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Champagne Has Entered Its ‘Wherever, Whenever’ Era

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A young drinker may be introduced to Champagne Billecart-Salmon, as I was by one of my aunts in my early twenties, and told she should reserve it for special occasions only. Two decades later, a trip to the region helped me see the error of my aunt’s ways. There, Champagne is consumed daily, like a beer at lunchtime, with six-euro coupes of Taittinger gracing menus at casual bistros and dive bars throughout town. 

“It’s just wine and you should drink it whenever,” a waiter at Sacré Burger in Reims told me. My mind was somewhat blown. 

In recent years, perceptions surrounding Champagne have changed dramatically, resulting in new consumer habits and attitudes from the brands themselves. Take, for example, fifth-generation Champagne Charles Dufour whose Bulles de Comptoir #10 Tchin Tchin boasts a label with a cartoon person in what looks like a furry suit. The hip bottle stands out in the Royal Champagne Hotel’s all-glass display cellar in Champillon.

While Champagne is bound by strict geographic parameters and regulations, a new generation of movers and shakers—from large houses, like Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, to small growers that are hard to find in the United States—are working hard to shed the category’s black-tie reputation. Their goal? To make it more approachable to a wider audience on a wider array of occasions. 

“We can embody a less formal, more casual and relaxed approach,” says Guillaume Roffiaen, chief winemaker at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte. “We truly believe that when it comes to enjoying Champagne, no occasion is necessary.”

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Champagne, Anytime

The goal isn’t to emulate Champére, the fictional party Champagne designed for celebratory spraying in Netflix’s “Emily in Paris.” Rather, the aim is to recontextualize the former special-occasion-only wine for modern audiences, who are just as likely to consume it with fried chicken or potato chips as they are with Michelin-starred tasting menus. This could mean starting a new ritual, as this writer’s friend in Charleston, South Carolina has, of making fondue and opening a bottle of Champagne Oudiette x Filles on a random Tuesday night. Or it could look like pairing Champagne Étienne Calsac L’Echappée Belle with a smash burger at the perennially popular Sacré Burger in Reims.

The burger joint, helmed by Victor Allier, boasts a Champagne list pages long and epitomizes how the prestigious sparkler is moving into casual settings. Allier handpicks the bottles, all of which are made by grower-producers, many of them personal friends, who farm their grapes and oversee every aspect of the vinification process. These grower Champagnes, which account for less than 5% of total Champagne imported to the U.S., are at the heart of this movement.

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Charles Dufour—and his cheeky labels—is one of the best-known. A bit more than a decade ago, after he took over his family estate Robert Dufour, and subsequently divided it amongst other family members, he got 15 acres of vines in Landeville certified organic. Those Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc grapes are the base for his yearly releases of “Bulles de Comptoir,” or “bar bubbles, and have been popular amongst small grower enthusiasts since the first release in 2010. The mission is simple: one wine, one blend and one year of aging before it’s bottled. Production is limited, but bottles can be spotted at some of the world’s greatest restaurants and wine bars like Noma in Copenhagen and Bar Brutal in Barcelona.

Antony Laviron, sommelier at the Royal Champagne Hotel, displays it prominently at the restaurant. Like Allier at Sacré Burger, he seeks out producers who are creating exclusive cuvées in tiny quantities and disrupting established norms in efforts to shift consumers’ habits.

Margot Laurent
Image Courtesy of Champagne Oudiette x Filles

Laviron appreciates houses that go against the grain of the well-known maison, which most often produce non-vintage sparklers made from blends of still wines (vin clairs) from varying years to achieve a consistent flavor profile. What excites Laviron are special cuvées that highlight a unique vintage (millésimes) or novel winemaking techniques such as some of the late releases by Jacquesson & Fils, which “has delivered exceptional old millésimes…[like] a Millésime 2002, bottled in 2004 and disgorged only in 2021,” he says. “You have complexity like an old wine but the wine has been protected and still has a lot of freshness from how it has been conserved.” 

At Jacquesson & Fils, one of the oldest and more venerable houses in the region, brothers Laurent and Jean-Hervé Chiquet implemented an herbicide-free, terroir-based philosophy after they took over the house from their father in the 1980s. They join other children of longstanding Champagne houses who have followed suit by changing up their families’ practices.

Bubbles That Tell a Story

Margot Laurent is the third-generation vigneron behind Champagne Oudiette x Filles, supported by her sister, Charlotte, and their mother, Florence. Laurent, similar to a fashion designer, produces organic single-grape, single-vintage Champagne that tells a story of a place and time. 

“We have a very special attraction with our different plots, we cultivate them and adapt our actions according to each one,” she says. “The vinification of parcels allows us to discover our terroirs, our grape varieties and our soils.” 

This desire to highlight the region’s cool climate and chalky soils goes beyond separately vinifying single plots. At fourth-generation run Champagne André Heucq in Vallée de la Marne, André Heucq and his daughter, Fanny, experiment with various aging vessels to produce wholly unique, organic 100% Pinot Meunier Champagne.

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André mostly uses wood to achieve balance, but his experimentation with concrete eggs and clay amphorae has yielded unique results. For his Blanc de Meunier Œuf, the cuvée is vinified and aged in an egg-shaped vat made of clay and concrete, allowing the yeast to circulate and feed the wine while aging. The result is a Champagne that’s still elegant with a nice saline minerality and slight chalky mouthfeel.

“The terroir remains the same, but new growers and winemakers are finding new ways of growing the grapes—and new ways of vinification to enlighten the terroirs,” says Fanny, who also owns Paris Champagne boutique, Dilettantes Cave à Champagne. “The new types of wines are unlimited.”

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New Champagne for a New Consumer

While the new generation running these storied houses is excited to test new ways of doing things and put their stamp on their family businesses, a new wave of curious consumers is giving them the space to do so. Julie Voirin, a fifth-generation Champagne producer at Champagne Voirin Jumel, who works alongside her sister, Pauline, and father, Patrick, has noticed that more wine and Champagne drinkers want to know the story behind the bottle.

“Now, Champagne is beginning to be perceived as a wine and consumers take the time to know the philosophy of the producer,” she says. “They want to know all of the details: The grape variety, the appellation, the aging time.” 

portrait of Julie Voirin
Image Courtesy of Champagne Voirin Jumel

Voirin notes this shift in Champagne culture, saying that new attitudes are driving change. “We no longer make Champagne to please everyone, but instead we let nature express itself, and each producer finds their style, their expression, their signature,” she says. “We are getting more and more out of the classics, the methods are changing—the consumption, too.” 

It’s not just smaller grower-producers changing things up. Large established brands, like Nicolas Feuillatte, are also attempting to highlight the beverage in different and more democratic ways. 

“While Champagne has strict rules, the consumer still wants to seek out newness,” says Roffiaen. “The great regularity of our cuvées is a reassuring point, [however] our clients are also keen to have new experiences, to make them vibrate.” 

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Though its methods of production have remained the same, the brand has been offering new experiences for customers, such as its recently debuted interactive educational space, Boutique Nicolas Feuillatte, in Paris’s’ 8th arrondissement. At its striking new visitor center in the heart of Côte des Blancs, guests can opt to take a tour and view the working robotic machines, which bottle around 20,000 bottles per hour, or take an educational blind tasting course. 

“One of our greatest challenges is to offer Champagne lovers new and original experiences, while always obeying and staying true to our ancestral rules, and to seduce the next generation of amateurs of the wine of kings—and the king of wines,” says Roffiaen.
If you look around trendy wine bars with extensive Champagne lists, from Sacré Burger in Reims and Bar Brutal Barcelona to Coqodaq in New York City and Tabula Rasa in Los Angeles, it seems these efforts have been paying off. This latest crop of producers have brought Champagne into its drink whenever, wherever era—something many consumers are clearly ready to get behind.