Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Book Review: Robert Walters' Bursting Bubbles -- A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers

I first became aware of Robert Walters through his writings in The World of Fine Wine and, as a matter of fact, drew heavily on his writings for posts on whether Champagne can be considered a fine wine and the characteristics of grower-producers in the Champagne region. His writings were incisive and thought-provoking and the memories provided the impetus for me to acquire his book when it was published.

The book, according to the jacket text, takes us on a journey to visit some of the "artisanal" producers who have arisen in the Champagne region over the past 20 years while also revealing "a secret history" of the region and dispelling "many of the myths that still persist about this celebrated life style."

It is probably challenging to release your Champagne effort in the same year as Peter Liem introduced his epic (Champagne) and shortly after David White brought his excellent effort (But First, Champagne) to market. The David White book is exceptionally strong on the history of Champagne (as is the Liem book) and provides excellent synopses of the sub-regions, negociants, and grower-producers. The Liem book is strong on the production side but sets out to change the way we think of the terroirs of Champagne and Champagne as a terroir wine.

Walters argument is, that for the most part, Champagne is not a terroir wine. As a matter of fact, "for most commercial Champagne, much of the wine's aroma, flavors, and texture comes from the winemaking process rather than from the grapes themselves." Champagne, as he sees it, is a highly manipulated beverage whose prestige is largely due to excellent marketing. And, the success of the current product set, using the current practices, motivate strongly for the status quo.

There is a small group of growers, however, who have bucked the generic approach in pursuit of the goal of Champagne as a wine reflective of its terroir. These producers apply viticultural practices designed to yield ripe fruit (anathema in the region) and cellar practices that are less manipulative in order to produce wines that are more expressive of their terroirs. Walters characterizes the methods of these "Superior Grower Producers" as follows:
  • Own or manage their own vineyards
  • Make wines from their own grapes
  • Begin with a desire to make wines that reflect their origins
    • Single-vineyard or single-commune wines
  • Manage the vineyards with little or no chemical input
    • Biodynamic or organic
  • Plow the soil
  • Seek lower yields than customary for the region
  • Pursue intense fruit so that lower dosage is needed
  • Use dosage in minimal amounts (when used) to balance acidity
  • Mature slowly; no fining or filtering.
The products emanating from this process are wines first and Champagne second, according to Walters.  They are drier, more vinous, clean, pure, and long of finish.  They tend to age well and, in his view, are better with food than a traditional Champagne.

The Growers that fit this mold include Egly-Ouriet, Selosse, Agrapart, Larmandier-Bernier, Jérome Prévost, and Cedric Bouchard. In discussing Selosse and Egly, Walters states thusly:
I have often heard comparisons in France between Anselme Selosse and Francis Egly. These two are certainly the most iconic grower-producers in their respective areas and grape varieties: Egly in the Montagne de Reims and with Pinot Noir-dominant wines, and Selosse in the Côte des Blancs with Chardonnay-dominant wines (for the most part). In many ways, they are the foundation stones of the great grower movement and as such they share much common ground. Both blazed trails that others could follow. Both were heavily influenced by Burgundy. Both aim for fully ripe fruit and harvest significantly later than their colleagues. And both utilise the barrique as their maturation vessel of choice. Undoubtedly, Selosse, as a more outspoken, open and charaismatic figure, has been far more influential on the grower movement in general, yet the Egly legacy is also significant.
This is a very small group of players (less than 5% of Champagne exports come from this group) and is declining in number as members yield to the siren song of increasing grape prices.

Walters does an excellent job of detailing why Champagne is not, for the most part, a great wine (when compared to the characteristics used to define great wine in broader France) and telling the stories of the grower-producers. He builds psychographic portraits of these growers and then tries to trace these traits into their wines.

I have issues with the organization of the book though. I found the cover art to be intriguing but thought that the title layout was a bit too much (By the way, a more playful slipcover is employed in the Australian market. I like it.).

There are maps on the inside back and front covers which show the locations of the producers but there is no context when you first see them and there are no references within the book to them. The author spends a lot of words describing travels between the locations while a reference to the maps might have sufficed.

The content is organized roughly as follows: Topic #1; Mythbusting; Producer visit; Mythbusting; Topic #2 ... This breaks up whatever flow there is/should be. The reader probably would have been better served by a more cohesive organization with the mythbusting topics all put into one place in an Appendix or elsewhere. I was not exactly sure of the benefits associated with busting these myths once again anyway.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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