David gangs up on Goliath in Champagne
No matter what the product is, brands sell. Beanz meanz Heinz, right?
Wine is no different. A great Gattinara is way better than a bad Barolo. But the sad fact is the bad Barolo will sell more. Probably at a higher price. Why? Because people have heard of Barolo. It has a brand identity. Consumers are therefore willing to put their trust in the product and part with their hard earned cash.
Nowhere in the wine world are brands more important than Champagne. The large champagne houses are household names. Moet, Bolly, Veuve. They even have nicknames.
Most Champagne is bought to toast a celebration or special occasion. The concept of Champagne as a wine, to be drunk with food, doesn’t exist outside a small group of consumers. It is viewed by many as an occasional drink, much like sherry and port.
So when a bottle is rolled out, it’s a much safer bet for your host to buy Moet or Bollinger for the party than some grower Champagne that none of the guests have heard of. You never get sacked for buying IBM.
So what does this mean for the small grower producers? How does David compete with Goliath?
Champagne Doyard in Vertus is one of the Davids of Champagne. Charles Doyard, who took over the 11 hectare estate from his father Yannick is the epitomy of the young and exciting winemakers in Champagne. He is continually evolving his product line based on quality. If the grapes are right for a particular style he will make it. This approach is the polar opposite of the large brand approach of churning out the house style.
When I was there I tasted a still 2015 chardonnay from barrel, which he decided to hold back and produce as a Cote de Champenoise. The wine was absolutely stunning. Made from 60 year old vines, it had a nose of sweet apple. Round fresh, and so drinkable.This illustrates is ethos of “producing wines of Champagne not Champagne wine”. It’s just a shame he only made 4 barrels.
In order to compete with the big brands, there are two things he has to get right. The first is quality. Without a quality product he’s never going to succeed.
For Charles, “the vineyard is where everything happens, not in the cellar”.
Above; Charles in the Clos de l'Abbaye vineyard in Vertus
He uses a pruning technique called “Condon de Rogat mont e permanent”, which involves clearing the base of the vines, making it easier to tend to them in an organic way. It reduces the quantity of fruit but gives greater concentration and quality.
Although Charles talks about organics, he is not certified. It is still a business and he has workers who depend on him for a livelihood. “I can’t lose a crop because of principles”.
Charles operates an organic production where possible but if the weather turns and he risks losing a crop he will step in and do what is needed to save it. Again this realistic over idealistic approach highlights the difference between the Davids and Goliaths of Champagne.
Above; Charles at work in the cellar
The quest for quality really comes through in the wines. I tasted the entire range and they were truly “wines of Champagne”.
Although each had their own unique characteristics there was a consistent minerality and freshness to the wines. They are food friendly wines, particularly his Cuvee Vendemiaire Brut NV. The bubbles were so elegant and soft. With flavours of raisin, minerals and lemon, it is a really complex wine. Much more than just an aperitif.
I also really enjoyed his Clos de l‘Abbaye 2011, made with fruit from a walled vineyard behind the cellars. A fuller style, but still balanced and elegant.
Above; vines in the walled Clos de l'Abbaye vineyard
So the quality is definitely there. The second issue is how to compete with the big brands.
Rather than go it alone, he works closely with like-minded producers in Champagne. He is a member of Les Artisans du Champagne, a group of seventeen small producers from across Champagne. They share the same goal “to create a quality product, whilst showing respect to the vineyard and the customer”.
They host a tasting every April in Champagne where all of the members show their wines for international critics. The aim of the group is to create a positive working environment amongst the members. As one of the other members, Alfred Gracien told me “the human is at the centre. To join the group, first you have to be a good human, second you have to make good wine.”
So next time you plan to pop a cork, why not pass on the big brand and try a “wine of Champagne” instead?