bursting bubbles secret champagne rob walters

Interview with Nick Breeze

In his new book, 'A Secret History of Champagne & the Rise of the Great Growers', Aussie author Rob Walters tells a story of how the small vine growers in Champagne are changing the balance of power in one of the worlds most historic and famous wine regions. In this interview Rob delves deeper into what he considers as the drivers of quality, especially in relation to terroir driven wines, in Champagne.

NB: You begin by explaining that prior to visiting and investigating the Champagne region, you held it in rather low regard. Can you identify a moment or a taste of something when this opinion started to change?

RW: There are a number of wines I encountered in the early days, going back some fifteen years, that really changed my perception of champagne. The one I cover in the book and it was the first significant experience of this type was Larmandier-Bernier, Terre de Vertus, which is of course a wine of a single place that is made from biodynamically tendered vines that has zero dosage. So it is already something very different.

The uniqueness of the wine and its characteristics which were so different from anything I had had from Champagne before, started me down this path of looking for wines of place, and looking for wines that are wines first and champagne second.

NB: Is there a characteristic that you can recall?

RW: The wine shocked me because it had none of the characteristics I could attribute to champagne. None of the characteristics that we tend to read about with champagne, none of those brioche, nutty, caramel notes. None of those yeasty or autolysis notes. This was much more citrussy, extremely mineral.

I was reminded of great manzanilla in terms of that really salty minerality. Also some of the best whites of northern Italy, even some high grown white Burgundy, or Chablis even. That kind of raciness, that kind of vibrancy.

The important thing was that it clearly tasted of somewhere and it was somewhere I hadn’t tasted before. So it had this disorientating effect that really made me extremely curious as a wine person and I was just desperate to understand where this wine came from.

NB: Your profiles of the Grower producers elevates them and adds a certain mystique. Is this your intention and do you see a connection between the producer attitude or persona and the terroir with which they work?

RW: These great Growers, as I call them, tend to be very powerful personalities. The type of people who achieve what I have just described tend to be very strong, idiosyncratic, deeply thinking, deeply intelligent and people who are very much aware of history, and also very knowledgeable about what they do, which is grow great wines.

In terms of the connection with place, these growers grew up where they make wine, typically in the family that owns these vineyards. They are very closely connected to the place. You know the idea of terroir, which of course just means place, we tend to bang on a little bit about terroir being a uniquely French concept, which is ridiculous. It just means place and all the things we associate with place, including people. So they are not only of that place but they feel very connected to that place, they have a lot of deep  knowledge about that place and as a result they have a certain intuition about their vineyards and what they feel their place wants to express. So they tend to work along those lines. They tend to maximise the expression of terroir.

They are also often very creative people and this also impacts on the style of wine that they make. I make a bit of a joke in the book, I play with this idea of owners and their dogs and you can compare that with winegrowers and the type of wines they make. You know, humans are involved in wine growing and they are making choices all the way through the season and all the way through élevage or the maturation of the wine. It’s perfectly natural that these choices should in someway correspond to their personalities, even though all the great growers are aiming for the same idea which is to produce the highest possible quality and of course wines that deeply reflect where they are grown.

NB: How do you see the relationship between the big houses and grower producers? Is it changing or evolving?

RW: Well look, there’s a very long history obviously between grower producers and negociants, or more specifically, the Grand Marques, and it has changed a lot, in particular, over the last five to ten years. When we think back to the early days of people like Anselm Selosse, in particular, who was a very vocal critic of the conventional practices of the region in the early days. He’s certainly tempered his criticism quite a lot today. 

He was a very controversial figure in the early days and the ideas he was espousing were very controversial. Champagne is a very successful region from a commercial perspective and there is a lot of vested interest both on the side of the growers and on the side of the negociants. So if you rock the boat it is likely to cause you some problems.

Certainly Selosse bore the brunt of a lot of that controversy but he wasn’t the only one, there was a lot of heated exchanges that went on within the CIVC, that I’ve heard about. Discussions between these great growers who were trying to encourage their region to move in a certain direction and those that wanted to maintain the status quo.

I think what has happened over time as more of these grower producers become more and more successful and they receive more and more good press within France and outside of France, a lot of the Grand Marques certainly, and a lot of the negociants in general, have started to see that these growers are bringing a certain amount of benefits to the region.

They are certainly giving an example of a different way of approaching vineyard work and cellar work. So they are complexing the region if you like. I also think that, in a meaningful way, they are bringing a certain type of drinker back to the region. I’m talking about what we could call a fine wine drinker or a serious wine drinker… they are making those kinds of people think more seriously about champagne. 

I think a lot of wine collectors tend to view champagne as a something you use for celebrations but they don’t tend to put it in the same categories as they do the best white Burgundy’s for example. But I think now there is a very real argument. There are wines that you can put on the table from these growers that really stack up to the best white wines on the planet. That’s got to have a significant value for the region.

Nonetheless, by changing practices, and we are talking about producers here who work with far lower yields, who tend to work organically or biodynamically, so in the absence of chemicals, which is still very unusual in Champagne.

They also work differently in the cellar and many other things that aspire to higher quality. By doing this they are naturally critiquing the conventional practices of the region which obviously in turn puts heat on those that follow these conventional practices, which is the majority of the region, in particular, the majority of the negociants.

So there is still a tension but it is a tension that I think is far less prominent and certainly far less aggressive than it was in the early days.

NB: So in a way, as it evolves in the region, you could say that there are mutual benefits, it’s almost a new page in some respects?

RW:As I say in the book, every great wine needs its great growers. It needs its great artisans. And now Champagne at last has some. Also the questions that are naturally raised,not necessarily directly but through the practices and through the successes of these great artisans, is helping the region articulate how it can improve as a whole. 

Of course, Champagne needs its brands, it needs it mass market products as well. That’s what the region was built on… the success of the region was built on.

NB: Organic and biodynamic production; is it a fashionable trend or does it really impact the end result?

RW: You do hear people say that it is growing in Champagne. It is, but it’s a very small percentage of vineyards of Champagne that are moving in this direction. There is a whole range of historical and wine style reasons why it has been particularly slow to happen in Champagne. Also, supply and demand is a feature; when you can’t make enough wine to supply the market then obviously working organically, which tends to mean working with lower yields, becomes a problem because you need to make a sacrifice commercially.

But to talk to the idea of the connection between organics, biodynamics and quality, there is a definite connection but, of course, you need to define quality. In simple terms we can just talk about organics because biodynamics is just a form of organics, if you like. I kid my biodynamic friends that biodynamics is just organics with a bit of religion thrown in. It’s a little bit more than that of course, but it’s nonetheless a type of organics.

So when we think about quality wine or striving for quality wine, we are talking about first of all the health of the vine because you need a healthy balanced vine in order to produce the best quality fruit. For me, in general, one of the elements that we want to incorporate when we’re talking about quality, is this association between where a wine comes from and how it tastes, both from a quality and a stylistic perspective. We want wine to be unique because the wine is grown in unique places; that’s what makes wine interesting.

So if we’re talking about those two elements we realise very quickly, once we know something about the biology and the evolution of the wine, we know that soil health, or life in the soil, becomes very important because the biota in the soil breaks down the nutrients and the minerals that the vine takes up through its roots. This is a very important function. In fact we know there is a very strong symbiosis between much of the biota in the soil and the vine roots.

It turns out that a lot of the conventional practices that came into viticulture, in particular in the seventies, but it started before the sixties, post-World War II effectively, the use of herbicides, pesticides, heavy machinery that compacts the soils, chemical fertilisers and so on, these practices diminish life in the soil. If you think about herbicide, which is the most obvious example, it doesn’t only kill a lot of plants in the soil, which obviously impacts place, or the nutrients that will pass through the soil profile, it also kills a lot of the microbial life in the soil.

So all organics is for a European grower, is a return to the logic of traditional practices before chemicals came in. It was as these more industrial, or what we call conventional practices today, arose, those growers and wine buyers saw an equivalent drop off in quality.

So yes, that’s a longwinded answer, but organics is fundamentally linked to quality… but it is only one element. The quality of the vineyard, the potential of the vineyard, the way the vineyard was planted, the plant material, all the choices made through the establishment of the vineyard and through the season and in the cellar. All these things have significant roles to play in terms of the final quality of the wine. But organics is the encouragement of life in the soil and is vital if you are really striving for the highest possible quality. 

NB: You say there is a widely held belief that the English are wine necrophiliacs. What do you mean by that?

RW: That point in the book came up from a Champagne producer who I met who said that. The English have a really rich tradition of ageing wines, of cellaring wines, which is a wonderful part of the English wine culture they have gifted to other places around the world. But in general many Champenoise don’t, I am generalising here as there are many people who do believe in ageing champagne on cork but many don’t. Many feel that there is an English tradition of over ageing Champagne. 

I think that is possibly true. There is a sense that I have as someone with a cellar that you get to a point of diminishing returns. I like to age some of the wines I speak of in the book for between one and five years. Beyond that they can still be fantastic and they can still be very interesting wines but you are starting to move into a realm of more and more secondary characters that tend to dominate a lot of the things that I love about champagne.

These things are always a question of personal taste but I think the English have the most extreme tradition of serving very, very old champagne and that the quote that I use in the book alludes to this. I think that certain Champenoise find this quirky, lets put it that way.

That said, one of the myths of Champagne is that it doesn’t age and it isn’t for ageing. I think the best grower wines have shown that not to be the case but then it becomes a question of how long do you age it?

NB: You refer to yourself often as a wine traveller. What does a wine traveller seek and have you found it in Champagne?

RW: I think we’re all wine travellers… all wine people are wine travellers. By that term I mean we are all seeking out great wine experiences and then after that we define what we mean by great wine. Then we go looking for it. So it’s kind of a voyage we are always on. 

Even when we’re not travelling, the thing about great wine, I mean great wines of place, even if we are not visiting the region, or going anywhere to drink them, even if we’re drinking them at home, they are still taking us somewhere, they are taking us on a voyage because we are engaging with both a time and place typically, because typically it is a vintage. It’s evocative in all kinds of ways and we’re remembering our associations with that place, with that year, with people we might have drunk the wine with, all kinds of things. 

Today I think we can go on these incredible to journeys with Champagne. I often conduct tastings where we travel from the north to the south, like we do in the book, to visit these great growers and to taste their wine. When we do that they are all completely different. They are roughly made the same way. They are not different because all these growers are aiming for a House style. On the contrary, they are all different because they each have very different terroirs, very different places that they are working with.

And today that is what I think is very exciting for wine travellers when I think about Champagne.

NB: With all these Champagne myths busted, can you leave us with one truism to take away?

RW: If I think of one truism, the great lesson I have learned as a wine traveller, from the great growers of Champagne, is that Champagne is a wine, or it should be a wine first and foremost. So what we associate with quality in Burgundy, in Chablis, in German riesling, in Loire Valley, we should also be looking for in Champagne. How balanced is the wine? How intense is it? How transparent is it? How long is it? How much does it speak of where it was grown? How well does it work with food? All of the things we associate with quality we should also expect of Champagne.

The number one thing I’d like people to do is think of Champagne as a wine first and foremost… a wine first and a Champagne second!

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