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Burgundy and Champagne – rivalries, varieties and concepts of terroir

On the face of it, the dominant wine styles produced from Burgundy and Champagne appear to be markedly different – the vivacious, effervescent sparkling wines produced by the Maisons, or Houses of Champagne contrast with the contemplative and complex still wines of Burgundy.  Within the infinite diversity of the world of fine wine it becomes very hard to sustain broad generalisations, and when looking a little under the surface reveals some common themes underpinning the development of these two seminal wine areas. 

Both regions have a long and dramatic history with peaks and troughs of triumph and notoriety.  They have endured and evolved through periods of political and commercial rivalry, seeking the favour of royalty and nobility to promote their wares, and at various times both have been the seat of absolute power in France. As grape growing and wine producing areas the most important factor in their ascendancy to the pinnacle of global success has been the coming together of particular grape varieties with methods of wine production that have combined to produce unique, distinctive and remarkable wines that express the concept which the French call terroir and which new world “pretenders” often translate loosely as “sense of place.”

Terroir can be an elusive concept, which can be explained and interpreted in different ways.  To most producers in Burgundy and some in Champagne it provides a way to differentiate their wines from those of their neighbours and competitors, which on the surface could appear to be fairly homogenous. 

Wines in Burgundy are made from two dominant varieties, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  The Benedictine and Cistercian monks who progressed the cultivation of vineyards and increased wine production from the 10th to 14th centuries, grew a wider range of grapes than the “big two” of today, and were also the pioneers of vineyard classification based on the belief that adjacent and seemingly identical plots of land produced wines of noticeably different quality.  The wall around the Grand Cru vineyard of Clos de Vougeot, which Marchand & Burch produce wine from today, was erected by Cistercian monks in 1336 and provided not just a literal boundary to define ownership but a philosophical pathway to separate land based on wine quality. 

It has not by any means been a linear journey, or one free of political influence, but over many centuries the acceptance of and expansion of this classification of vineyards has inspired producers to seek ultimate quality from their plots in the hope of achieving the coveted Grand Cru or Premier Cru status that automatically confers a substantial premium on the price of their wines.  Philip the Bold of the House of Valois, who ruled over France as the Duke of Burgundy in the late 14th century also laid an important marker for the evolution of the region with his binding decree that Pinot Noir was the only red grape permitted within the boundaries of Burgundy.  The rise of Chardonnay as the dominant white grape came much later but is now just as entrenched. 

While apparently not set in stone, classification in Burgundy has evolved and matured to a stable and reliable marker of wine quality, based around 22 regional or district appellations (such as Bourgogne Rouge) at the base of the pyramid, which account for 41% of total production, then 53 Communal or Village appellations (such as Marsannay) producing a further 36%.  Wines from both these types of appellations can and often are made from multiple vineyards, while at the pointy end of the hierarchy there are approximately 585 single vineyards with Premier Cru status (such as Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Fonteny) producing 18% of the regions wines and 32 Grand Cru vineyards (such as Mazis-Chambertin) producing less than 5%, but the most coveted wines of Burgundy. 

The idea of terroir helps the producers of these wines at all levels describe or appeal to a particular quality of soil, aspect or microclimate which endows a unique quality to their vines, but can also require them to justify their methods of farming or winemaking techniques to ensure the heavy hand of man doesn’t mask the beneficence of nature.

In Champagne the patchwork of vineyards and distinct areas is just as minute and detailed, but the binding classification based on defined quality levels is still evolving.  The area could be said to have endured a more chaotic, or romantic evolution.  The cultivation of vines is traced back to Roman times and the offerings of the Champenois were served to royalty when French kings were crowned at the Cathedral of Reims in the middle ages.  These wines bore no resemblance to the Champagne of today, they were still wines and the extremely marginal cool climate of the region made it difficult to ripen grapes sufficiently to avoid wines that lacked body and flavour.  The strong desire of producers to surpass the increasing prestige of the more appealing wines from their southern neighbours in Burgundy only found its true expression from the 17th century when the method champenoise was invented to create attractive (and stable) sparkling wine, which after two more centuries of refinement eventually took not just France but the modern world by storm.

The style of Champagne as produced by the Grand Marques, or largest houses, requires an ultimately consistent Non-Vintage cuvee commonly known as “the house style”. This idea would seemingly preclude the promotion of terroir, as the large producers purchase grapes from all over the entire region and then blend them together with reserve wines from many other vintages to create the finished product.  However dotted amongst the landscape of Champagne are around 5000 Recoltant-Manipulants, or Grower-Producers, who make their wines from the usually small vineyard holdings that they cultivate themselves, usually with the help of their families.  It is often in the wines of these producers where the individuality we associate with Terroir finds its best expression, moving beyond just the renowned influence of the limestone or “chalk” dominant soils of Champagne to embrace a myriad of other environmental factors.

The House of Franck Bonville is an example.  They are based in the village of Avize in an area or sub-region known as the Cotes-de-Blancs, which vignerons over time have realised is particularly suited to the production of fine Chardonnay.  The cuvees of Franck Bonville are Blanc de Blancs, made from 100% Chardonnay and are sourced only from the 20 hectares of vineyards the family owns, which have grown from an original purchase made by Alfred Bonville in the early 20th Century. 

Franck Bonville’s vineyards in Avize and the neighbouring Villages of Oger and Cremant are classified as Grand Cru, which are typically recognised as the best in the region, although in Champagne Grand Cru is a looser classification which applies to an entire village and therefore all the vineyards within its boundaries.  In Champagne it is not so much these definitions but the scale of the enterprise that gives the best expression of terroir, whether it be a prestige cuvee from a major house made solely from their best vineyard, or the output of grower producers like Bonville, whose distinct, individual and delicious cuvees reflect conscientious production from carefully tended family holdings and showcase the essence of a noble grape variety best suited to the soils it grows in and unobscured by marketing hype.