Champagne movement. This cuvée, from a parcel of old vines, has rose petal aromas and a velvety texture.