The Best New Wines From Champagne Don't Have Any Bubbles At All

Posted: Jul 27, 2021

Before Champagne became synonymous with bubbly, the region produced wine, of course; it was just meant to be still. And while some of sparkling’s precursors might have enjoyed a modicum of fame (what came from the king’s own vineyards in Aÿ was reportedly excellent), there were also many more simple wines known as oeil de perdrix (“partridge’s eye”) due to their slightly blush color (before about a century ago, it was common for red and white grapes to be mixed in a vineyard). Situated in northeast France, after all, Champagne was famously cool, its low temperatures a challenge for ripening grapes enough to make them into delicious still wines. Historically, the wines began fermenting again in the spring after the cold winter had shut down the process, but because they were shipped (primarily to England) in wooden barriques, the bubbles didn’t hold. Around 1735, though, Louis XV authorized shipping the wine in bottles, and the rest is history, as they say: Champagne was established as a sparkling-wine region.

Yet still wines—now called Côteaux Champenois—persisted and their history and new trajectory in one legendary Champagne house, Louis Roederer, tells the story of a wine style coaxed from forgettable tradition through painstaking trial to modern excellence—and of climate change.

In the mid-90s, though, Roederer undertook a major shift in farming methods. As Lécaillon (who oversees Roederer’s vineyards as well as its cellar, a somewhat unusual dual role) describes it, “We decided to go back to no herbicides, low pesticides, lower yields, riper fruit and deep-rooted vines in order to get more site- and terroir-driven wines.” They converted to organic farming on a large scale. “By doing so,” he says, “we made the production of Côteaux Champenois possible again,” adding, “let’s not forget that, at the same time, climate change is allowing us to pick riper and healthier grapes, which is key to still winemaking.”

Up to a point, what’s good for sparkling wine is good for still. “The specificity of Champagne terroir is freshness, salinity, elegance and precision of fruit, with huge aging potential,” Lécaillon says. “It is that Champagne expression that we want to capture in our Côteaux Champenois, but we try to push further, aiming to capture an extra deliciousness from riper fruit and a long, chiseled tannin structure while maintaining precision and aging potential.”

To put it mildly, a great still wine from Champagne is not just a great base wine for a bubbly.

By Sara L. Schneider
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