Set the good bubbles free! …
There is no better time than now to choose an organic champagne alternative next time you are looking for fine bubbles….
Champagne is one of the more difficult regions in the world to achieve and maintain organic certification, let alone, biodynamic status because it is at the northernmost reaches of the optimum zone for ripening grapes enough for quality wine. This means that in the past, some vintages have been very difficult to get those grapes ripe. Added to that, is the ever present threat of frost in the spring, fungal disease and occasional hail in the summer which again cause extra pressure on the vine and grape health. Such as in 2012, when some organic growers lost most of or the entirety of their crop.
Additionally, with the challenges of growing grapes to the level of ripeness needed for the fine bubbles, the cost of maintaining a vineyard in Champagne is costly so many growers want as high a yield as possible to pay for their efforts. Organic and biodynamic Champagne vineyards tend to have low yields – and a focus on high quality.
To cope with vintages where the grapes don’t achieve the desired ripeness levels, larger Champagne houses have large quantities of wines from previous vintages to blend into new vintage wines to achieve a consistent house style and even out supply. This is a luxury that is not often afforded to smaller producers and it leads them to need to make their good vintages stretch further with those yields. In the case of smaller organic and biodynamic Champagne producers with naturally lower yields, this just adds to the challenge.
At this time, there are around 150 Champagne producers that have made the commitment to follow the strict organic and biodynamic methods to become certified, unrelenting in times when conditions are poor and vine health declines. This has grown from the seven organic producers in the early 1970s, and from the first biodynamic producer, Champagne Fleury, who converted to biodynamic principles in 1989. The list is growing and is gaining momentum in parallel with other food growers and consumer expectations.
This commitment to organic and biodynamic viticultural and vinicultural practices is certainly not limited to smaller producers. Louis Roederer is leading the charge of the largest producers with more than 50% of the house’s vineyards now being biodynamic and the overall goal of reaching the goal of being certified 100% organic. By 2020, ‘Cristal’ will be wholly biodynamic as well. Another well known medium sized house, Larmandier-Bernier Champagne has been biodynamic since 1999 (attaining their BIO certification in 2003).
The decision to attain certification for making organic wine is a long term one. From the time the grower makes the decision, certification will be given after successive four organic vintages. When you then include the initial ferment and blending process plus the minimum of 15 months the wines need to spend in the bottle while undergoing the second ferment to produce those wonderful bubbles, you realise that it can be close to 6 years before you can use any official seal.
Producers are checked at least once a year to ensure that they continue to qualify to use the seal. This may include testing the leaves, grapes and wines to guarantee that they are free of pesticide residue. For this reason, an organic Champagne grower is also dependant on their community to avoid contamination of their crops from sprays drifting over the certified property.
How to tell the difference between a larger Champagne house and a ‘grower’ champagne producer can be as simple as knowing where to look on the label.
There will be a code on the front label or back label that shows one or two letters and some numbers for authentication. The letters may be NM, RM, CM, RC, MA, SR, & R).
Négociant-Manipulant: Or NM as this usually appears. This is generally one of the larger houses. They will act as a trader of grapes or finished still wines for their own blends.
Récoltant-Manipulant: Or as it usually appears on the label ‘RM’. This refers to a producer or ‘grower’ who makes their own wines. Often called ‘grower’ Champagnes.
Récoltant-Coopérateur: Someone who grows their grapes and uses a cooperative for the winemaking process.
What other terms do you need to know:
Indigenous yeasts: Yeasts are used in both the first fermentation as well as the second fermentation to capture all those bubbles. Many producers use a yeast culture developed to consistently produce the unique character profile they are seeking. They need a yeast that is reliable so that there are less fermentation problems and less unexpected characters developed in the wines.
Indigenous yeasts are those that are native to the region, the vineyard or even the winery itself. There maybe more than one suitable indigenous yeast available to them and a winemaker will be able to isolate the strain they prefer and culture it for future use.
A wild ferment is where only those yeasts that have colonised the winery (usually brought in with grapes over time) are used. The winemaker will not introduce of any other yeast. Here the ferment, including the timing of the ferment, may be left to progress at ‘nature’s pace’ without any intervention. These wines often take on a ‘wild’ character.
Dosage: The final winemaking stage of producing wines made in the ‘traditional method’ i.e. Champagne involves adding a ‘liqueur d’expédition’. The dosage always contains an addition of still wine that ‘tops up’ the sparkling wine that has been lost during disgorgement. This process is when the dead yeast cells have been ejected out of the bottle, leaving the wine with a pristine clarity. This dosage may also often contain a sugar solution to sweeten the wine to its desired level of sweetness.
Champagne is notoriously acidic and winemakers will often soften or balance that acid through either extended autolysis (when the wine rests on the yeast cells) or by sweetening the wine so that the acidity is less noticeable. If the grapes are fully ripened, less additional sugar may be needed, particularly if that wine is also left longer on lees.
It has become increasingly popular to make Champagnes with ‘zero dosage’ or as a ‘nature’ or ‘brut nature’ wine. This means they have not added any sweetening component to the final blend. This may also make the wines seem more structured and detailed. A small addition of sugar (Extra brut, brut or extra dry) will add some weight to the palate and soften the finish of the wine and may even out the texture of the wine. Even at the Brut sweetness level, that additional sugar may not be noticeable.
A large addition of sugar will create a wine that might sit in either the ‘demi-sec’ or even ‘doux’ level of wine. These wines are often excellent for spicy food or to serve with light sweets.
Organic and biodynamic Champagne producers will often leave their dosage level low or make a zero dosage wine in keeping with their minimum intervention philosophy.
What is the difference between organic and biodynamic Champagne?
Organic: Wines made from organic grapes are not only made in a way that is sustainable for the vines and the environment where they are grown, but in a way that enhances that environment. Be it by caring for the soil, the water source or the biodiversity around the vineyard.
In the vineyard, this means not using synthetically produced pesticides or chemical fertilisers. Improving the soil using compost, releasing predatory insect species to keep down pests, and growing cover crops between rows are just some of the ways this is done in the vineyard.
For a wine to carry a certified organic seal, it has to be produced in accordance to the regulatory body certifying that wine. According to Association des Champagnes Biologiques ‘This means foregoing the use of chemical pesticides (including herbicides), chemical fertilizers and genetically modified organisms (GMO)’. In addition ‘all the ingredients used in the winemaking need to be certified organic’.
Biodynamic: These wines are grown according to biodynamic principles and take the ‘Organic’ wine growing and winemaking one step further. As well as being organic, biodynamic wines pay attention to the natural cycles of the world we live in, this includes the lunar influences.
In biodynamic winemaking the list of supplements and methods that can be used to keep the vines in optimum health, such as fertilisers and pest prevention, is even more restrictive than those in organic wine growing. Instead, the principles relies on centuries-old farming practices focusing on long term vineyard health such as encouraging healthy microbial activity in the soil and naturally occurring predators to keep down the pest population.
Sulphur: (Sans Soufre) Sulphur dioxide often gets a bad rap. It acts as a preservative to preserve the freshness of wine and reduce the chances of spoilage before, during and after bottling. It is really important to acknowledge that no wine will be completely sulphur free as wines may naturally contain sulphur from the ferment. Therefore, it is correct to label these wines as ‘no added Sulphur’.
The maximum authorised quantity of sulphur that can be used in Champagne is 150 mg per litre. As a comparison, in Australia, Certified organic and biodynamic producers may add up to 120 mg per litre.
To read more about sulphur in wine, please read ‘Are sulphur free wines actually any good?’.
Notable Organic & Biodynamic Champagne producers:
This list of organic and biodynamic Champagne producers who have stood out in my recent tastings is small at the moment, but will continue to grow as I taste more quality wines:
Champagne Colette Bonnet – One of the highlights here is Champagne Colette Bonnet Pinot Noir Extra Brut 2014– Here pinot noir takes on the limelight in a solo act. In keeping with Colette’s philosophy of letting the fruit ripeness speak for itself with a low dosage, this Champagne sits at Extra Brut, there is little to distract from the quality of the fruit and the winemaking. To read more about Colette and her wines, including a review of this wine, please click here.
Champagne Pascal Doquet–A third generation winemaker with old Côte des Blancs vineyards. His organic Champagnes are terroir focused and he separates the grapes from each of his terroirs into different batches to allow them to express their uniqueness. Champagne Pascal Doquet Horizon Blanc de Blancsis a fine example of the house style. To read more about this Champagne producer and a review of this wine, please click here.
Others to look for:
Champagne Vincent Charlot
Champagne Robert Barbichon
Larmandier-Bernier Champagne– A family owned biodynamic Champagne house, Larmandier-Bernier is no newcomer to growing grapes having been first recorded as growers in 1765 and the family started to fully embrace biodynamic grape growing in 1999. They have gained world-wide renown for their finesse, even their Premier Cru wines such as Champagne Larmandier-Bernier Longitude.
To read more about this winery and a review of this wine, please click here.
Others to look for:
Champagne Fleury (I can only recommend the sulphur added wines here. I’d give the Sonate Sulphur Free a wide birth at the time of writing as there was a bacterial spoilage in the vintage that I tasted recently)
Champagne Vincent Couche
For more information:
Visit: Association des Champagnes Biologiques