Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Champagne and name calling..

Jean-Sebastien Fleury in his vines

Much of the discussion regarding natural wine has descended into semantics. With people arguing that wine in itself is inherently a fabrication; that the hand of the winemaker in necessarily present, that oak barrels and steel tanks are not natural and that vines do not naturally grow in straight rows along carefully positioned wires.

Of that I will not argue, however as with everything in life there are shades of grey. If we accept certain manipulations as being essential in the creation of a product that we desire then we are left with a series of choices regarding how to proceed. That these will affect the final product is so evidently true that it barely warrants a mention. This leaves us with the winemaker, the person that makes these decisions, why? What motivates a winemaker to make decisions that make his life harder? Why choose a riskier path?

It is when we look into these questions that we start to see the appeal of minimal intervention wines. Their makers often have made a definite philosophical decision to follow their own path. It’s noticeable that many of the regions where minimal intervention winemaking has flourished are those that haven’t been the most successful commercially, the Beaujolais, which was languishing outside of the spot light of fashion while Chauvet’s gang of five were quietly rewriting the rules, or the Jura, perennial outsiders, for whom minimal intervention winemaking really just meant not changing what they’d pretty much always done. However, when we turn to more successful regions we realize that it takes much more of a risk to turn ones back on the formula that has worked so well. Take Pouilly-Fume for example, apart form Alexandre Bain there is virtually nothing even organic in the appellation, look at the top end of Bordeaux, one has Pontet Canet, working biodynamically, but even they’re not taking any risks with their winemaking. Or you could consider Champagne.

Champagne, the single most successful appellation yet created. Where the rising tide of success has genuinely lifted all the boats. Each year the CIVC, the growers and the houses engage in a stately dance of studied complexity, each eyeing the golden pot that is the market place, but each also playing their role in keeping that pot overflowing.

As the old joke goes, how can you tell the difference between a grower and a Champagne house owner? Well the grower washes his own Mercedes.

And yet, Champagne as a product is possibly the least natural of the wines we often drink. It is precisely the manipulations of the winemakers that have allowed it to scale such lofty commercial heights. Yes, you can bottle your still slightly fermenting must and leave the primary fermentation to finish in bottle for a delicious petillant natural, but if you want a proper secondary fermentation in bottle you’re going to need to add something containing fermentable sugars and something to do the fermenting. Then you’re going to have to disgorge your wines to prepare them for sale. A long way from natural I hear you scorn. Yet even here there is room for maneuver.

David Leclapart, with his 3 ha. In the village of Trepail on the East of the Montagne de Reims, is the epitome of biodynamic rigour, he truly believes in making the best and most honest representation of his northerly terroir. He uses the barest minimum of Sulphur in the vineyard, doesn’t filter, fine, use yeast flocculation assistants, does no cold settling and only uses a tiny amount of sulphur pre bottling. His three wines are about as unique as Champagne gets, idiosyncratic, always vintage, because how else would they be an honest expression of that bit of land in that year?

Dominique Courtin of Domaine Marie Courtin in the Cotes de Bar farms one small plot, from which she makes four cuvees. Her Concordance 09, made with no added sulphites at all is now firmly on my list of wines that everyone needs to try. There is something almost other worldly about the texture of the wines mousse. Being finer than any other Champagne I’ve yet tasted. On discussing this with her, she thinks it’s because the wild yeast strains are able to survive and prosper in the mostly sulphite free medium of the wine in a different way to that found in normal secondary fermentations.

Benoit Laheye

Also in the Cotes de Bar is Jean-Pierre Fleury, 20 years of biodynamics at his domaine have given him an unrivalled understanding of how his terroir really behaves. For me their Rose de Saignee is the wine that knocks me over, showing as the very best Rose de Saigness occasionally do a beautiful Pinot Noir like bouquet. Imagine a glass of De Montille Burgundy but with a delicate mousse and a great quiver of electrical like acidity.

Friends Benoit Tarlant and Benoit Laheye from either side of Epernay, Ouilly and Bouzy respectively, have each taken slightly different approaches towards looking at their terroir. Benoit Laheye, biodynamic since 2008 makes a startlingly expressive blanc de noir, while Tarlant has been making a selection of single vineyard Champagnes since long before they started to become the flavour of the month. What’s more the house has been focusing on zero dosage since the 70’s, allowing them to comprehensively disprove any doubts regarding zero dosage wines ability to age with grace and elegance.
Benoit Tarlant and his barrels

The charming Francoise Bedel, who sadly won’t be in London for RAW fair, her son in law is going instead as he speaks better English, is another of the Champenois who are seeking to rescue the region from the chemical atrocities committed during the 70s and 80s with her entirely biodynamic estate. Based in the Marne Valley, they have quite a lot of Pinot Meunier and show it off to lovely extent in their cuvee ‘Entre le ciel et terre’, between the sky and earth. Which for want of a better description is basically a liquid sonnet to the principles and beliefs of biodynamic vine growing and the unique ability of the vine to transcript the subtleties of the terroir from which it comes.

Francoise Bedel
All these growers will be at RAW fair in London towards the end of May, and I can’t stress enough how much I’d recommend meeting them and tasting with them. If only to completely change your perception of Champagne and what its individual terroirs have to offer.

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