Champagne H.Blin – Championing Little Guys


While some claim smaller growers are being pushed out of Champagne, one begs to differ.

There are not many occasions when you just get to meet a Champagne producer wandering around New Zealand.

So, when one did, I took advantage of the opportunity to get some perspective from one of the smallest grape growers in the heart of the Champagne region. Hugo Blin is a vigneron from Vallée de la Marne and part of the cooperative H. Blin. He agreed to taste some wines with me and answer a few questions about organic wines, Pinot Meunier, climate change and life in Champagne.

We arrived at a restaurant, sat at the bar and had a look at the wine list. But before we could talk about the wine selection I needed clarification about what a “vigneron” actually is.

Is a vigneron a grape grower or a winemaker?

We don’t make that difference in French, because most of the time the grape grower is also the winemaker. It’s possible that a vigneron would not work directly the harvest and can just hire someone to oversee it, or you also have others that would work on the winery the whole year. This is our case, where we have been working with Sebastien Barbier as a winemaker for more than a decade. Since then our Champagne has a new taste and we are very happy with that change.

I would like to understand a little bit more about how you personally taste wine, we have a limited but interesting wine list in front of us. Do you recognize anything on it?

I can immediately recognize Taittinger; besides the Champagne, I know [this wine] from Waipara Valley and Loveblock Sauvignon Blanc. I love Loveblock because they are organic and that’s my thing. Organic wines are fresher, cleaner, more natural and are easy to taste.

Why do you like the idea of organic wines? Is it an environmental issue?

It is about the environment, but also about the taste of the wine because, in my opinion, it changes for the better. For example, in Champagne, the bigger growers are using some tricks to produce a more classic Champagne style but a little wine grower that can be organic or biodynamic, most of the time they use less sugar in it and you really feel the soil, the weather, the terroir of the Champagne. I prefer it like that.

How can you taste the “organic” expression of the terroir in the glass?

Personally, I believe it depends on the wine. In Champagne I will feel it with more freshness, somehow delicate and not too strong but more powerful and just well done.

The cooperative has around 120 growers contributing.

© Champagne H.Blin
| The cooperative has around 120 growers contributing.

How is it being a small business and part of a cooperative? Where are you and how many growers are involved?

We have 120 wine growers. Most of us are just small growers, doing a normal job to live and working on the vineyard during the weekend – and in Champagne you have to know we have many things to do in the vineyard. I think is the most strict appellation in the world, because we have many things to respect; a very strict agenda where we must complete tasks week by week. If we don’t do them we can get a warning and after three warnings we can lose the appellation of our vineyard.

Who gives the warnings?

The Association d’Inspection des Appellations de la Champagne (AIDAC); they just go through vineyards checking everything is well done. I think is a good thing for Champagne because, like this, the average quality is respected and even the lowest-quality Champagne is quite nice because has to respect lots of rules.

What would you say is the relationship of the CIVC and UMC with big and small growers? Is it a fair relationship?

Yes, is fair. The CIVC and UMC are composed of sommeliers, enologists, people from big and small wineries all working together for Champagne, so they just want to make the Champagne shine in the world.

We have reported on the current situation in Champagne and how prestige brands like Moët and Veuve Clicquot have been thriving while smaller growers are struggling. What’s your take on this?

Actually, big brands can’t govern prices because people are still looking for Champagne. You know maybe just one of 10 people are really into wine, the others are just drinking the big brands, the things they know – that’s why the big brands with all the marketing and sales can raise the price. As small wine growers we have the same costumers for 20 or 30 years coming back every year to buy our Champagne.

So, are small growers doing well?

Yes, we are doing well. Big houses are making Champagne shine in the world and there are some people interested in Champagne looking for small wineries and small wine growers so they can discover those as well. We need the big houses to live but at the same time there may be some problems.

What kind of problems?

They may try to have a monopoly on Champagne.

Is it a current danger?

It’s not currently like this but is growing faster. Looking at the past, 70 years ago there were way fewer vineyards and, with the time increasing the price of land, we have to pay high taxes. So, some could have to sell part of the vineyard and the only ones who can buy it are the big brands.

If at any given moment a big brand such as LVMH or Pernod Ricard decides to buy fewer grapes, leaving a lot of people out of the market, wouldn’t that create dependency?

It might, but they need the grapes to sell Champagne and almost everything is sold out every time, so is not a big problem.

Is that the reality of all the small growers in Champagne?

Almost everyone. Champagne is not like the other regions in France. Some of the growers in Champagne might be struggling a little bit, but is quite okay. Even if you can’t sell your own Champagne, you can still sell your juice or grapes directly to the big brands, because they are just buying it. Similarly, like Bordeaux, we have almost the same system, as people in my region can also choose to join a cooperative to sell their grapes if they can’t produce their own wine.

Yes, but it has been noted that in Bordeaux there are problems where only the prestigious brands and appellations are selling and small producers from generic Bordeaux appellations are struggling.

Bordeaux is Bordeaux and Champagne is Champagne.

Considering that the numbers supporting the rise in sales from big brands and the number of total bottles has been a little bit short how do you think this plays out in the market?

Our market has the CIVC that, every year, based on the sales from the previous year, during the harvest will tell us how much we can harvest to fix the price and limit the production of the grapes. We can’t simply produce as much as we want.

So, you are saying that still today there is a high demand for Champagne?

We are just controlling the production every year, so is not too much. For example, in 2018 we were allowed to produce more than previous years because the weather and sales were good but next year, because of the Covid-19, it could be that the CIVC decides for us to harvest less.

The soil of Vincelles offers a fertile home for Pinot Meunier.

| The soil of Vincelles offers a fertile home for Pinot Meunier.

Focusing in H. Blin vineyards, I’m aware the cooperative you sell grapes to is Pinot Meunier-dominant. What is your vineyard like?

In the cooperative, we have mostly Pinot Meunier, but we do have the three grapes in my vineyard. I have two plots of Meunier, one plot of Chardonnay and just a little bit of Pinot Noir. We are at Vallée de la Marne after all, where Pinot Meunier is widely planted.

How do you feel about Pinot Meunier?

Personally, it’s my favorite. It’s been a long time but, in the past, Pinot Meunier was considered less noble and grand cru vineyards would not be allowed to be label as grand cru when Meunier was included. But, for me, each of the three grapes have its own contribution to the Champagne: the Chardonnay, when it’s old, gives buttery notes, white fruits, some freshness and acidity, Pinot Noir with red fruits is more about roundness and power, and the Meunier is about lightness, peach, fruitiness and less acidity – a different style of Champagne; something easier to drink. That’s why we use all three in the classic blend to find a good balance.

Do you see a change in the vine’s performance based on the climate in the last few years?

Yes, a little bit. We have more and more sugar and less acidity in our grapes so we have to harvest a little bit earlier just to keep the acidity and not have too much sugar in the juice, to respect the maximum alcohol percentage of the appellation.

How do you decide when to harvest?

We don’t decide this, the CIVC does.

About the higher levels of sugars and lower levels of acidity, is it because spring and summer are coming earlier or has summer been more intense?

Summers have been more intense. We have a lot of water during spring then a very hot summer, so the sugar content increases a lot. To give you an idea – in the time of my grandparents, the harvests in Champagne were at the end of September, sometimes in October, but today the last harvest I did in 2018 it was at the end of August, almost one month earlier than it used to be.

Do you think the quality of the grapes is in danger?

Some of the vineyards may lose the appellation, and there is the intention to give the appellation to land further north where the climate and soil is suitable, but this have been in discussion for a decade or more. I’m not personally concerned about this but no decision has been made.

Has this been officially discussed or are just rumors?

This has been discussed in our village with grape growers, the CIVC and a lot of people involved just to be sure.

You mentioned you were not particularly concerned about this, why is that?

My place is right in the middle of the Vallé de la Marne. We won’t be concerned about losing the Champagne appellation because we are in the average. We are good now; we still don’t have too much, or too little sugar and we believe we will be okay for a long time.

So, this is happening at the edges of Champagne. North and South?

It’s more like southwest at Côte des Bar, but I don’t have too much information since it’s another department; but being in Champagne you hear about it.

How is the life like in a small vineyard working for a cooperative, how many people do you hire?

We hire one person per year just to work on our vineyard because is quite small. Last year, unfortunately, my grandmother died so we inherited some vineyards; because of that, my uncle is helping us with his team working his vineyards and ours and, in exchange, we just give him some money. During the harvest we hire our own team. I’m in charge of the harvest, so I just call my friends – if they want to harvest, it’s pretty simple.

How many hectares do you own?

In the past we had 0.2 hectares – that is not enough to live just from Champagne production so, with my parents, we have other jobs but from this year we have 2ha and we are trying to adjust. That’s why my uncle is helping us because he have always had more vineyards than us and hires more people.

How many vignerons from the cooperative carry the Blin last name?

I have no idea. They are not that many – maybe 15 or 20 with all the marriages.

How do you see the sparkling wines of the world outside Champagne?

There are some good sparkling wines around the world. Places like New Zealand and England are doing great. Belgian sparkling wines, for example, beat Champagne in an international sparkling wine competition – that’s something Belgian tourists like to mention when they visit Champagne.

Tell me about the sparkling wines you have tasted. The good ones and the bad ones.

I think everywhere you can find good sparkling wine. I have tasted some from UK like Gusbourne Estate. Then from Italy is not my kind of thing; for example, Prosecco is too sweet for my taste and the same thing with Spanish Cava. I would prefer Cava since is dryer than Prosecco. I don’t like sweetness in a sparkling wine.

What’s your favourite dosage level?

Brut Nature. No sugar added, naturally.