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Looking to change it up in 2022? Start by giving grower Champagne a go

If you can't find your go-to Champagne on the shelves, give "farmer fizz" a try for New Year's Eve. (Photo: Emily Faber, The National Desk)

Here we are again — another new year, another countdown with bated breath as the atmosphere of hope and optimism typical of today’s holiday is tinged with an air of urgency.

It’s no wonder that the usual sanguinity of New Year’s Eve assumes a greater level of gravity in our current circumstances. For many, the promise of change accompanying the strike of midnight this year will no longer be dominated exclusively by endeavors of personal transformation. Resolutions to exercise more and spend less will instead have to share the spotlight with the ineluctable longing for 2022 to fully differentiate itself from its immediate predecessors in its ability to arouse true progress.

Contributing, too, to the weightiness of the imminent transition is the all-to-familiar sense of uncertainty that has infiltrated every facet of our lives for nearly two years now. Uncertainty about what 2022 will bring is a given. But even tonight’s plans, just hours away, are susceptible to indecision. Should we all get tested before we gather? Is waiting in line for a COVID-19 test worth it? Is waiting in line for the club worth it? Will a crowded bar feel safe? Is kissing a stranger at midnight a step toward normalcy or a sure mistake?

There are a few things that will happen with absolute certainty. The ball will drop. Fireworks will light up skies across the globe. And people will drink Champagne.

Some will toast with Champagne on rooftop bars; others will clink glasses during a small gathering at their friend’s fifth-floor walk-up. In Times Square, alcohol is prohibited during the New Year’s Eve festivities, but still, Champagne will likely make its way into the madness. Then, there will be those who buy a bottle (or two) to enjoy in isolation, whether they’re completing the CDC’s recommended five-day quarantine for asymptomatic COVID-19 cases or simply choosing to exercise caution.

New Year’s Eve and the bubbly beverage pair together so nicely that there’s actually a second, if slightly less formal, holiday to observe on Dec. 31 — National Champagne Day.

But when it comes to celebrations, Champagne doesn’t discriminate. From graduation to retirement, it’s there to witness all of life’s major milestones, and it has been for quite some time. Madame de Pompadour, the chief mistress of Louis XV in the 18th century, is said to have served 1,800 bottles at a single party. And the tradition of Champagne toasts at weddings, still practically ubiquitous in the modern day, dates all the way back to the 19th century. Less prevalent throughout history but achieving popularity as of late is the custom of a post-vaccination glass (but try to refrain from polishing off a whole bottle immediately after the shot).

Even astronauts, with their bevy of achievements deserving of such celebration, may have the opportunity to pop bottles, thanks to French Champagne house G. H. Mumm & Cie. In 2018, the producer unveiled a specially engineered bottle designed to bring bubbly to the zero-gravity environment of space. Mumm Champagne was also Richard Branson’s drink of choice to commemorate his successful Virgin Galactic spaceflight in July, although he enjoyed it down on Earth.

There are also those momentous occasions that call for Champagne but require no drinking. A boat’s christening, for instance, dictates that a bottle be broken over the bow. For race car drivers and baseball players, its sweet, sticky spray is synonymous with victory. And anyone unlikely to win an athletic championship may experience the same sensation at a Steve Aoki concert, where the mood is undoubtedly one of revelry. No matter that partiers will leave in desperate need of a shower.

For acclaimed wine importer Terry Theise, it was the joyous moments of a long-distance relationship, made all the more merrier in comparison to the agony of being apart, that most often encouraged him to pop open the bubbly.

Theise found his way to wine in his teenage years. His first taste came not from a family member’s glass at a holiday dinner or a bottle snuck out of a friend’s parents’ liquor cabinet, as one might expect, but from British musician Rod Stewart at a Faces concert in New York City. When Stewart passed a bottle of Mateus Rosé down the entire front row, Theise indulged. And although it was far from love at first sip, Theise, an aspiring musician at the time, resolved to keep drinking wine to build what he imagined to be a rock star persona.

Fast forward some time, and Theise did not end up as a rock star in the literal sense of the term, but he did find an alternative pathway to stardom in the wine industry through his emphasis on small family vintners and underappreciated varietals. And so, when Theise was popping bottles with restaurateur and chef Odessa Piper, it wasn’t the standard options from négociants, the big houses that purchased grapes from growers all over the region to be blended into the type of absolute consistency that left no room for human stories.

No, what interested Theise were the grower Champagnes, “farmer fizz” from smaller grower-producers who eschewed the traditional formula of solely existing for the sake of supplying to the big houses by instead using the grapes from their vineyards to produce their own wine.

Some say that it was the Romans who first planted vineyards in Champagne. They called the land “campania,” or “open country,” in reference to the landscape of rolling hills that bore a resemblance to the rich countryside of Italy’s Campania region.

But even as Champagne’s own name grew out of a Latin word representative of the terrain’s distinct character, it was through a total disregard of the land on which the grapes were grown that the largest Champagne houses were able to market their product through its flawless dependability.

The final product’s indifference toward the land doesn’t imply that the grapes are low-quality, or that the process of harvesting those grapes is a sloppy, haphazard operation.

Really, it’s the opposite. The strict boundaries of the Champagne region’s 84,016 acres have been delineated to ensure that the grapes used in Champagne are grown in the most optimal weather conditions for what producers are hoping to achieve. Cooler temperatures result in more acidic grapes ideal for sparkling wine, and lower levels of sunshine limit the growth rate of the grapes to achieve the freshness and crispness necessary for Champagne. There’s near-ideal rainfall, and the soil, which contains porous chalk deposits left over from the abundance of shellfish that populated an ancient sea during the Mesozoic era, helps to provide a steady supply of water to the vineyards. When it’s too wet, it soaks up the water like a sponge. Too dry, and it releases water.

The timing of the harvest is determined through careful use of data. Strict rules in the region mandate that the three types of grapes authorized for Champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier) are harvested by hand and picked entirely within a three-week window to guarantee as much uniformity as possible.

Controlling Mother Nature, however, has never been an option, and in the Champagne region, weather can be unreliable. To navigate these challenges, Champagne makers started to blend still wines.

It’s in the blending process that the quality of the land is completely lost. To say it as the French would, there is virtually no emphasis on “terroir,” a term that refers to the various environmental factors of a specific region that contribute to the unique character of a wine. Mother Nature’s influence, if you will.

Krug, for example, stores 150 reserve wines from 10 to 12 different vintages. Add to that 250 wines from the current year, and there are 400 different ingredients that could be combined in any number of ways, prior to the second fermentation that gives Champagne its characteristic bubbles, to achieve a Champagne exactly like the Krug products on shelves today.

The Krug Grande Cuvée is described as being “born from the dream of one man, Joseph Krug, to craft the very best Champagne he could offer, every single year, regardless of annual variations in climate.” The final product consists of over 120 wines from a span stretching 10 years.

Across the board, the common goal is consistency, year after year after year.

And for the big houses, who have no problem selling their products to the rich and famous and those trying to copy the rich and famous on special occasions deserving of a splurge, why shouldn’t this be the goal? When a marketing strategy born out of Champagne’s history as an indulgence meant for royalty and focused on brand names and luxury appeal and James Bond and hip hop is working, there’s no need to get soil involved. Did you know that Marilyn Monroe once bathed in 350 bottles of Champagne? That’s the exciting stuff, right?

Not everyone in the Champagne region was content with coasting on consistency, though.

The Champagne Riots of 1910 and 1911 highlighted the struggles that growers faced in ensuring fair treatment from the Champagne houses. Ultimately, the dynamics of the relationship improved with the establishment of a classification system that rated villages in Champagne on a numerical scale to determine the value of the grapes, and growers were regarded with more respect, which opened some of the earliest doors on the path to the grower Champagne movement.

Then came those with an eye on terroir. Among them was Anselme Selosse, the man with a fresh perspective on winemaking to whom a majority of credit for the grower Champagne movement often goes.

Selosse is the son of Jacques Selosse, a grower who began to bottle his own wines in 1959. Raised in Champagne, Selosse headed to Burgundy for his studies of oenology, where he gained a greater appreciation for wines that formulated their sense of self through an exhibition of terroir, and when he inherited his father’s vineyard in 1980, he brought those forward-thinking views into each step of the vinification process. Although Selosse was not the first to do so, he was one of the most celebrated, such that his wine created more awareness of the existence of grower Champagne.

There’s also recognition given to Theise. When his taste for grower Champagne quickly outpaced the availability of the artisanal sparkling wines in the United States, Theise decided to pay a visit to the region with the intentions of building up a personal inventory to enjoy during those special occasions with Piper. But when the couple began to explore the smaller growers of Champagne, Theise found himself so thoroughly impressed with their products that he decided his import portfolio would benefit from new additions.

Like Selosse, Theise wasn’t the first on the importer side to take steps to grow the movement — just the first to “overdo” it, as he said in an interview with The Sommelier Journal.

Through Theise’s efforts, as well as the efforts of all those that he inspired, the amount of grower Champagne in the United States has risen dramatically. In 2000, The New York Times reported that 273,000 bottles of grower Champagne were shipped to the United States. In 2014, that number grew to almost a million. One year later, 1.1 million bottles were shipped.

According to Theise, the appeal of farmer fizz is threefold, as it’s the combination of value, taste, and ethics that draws people into the newer usage of the old territory and keeps them there to stay.

The smaller producers don’t throw as much money at flashy marketing strategies and ad campaigns featuring famous musicians, which typically keeps the cost of the final product in a price range that's more of a bargain than big-brand Champagnes of a similar caliber.

In terms of taste, the most immediately observable distinction is the relative lack of sugar in a grower Champagne. Based on his own analyses, Theise has found that the brut Champagnes of big houses are sweeter than they have any right to be, whereas many grower Champagnes are extra brut, meaning they contain less than six grams of residual sugar. And if the element of surprise is enticing when it comes to alcohol, that’s another point in a grower Champagne’s favor. There’s no real way to achieve consistency without resorting to the same sort of elaborate blending processes taking place in a big house’s cellar.

Lower prices and the potential for improved taste may have been enough on their own to lure Champagne drinkers away from Dom Pérignon and Veuve Clicquot, but there's no denying the draw of the ethical benefits of grower Champagne.

In 2010, sentiments favoring honorable, principled small businesses over dishonest and corrupt corporations pushed consumers toward trends like farm-to-table restaurants, small-batch spirits — and the younger Champagne growers who produced much smaller quantities of sparkling wine through organic and biodynamic methods. Farmer fizz or LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton? For many consumers, it was an easy decision to give their hard-earned dollars to families, to generations of growers who had watched their grapes move from soil to bottle with undeniable fondness for the land on which the grapes were grown.

If you ask Paola Embry, CEO and wine director at Wrigley Mansion, this very moment is the perfect time for grower Champagne to shine.

Murmurings of a Champagne shortage grew increasingly stronger as New Year’s Eve (and with it, National Champagne Day) approached, and now, the headlines are flooded with bold claims like CNN’s declaration that the “high-end Champagne shortage could ruin your New Year’s Eve.”

Last-minute shoppers are not likely to find the liquor store shelves completely empty of even a single bottle of Champagne, but anyone with their sights set on a specific bottle may face repercussions for waiting until Dec. 31 to buy it. Those who want to browse a diverse selection may not find as many options as they would have liked, and people who tend to gravitate toward the recognizable brands that pop up on social media and in advertisements might agree that the selection for New Year’s Eve is, in fact, lacking.

And that’s exactly when the labels that don’t immediately scream James Bond or Jay Z could have an opportunity as golden as a bottle of Armand de Brignac Brut Gold.

“Right now, it’s the perfect platform for grower Champagne,” said Embry. “A lot of these farmers aren’t taking out big advertisements or doing a lot of social media, so they’re not as well-known. But with the shortages of the big houses, I think they’ll get better exposure.”

The phrase that everyone seems to be using about the Champagne shortage is “the perfect storm.”

Embry used it: “The harvests were really small, due to frost and rain. And with the great demand from people being in a celebratory mood and the shipping issues, it’s that perfect storm.”

So, too, did Liz Paquette, head of consumer insights at Drizly. “I think there are a number of different factors that play here in a perfect storm of events,” she said, touching on all of the issues that Embry mentioned.

At Drizly, Paquette has had an especially clear perspective of the dramatic fluctuations in Champagne demand throughout the course of the pandemic.

“In the early days of the pandemic, we saw a pretty significant decline with Champagne and sparkling wine with a lot of people at home and not celebrating. That was definitely one category that was pretty negatively impacted in those early days,” she said. “And what we’ve seen since is that consumer demand has been coming back really aggressively after those early months.”

Because of the obvious connection to New Year’s Eve, the Champagne shortage has been generating a good amount of attention this week, but the issues surrounding the industry will not disappear into the night with the final seconds of 2021 in the same fashion as Cinderella’s ball gown and carriage.

“Keep in mind that Champagne holds back their wine for at least two years, because they have to be aged for a minimum of two to four years,” said Embry. “So this will affect 2022, 2023, and possibly 2024.”

Embry, for what it’s worth, has done as much as she can to ensure that diners at Wrigley Mansion are still able to enjoy wide selections of both grower Champagnes and Champagnes from the big houses. When Wrigley Mansion had to temporarily close in March of 2020, Embry continued to buy Champagne. It started with the intention of supporting her friends in the industry who weren’t having much luck in moving their products, and it continued with the realization that the early months of the pandemic were a prime time to build out the wine program at the Arizona mansion constructed by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.

Her purchases weren’t an intentional strategy to navigate the upcoming shortage, but when her importers sold out of Cristal, Dom Pérignon, and Krug this month, Embry was relieved to have already accumulated a supply, especially in the current state of high demand that has $40 glasses of Champagne “moving like water.”

“I have enough for the next six months, so I’m really happy about that,” she said.

Although sold-out bottles from big Champagne houses may, to some extent, help the smaller producers shine without having to compete against glitz and name recognition, the growers are still operating in the same region as the bigger names and thus are facing all of the same difficulties. For some, the challenges are amplified by the same tune sung by small businesses in all other industries, a somber melody predicting an unfortunate fate at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic and lamenting the inaccessibility of invaluable resources.

A grower Champagne order that Embry placed in June took six months to arrive, pointing toward supply chain issues. And the growers’ deeper appreciation for the terroir unfortunately doesn’t mean that Mother Nature will bestow kindness upon their specific vineyards while hammering their neighbors with rain and frost. None of the vineyards in Champagne can hide from the rising temperatures in the region that are threatening lower levels of acidity and pushing harvest dates earlier and earlier.

The industry has also experienced pushback related to the captivating myth that was popularized in the early days of the grower Champagne movement that seemed to promise that any label marked with RM (meaning “récoltant-manipulant,” or “harvest-maker”) boasted a wine of such an exceptional quality and an emphatically unique taste that it would immediately put any of the big Champagne houses to shame. If true, each bottle would hold not just millions of bubbles but an enchanting journey into an unknown world tastier and more intriguing than our current reality.

But it’s not. Some grower Champagnes are very good; others are not. Similarly, the big houses are not a consistent villain fighting against all that Champagne should and could be. There would surely be naivety involved in assuming that the big brands have not taken notice of the explosion of attention that grower Champagnes have received in recent years. And on their part, it would take an incredible amount of stubbornness to not even be somewhat open to new ways of winemaking. Already, strides have been made toward more sustainable practices.

Then, there are the staunch opponents of the concept of terroir who claim that it’s completely fake, that selling a bottle based on terroir is no less of a suave marketing technique than any used by the big houses. The jury is still out on that one, with the science world providing proof both in favor of and against its existence.

So should last-minute shoppers grabbing a bottle of Champagne look for RM or NM (“négociant-manipulant,” for producers who purchase the majority of their grapes) on the label? Honestly, it’s personal preference.

On New Year’s Eve, Paquette usually gravitates toward a sparkling version of a French Kiss Martini with sparkling wine, vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice. But this year, she said, maybe she’d have a margarita.

In a way, the pandemic has placed many of us in our own assortment of unexpected long-distance relationships. This was particularly apparent in the early days of quarantine back in the spring of 2020, when black boxes or grainy videos on Zoom tried their best to replicate the irreplaceable experience of gathering in person. There were holidays conducted over video chat, long phone calls to replace the meandering conversations at a bar that could carry on until closing time, and virtual date nights that left any hope of physical touch far off the table.

Some of those long-distance relationships may persevere still — family members in other countries with complicated travel restrictions, elderly grandparents with medical conditions that put them at a higher risk, friends who still prefer to err on the side of caution. There’s also the potential for time apart from loved ones, briefer but still felt, after a positive COVID test.

Just as the difficult moments that Theise spent away from Piper during his own long-distance relationship augmented the joy of reuniting with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, the enduring challenges of the pandemic can assuredly serve to better highlight those moments of jubilance shining through clouds of anxiety and grief. And maybe, like Theise and Piper, those who find any cause to celebrate will clutch onto the opportunity, possibly with a glass of grower Champagne by their side.

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