Champagne’s Rule-Breaking Winemakers Have a Sweet Secret

Illustration of beekeeper
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In France, everything that goes into a wine is considered and accounted for. Quality and authentic expression of terroir are often believed to exist only if every ingredient, which includes grapes, bacteria, lactic acids and yeast, are reviewed, approved and documented by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine. The organization was founded by Baron Pierre Le Roy Boiseaumarié in 1935, and the precursor to the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wine classification system.

But many say that the very rigor that  helped create some of the world’s most lauded wines is also threatening its supremacy.

The issue has come to a head in the Champagne region recently, when the AOC discovered through an Instagram post that organically farmed, biodynamic eighth-generation producer Lelarge-Pugeot was using honey in the dosage of one of its Champagnes, the Bises.

“We were not advertising the fact that we were using honey, and we hoped that we would escape notice because there’s nothing explicit in the rules that say you cannot use it,” says Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot, the export manager at her family’s Champagne house. “It just says that the expedition liqueur may only contain sucrose or grape must, and honey is technically sucrose.”

It uses honey only in the Bises line, which is made from the same base wine that goes into Lelarge-Pugeot’s classic Blanc de Blancs, a blend of Chardonnay parcels grown on the estate’s sandy loam soil.

Vineyards and cellar of Lelarge-Pugeot
Vineyards and cellar of Lelarge-Pugeot / Photo courtesy Lelarge-Pugeot

Honey and sugar are both made up of a combination of glucose and fructose. In sugar, they’re bound together to form sucrose, which comes in the form of sugar beets or sugarcane. With honey, fructose and glucose are largely independent from each other.

Lelarge-Pugeot’s family turned to honey as a more honest and authentic evocation of their terroir, as well as a more responsible ecological choice.

“We are beekeepers,” says Lelarge-Pugeot. “This honey comes from our land. It’s essential to us that we make our footprint as small as possible in every way, and it is the product of bees that gather nectar from our land. The only organic source we could find for sugar is from halfway across the world.”

While AOC agents were sympathetic, a strict interpretation of the rule was enforced. As of March, the last pallet of wine that used honey in the dosage shipped to California and New York. In the meantime, Lelarge-Pugeot has submitted an application for permission to use honey. She says the process will take “at least a year,” but that other producers are excited.

Terroir and Honey: Where Wine and Bees Meet

“We believe that being able to have the option to use local honey is the right thing to do philosophically and ecologically,” says Lelarge-Pugeot.

The label’s U.S. importer, Jennifer Green of Super Glou, is also hopeful.

“How would it be possible to get a more authentic taste of Champagne’s terroir than by using local honey?” says Green. She says the difference in taste is subtle, but the honey adds a roundness to the texture.

In Oregon, where a more freewheeling approach to viniculture exists, winemakers like Joe Wright of the Willamette Valley’s Left Coast are super sweet on honey.

Left Coast's Queen Bee Bubbly / Photo courtesy Left Coast
Left Coast’s Queen Bee Bubbly / Photo courtesy Left Coast

“We’re beekeepers, grape growers and preservationists,” says Wright. “About 20% of our 500 acres is devoted to oak tree preservation. By the end of August, we have hundreds of gallons of honey, and while we sell a lot of it in the tasting room, it made perfect sense to us to use this product, which is from our land, to make sparkling wine.”

Left Coast’s Queen Bee Bubbly is made from Pinot Noir grapes, with honey added to jumpstart the second fermentation. “It’s riper and rounder, and gives you a real sense of what our estate smells like,” says Wright. “Jasmine, dry summer grass, honey, peaches.”

At its best, terroir holds many things. It’s a place for elegance, sophistication and subtlety, but it’s also a showcase for local flavor and authenticity.

Published on October 29, 2020
Topics: Champagne