Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Viticulture and winemaking practices of the "finest" Champagne grower-producers

For the vast majority of Champagne's growers, it is easier, and more profitable, to sell grapes to the Houses than it is to make and sell their own wine (Tyson Stelzer, Champagne Grower-producers: the beginning of the end, Decanter, 7/7/2018). So the growers that do produce their own wines are not doing so to have things easy, or in pursuit of easy dollars. Rather, they are mission-oriented; and the mission is the production of wines that are reflective of the terroir within which they are produced.

Robert Walters (Bursting Bubbles) has identified the following grower-producers as being among the "finest" in Champagne: Agrapart et filsJacques SelosseLarmandier-BernierUlysse CollinJacques LassaigneLa Closerie (Jérôme Prévost)Chartogne-TailletEgly-OurietVouette et Sorbee (Bernard Gautherot), and Roses de Jeanne (Cédric Bouchard). In a previous post I located and characterized these producers within the Champagne region. In this post I compare and contrast their viticulture and winemaking practices as they pursue the common goal of production of terroir wines.

Farming Practices
Most of the producers practice some form of biodynamic, organic, or sustainable farming. Of the ones practicing biodynamic or organic farming, individual producers may or may not be certified. Jacques Lassaigne, for example, farms its vineyards organically, eschewing fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The grass in the vineyard is cultivated between vines and rolled flat between rows. Ulysse Collin practices a mix of organic and conventional farming in order to provide the flexibility to intervene if the occasion warrants it. Vineyard practices include:
  • Ploughing ("To plough the soil encourages biological activities for oxygen, water, temperature and fungus" -- Olivier Collin)
  • Powdered sulfur to combat odium
  • Organic insecticides used against ver de la grappe (tiny caterpillar that eats the berries and causes gray rot)
  • Mildew is fought with chemical compounds
  • Organic compost is added to the soil as needed.
Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette et Sorbée Bertrand started out a grower and his passion has always been in the vineyards. He began farming biodynamically in 1998 and gained his certification in 2001. He feels that "biodynamics has encouraged the root structure of his vines to descend deeper into the ground rather than settling for nutrients near the surface" (Peter Liem, Champagne).

Fruit Quality
Growers and Houses in Champagne are not too concerned about the ripeness of the fruit as chaptalization and dosage are available as options to boost the sugar content of the wine. Further, if a yeasty character is the end goal, then fruit ripeness represents something that has to be mitigated. That is not the case for the grower-producers, however. Every one of the producers identified herein pursue ripeness of fruit (As a matter of fact, Tom Stevenson, noted Champagne critic, has accused Selosse of using over-ripe fruit in his wines).

According to Walters, the key to the Larmandier-Bernier wine is its ability to harvest fully ripe grapes. Walters sees this ability being driven by:
  • Biodynamic viticulture
  • Balanced yields
  • Minimal fertilizers
  • Precise pruning 
  • The nerve to wait.
According to Larmandier-Bernier, its recipe for high quality grapes is:
  • Old vines
  • Working the soil (The estate feels that ploughing promotes deep roots and facilitates healthy soils)
  • Moderate yields
  • No fertilizers
  • Mature grapes picked by hand.
Yields in the Roses de Jeanne vineyards are vanishingly small -- 26 hl/ha -- making it easier for the vines to produce ripe, high-quality wine grapes. With the low yields, Bouchard's wines easily attain 11% - 12% alcohol, unfamiliar territory (without chaptalization) for most other Champagne producers.

Grapes are gently pressed in refrigerated (Egly-Ouriet), bladder (Larmandier-Bernier), or manual (Ulysse Collin) presses. In the case of Egly-Ouriet, the press is whole-cluster and only the first run juice is used. In the case of Ulysse Collin, the first and second issue from the press are pumped into vats and stored separately for 1 year after which they are blended. According to Olivier, the first press provides backbone and structure while the second adds strength and richness.

All producers use indigenous yeasts to ferment the grapes in a variety of vessels to include oak barrels (of various sizes and origin), stainless steel tanks, and concrete eggs. Plots are vinified and held separately., in discussing fermentation at Egly-Ouriet, stated thusly:
Like many Burgundians, Francis (ed. of Egly-Ouriet) is convinced a big element of barrel fermentation and long (7 - 10 months) aging on the lees of the first fermentation is critical for expressing the terroir in the wine, giving less of a reductive "stainless steel" effect to the wine and, of course, allowing individual parcels to be captured and calculated into blending options much more precisely than if larger tanks were used. The small volume of wine in barrel gives less pressure over the lees than in a big tank, so better convective contact with the solids and enough infinitesimal exchange with air to avoid the sulfery reductive aromas that can be the bane of wines kept long on lees. A long time on the first lees allows a gentle flocculation of yeasts and settling out of the tiny colloidal solids in the wine. There is no battonage to avoid "fatness" in the wine and this long barrel regime for the vins clairs obviates any fining or filtration.
Malolactic fermentation and aging occur in stainless steel tanks or in oak; in some cases on the lees (6 - 36 months) and, in some cases, with lees-stirring. Prevost ages his wines in a mix of used barriques and demi-muids ranging in size between 400L and 600L. Unlike Jacques Selosse, for example, Cédric Bouchard does not use any oak in the aging of his wines. In his view, wood adds substances to the wine and, in so doing, detracts from the terroir effects. In addition, the use of oak promotes oxidation of the wine and he views oxidative notes in Champagne as a flaw (as does Tom Stevenson). All of the Bouchard wines are fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks

For the most part, the producers do not fine, filter, cold stabilize, add enzymes, or chaptalize their wines. Agrapart adds 50 mg/l of SO₂ at crush to combat oxidation while Prévost, Selosse, and Vouette et Sorbée own up to minimal amounts added.

Because of the small plot sizes in Champagne, a producer generally presses grapes from multiple villages and stores the resulting wines separately until blended. Bouchard and Prévost do not blend their wines. Rather, they seek to distill the essence of terroir through single-vineyard, single-variety, single-vintage wines.

In Agrapart's view, some components show as complete and then regress when blended with wines from another village. They notice no such regression when wines from similar geological environments are blended and this has led them to implement geological blends -- finished Champagnes that come from vineyards with similar geology (Walters). In Pascal's assessment, these similar-soil wines blend more "comfortably."

Peter Liem calls the Selosse blending process solera and describes it as being akin to the process used to make sherry in Jerez. Both White and Parker refer to the Selosse method as perpetual blending. According to Parker, the true solera method requires that each vintage (criadera) be kept separately with the oldest vintage being called the solera. Selosse, on the other hand, adds the new vintage to a common pool and then draws from that pool for the current season's wine.

A number of the producers hold back a portion of each year's wine as a reserve to be added to future vintages. Those future wines will then be comprised a blends of two or more vintages.

Liqueur de Tirage
Prévost adds 23 gm down from 24.5 gm prior to 2007. This new level has resulted in lower pressure, fewer bubbles, and lower alcohol. Bouchard is even lower at 20 gm (well below the norm of 24 gm). This reduced level of sugar yields gas pressure of 4.5 atmospheres (versus and average of 6) and "a gentle, disappearing mousse."

Lees Aging
Depending on the producer and the wine, lees aging can range between 1 and 10 years.

Dosage is very low among the producers, ranging from zero across the entire line (Vouette et Sorbée) to a range that tops out at 7 g/l (Larmandier-Bernier and Agrapart). The entire line of the Prévost, Egly-Ouriet, and Ulysse Collin wines fall at or below 3 g/l dosage.

In an article titled Alternative Champagne 2 (The World of Fine Wine, Issue 35, 2012), Robert Walters describes "Champagne de Terroir," as a wine which "maximizes the expression of the vineyard and removes the influence of the winemaker."  These Champagnes de Terroir are, according to Walters, "only produced successfully by a handful of the finest growers." I have identified and characterized the methods of these fines growers in this post and they are summarized in the chart below.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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