Champagne and its storied history are embodied by its tradition. The painstakingly long process of creating those tiny magical bubbles by second fermentation; the terroir – which is the magical chalk soil and fossilized sea urchins from a once-was seabed; the cool, marginal climate that creates these austere and acid driven wines; the history where movie stars and historic figures that have revered and popularized these unique wines; and the infamous underground caves carved out of chalk.
I had the opportunity to visit Champagne for the first time during fall of ‘22, and I cannot believe it took me so long. It was much more beautiful in person, and the food was even better than I expected. It is an accessible region and a short train ride from Paris, and you can find plenty to do on the main strips of the main towns in both Reims and Epernay.
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I left my short stint in bubble heaven understanding that there is still so much to learn about this complex wine region. Having studied (and drank) Champagne over the last few decades, trying to absorb all the history of this product in a few days (which they love to talk about), I couldn’t help but wonder where this region is going?
The back story of this region is filled with romance, drama, and mystery that sounds better than a 50s Hollywood movie. Champagne has a history in wars, peace and love that have all helped shape this magical product, but where is its future headed? What also of the small growers that make up this patchwork of tiny vineyards and who bring their own history and ‘know-how’ – people who are literally part of the land?
We know that like many wine regions, Champagne is dealing with extreme climate change and vintage variation. We often tend to think of cool climates taking climate change in stride, but this is not the case.
The 2021 vintage in Champagne was nothing short of a disaster, and luckily 2022 was much better, producing a bumper crop. In addition to climate challenges, not all of the next generation wants to take over for their parents’ vineyards. Instead, there are those who want to travel more, or move to bigger cities. The ‘changing of the guard’ from one generation to the next is not happening so readily as before, and smaller producers seem to be in a precarious situation.
Believe it or not there is another issue brewing in Champagne: a global Champagne shortage (yes apparently, we did consume that much during the pandemic). There are roughly 19,000 small family growers but most of them don’t make their own Champagne, instead selling the grapes to large corporate Champagne houses. Champagne is a product that takes years in the bottle before it can be sold, so to a small grower, the investment can be a massive one that has its share of big risks. I wondered if younger people would want to tackle all of this or just simply run for Paris.
During my stay, I of course visited some of the big houses such as Veuve Clicquot, Ruinart and Moet & Chandon, and they are truly impressive. But the real truth is that these products are built on the backs of small family growers.
My favourite conversation was with Morgann Trebutien, a young winemaker and grape grower, selling grapes from family vineyards and making his own ‘small grower’ Champagne.
He produces under the label of William Saintot and he has been working and studying under his mother Nathalie who has been at the helm of the family business the last several decades. Our conversation was a lively one, much about the future and the challenges of Champagne, which ultimately gave me hope.
Suffice to say, grower Champagne is usually much more affordable to buy, and the money directly supports these small farmers that offer a sense of uniqueness with their products.
Jennifer Huether: How did your mother inspire you to follow in her footsteps and take over the family business?
Morgann Trebutien: I was bathed by the vine, the wine, the nursery. My mother worked a lot and I went with her to the vines at the nursery when she looked after me as a child, these were usual places for me. But I was also inspired by my grandfather who was very charismatic, passionate about the nursery and who had a lot of vine and wine history to tell. He had predicted that the vine was made for me, when I was only a child. They gave me the passion for the vine at the beginning, the nursery and then I started to love wine, it is from there that my passion was complete and lasting.
JH: Do you see many other young people in Champagne staying in the wine business?
MT: Many young people today take over the farm from their parents and radically change their way of proceeding, moving from conventional viticulture to organic viticulture or almost, some in biodynamics. The vinifications also change, with the return of the barrel, little or no contribution of oenological product (low SO2, indigenous yeasts, no fining and filtration, etc.). A new generation of winegrowers will regenerate the Champagne tradition.
However, there is no new exploitation because it is impossible to invest in the vines without already having some plots. The costs are between 1 million per hectare in the unclaimed crus to 1.4 million in the premier crus and up to 1.8 million for the grands crus.
JH: What are the biggest challenges you face in your work day?
MT: Management is for me the most complicated task, the lack of manpower strains the job market and requires us to be very attentive with the collaborators.
Today we also lack champagne and what is new for us, it is then necessary to launch out in the allocations which is not something that I master, while maintaining a good relationship with our importers, wine merchants, restaurateurs and our private customers.
JH: Tell us about what you oversee/manage at the winery and the nursery?
MT: I am responsible for the production of vine plants, I manage two full-time people for grafting, sorting and summer work. We work with living material, so the major challenge is to organize the work to keep the wood moist and cool.
We also work 10.27 ha of vines for a production of grapes which are sold at 60% to the merchant and then the remaining 40% are vinified at the estate for our production. I supervise and I do all the operations of the viticultural and wine-growing works. 4 full-time people are needed and also seasonal workers for the trellising and harvesting periods.
For marketing, I am helped by an apprentice and also by my mother who manages the private clientele and my mother takes care of all the administrative part concerning the champagne, I keep the nursery part and I help her partially in the preparation from orders/pallets to export.
JH: What do you see as the biggest challenges to growing grapes in Champagne moving forward?
MT: The two big challenges are:
Being able to keep collaborations well trained, invested and motivated in the company. Continue to increase quality and customer interest while increasing production. The objective is to produce what our surface area provides us with, i.e. approximately 90,000 bottles for 10.27 hectares.
Manage global warming, which is a general problem, so I am not alone in responding to this problem.
JH: Tell us about the 2022 vintage?
MT: An easy vintage, compared to 2021… is much more pleasing. Rather cool winter and early spring, with little or no frost. The month of May/June was rather mild, with a few thunderstorms that were not very violent. July and August were dry but with the chalk acting like a sponge, we did not have any drought problems for the vines. Our Aube vineyard was more affected, but the storms in mid-August and the rains in late August were beneficial in avoiding a blockage in ripening and continued to make the grapes grow. In the end, the perfect harvest, significant maturity, such a welcome quantity after 2021 which was destroyed by mildew. The weak acidities but which will have to be compensated by a clever vinification.
We have to wait until April/May to start talking about a possible production of the 2022 vintage.