Friday, August 23, 2019

Beyond "Grower Champagne": Caroline Henry's U.S. Book Tour for Her Book, Terroir Champagne

Matt Cirne (Verjus and Quince), Caroline Henry (author) and
two fans at her book signing event at Verjus in San Francisco
Caroline Henry was in San Francisco this weekend on the tail end of her U.S. book tour, promoting her book Terroir Champagne, which has become the definitive guide to a category that people sometimes call "grower champagne." But is grower the right word?

"I was always intrigued by the idea of terroir in champagne," Henry said, over a light lunch of omelets stuffed with Boursin cheese at Verjus, where we dined before her afternoon tasting there. A book signing and tasting, hosted by Verjus somm Matt Cirne, featured wines from nine producers.

Champagne's major houses have traditionally blended their wines, growing estate grapes and purchasing significant amounts of fruit from local growers. 

Terroir champagne turns the game on its head. The subtleties of grapes and varying blends from tiny plots, grown by vignerons, has reinvigorated the industry and given the little guy independents - usually families - a voice for their soil and winemaking styles.

Eco-luxe is another part of the indie picture. Many of these tiny producers are practicing organic or biodynamic farming and/or have certified organic and biodynamic vines (all of which are listed in Terroir Champagne).

Henry regaled me with her insider stories about Champagne, from its major houses to its tiniest producers. She lives in a small village there (population 750). Her exploration of the vineyards in Champagne began when she took her dog on daily walks.

There, she could see the blue bits of plastic in the ground from the compost routinely exported from the cities to the countryside until 1998. And she could see the spraying and the tell tale yellow strips left by Roundup applications in the spring.

"It wasn't just in Champagne," she said, "that the French garbage compost was applied. It was in all the wine regions." Governments later decided to burn the compost.

Image result for pesticides map franceWhile some producers strive to reduce pesticide use, which is part of French government mandates, the region is still among the heaviest users of herbicides and fungicides in France. (See map - the red spots show the heaviest pesticide regions.)

In the Champagne region, there were two valleys that suffered from water so polluted that residents didn't have drinkable water, Henry said.

Overall, Champagne's markets have shifted from France to export markets.

I asked her about the recent Seralini studies on the taste of pesticides in wine and whether or not they had had any impact on the industry.

"The 30 glorious years, from 1970-2000, in Champagne were the time of chemical farming," she said. "And at the same time, that was when the wine expert degrees like the MW and WSET program, grew more popular. Those flavors (of pesticides) became the benchmarks, so people are used to tasting the wines grown with chemicals."

Henry herself teaches English at the business school in Reims. "That allows me to stay neutral," she said, as opposed to being beholden to the wine industry and its marketing muscle which often makes it hard for writers to share the stories they want to write about.

Many of the wineries in Terroir Champagne are certified organic or biodynamic.

Some of the big guns - like Roederer - have decided to pursue biodynamic practices and certification. The reason?  "They want to make better wine, and places like DRC have convinced them that is the only way," Henry said.

Roederer's Crystal is now sourced entirely from organic or biodynamic grapes, she said.

During her SF visit, Henry also appeared at Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, where she said many consumers attended the tasting (but didn't buy the book). "The trade did buy the book," she said.

Before the tour, she'd sold roughly 2,000 copies. During the tour, she sold 1,500 more books, proving there is interest in this topic in the U.S.


Here are two of the wines from organic or biodynamic vines.

The Reasonance champagne from Champagne Marie-Courtin, made by Dominque Moreau (page 52 in the book), was crisp and precise, with a generous amount of frothy mousse. 

The fresh Thomas Persaval Tradition (page 143 in the book) offers up bright citrus notes and packs in some pucker power to boot.

I've left out a lot of the information about herbicide and fungicides in Henry's book as that's covered in Gwendolyn Alley's blog post about Henry here.

To order the book (available in hardcover or as an ebook), click here.

Image result for terroir champagne book

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