Bursting Bubbles – Robert Walters, and Some Thoughts on the Grower Champagne Philosophy

You will recall that I made Champagne by Peter Liem my wine book of last year. That expertly written book which puts terroir at its heart was the outstanding work on wine, in my view, in the whole of 2017. Bursting Bubbles by Australian author Robert Walters follows a similar route, but with perhaps a more radical message.

Liem’s work is highly detailed, and comprehensive, but it is not over critical of the negociant producers, the so-called Grandes Marques. Walters, in focusing on the small number of committed, high quality, producers he imports and works with, questions the whole focus of the Champagne region, and gets to the heart of what is Champagne.

In his Foreword, Andrew Jefford describes Bursting Bubbles as “The most engaging book about Champagne growers I’ve read…”. Let’s see whether we agree.

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What kind of Champagne do you want to drink? This is the question that Walters asks, and it is perhaps one which most Champagne drinkers have never considered. What he points out is a simple but often overlooked fact. Throughout the rest of France, the finest wines (and he often turns to Burgundy as an example) are expressions of place. They are also wines which use the best grapes, ripe and cropped at reasonable levels and turned, in the winery, into fine artisanal wines which express the nuance of where they come from: Gevrey or Chambolle, Morgon or Fleurie, Saumur-Champigny or Chinon, or Eguisheim or Bergheim, to name just a few examples of my own.

Champagne’s history, and its worldwide market, is one created by the negociant. There were clear historical reasons for this, which Walters outlines. Nevertheless, this has led to two clear differences between Champagne and the rest of “Fine Wine France”. The first relates to production methods, not just the (as some would say) semi-industrial nature of production for the vast majority of Champagne produced, but in blending. The market for grapes has led to Champagne Houses blending their wines from all over the region, from north of Reims right down to the Aube, which borders Burgundy. In effect, they are, it might be argued, blending away terroir.

The other major difference relates to the marketing of Champagne as “a festive drink or, at best, a high-quality aperitif that should not be taken as seriously as the great wines of the world”. How often do wine lovers demote Champagne to the mere prelude to an evening drinking the serious stuff? To a certain extent the new owners of the Grandes Marques, the luxury goods companies, have been changing this perception through their expensive prestige cuvées, but for the vast majority who drink Champagne, it remains, as Walters puts it, “a bubbly drink for bubbly people”.

So how do the “growers” differ? Well, to begin with, we need to destroy any idea that Grower producers make better Champagne than the negociants. There are hundreds of families making wine in the region (aside from those who get an allocation back from the co-operative of which they are a member and stick their own label on it). Some of these wines are among the worst in the region, purely because, whilst using the same methods as the negociants use for the volume side of their production, they don’t possess the expertise, nor the vineyards, nor the equipment, to match them.

There are, however, a group of vignerons working in the wider Champagne Region for whom quality comes naturally, a product of dedication, attention to detail, very hard work, and sticking to a philosophy that is based upon a clear idea of how they want their wines to reflect their place. The father of the movement is Anselme Selosse, and it is no coincidence that he studied, unusually for a son of a Champagne producer, in Burgundy. Several of the producers covered in Bursting Bubbles were mentored by Selosse and his influence, if not always his production methods, has been immense.

In a north-south journey through Champagne Walters’ first stop is to visit Jérôme Prévost, whose own journey to become a producer was directly influenced by Selosse, in whose winery he made wine in his early years. Prévost used to make wine only from Pinot Meunier, which is all he originally had planted in his vineyard at Gueux, on the northern slopes of the Petite Montagne. “Les Béguines” is planted with Meunier vines over forty years old. Rather than crop this later flowering (frost avoiding) variety at the high levels usually produced for the big houses, Prévost keeps yields low.

The soils here are not the cliche of chalk, but express the deeper, unspoken, nuance of the region’s geology – here it’s alluvial sand and clay with marine fossils, covered with a thin layer of topsoil. It isn’t all that hard to see how a unique terroir, an unusual single variety approach using the so-called lesser of the three major Champagne grapes, and a methodology which values working the land, rejecting chemicals, and making sparkling wine with a similar approach and philosophy to a producer of still wines, will lead to something very different.

Indeed, Prévost’s wonderful wines are a paradigm of ageworthy, terroir expresssive, Champagne. More than that, they have become, like Selosse, a symbol of status for a bar or restaurant which has something from La Closerie on its list, and for the Champagne geek who has some in his/her cellar. As Walters says, ordering one “has become almost a badge of honour, a secret sign that affirms your initiation into an exclusive club of those in the know”. But he also goes on to point out the problem we chasers of Grower Champagnes of quality have. The guy makes around 13,000 bottles per year…not a lot to go around.

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Fac-simile is Jérôme Prévost’s wonderful rosé, one of the finest in all Champagne. Initial is Selosse’s entry level cuvée, which costs not much less than many a “prestige” 

I don’t plan to go through all the producers visited in the book, of which there are not that many. Actually, Walters reckons that the really good grower-producers can be counted on your fingers and toes. I think he’s being a little unfair, and this is where Peter Liem’s book comes in handy. He lists more, in particular a new band of quality-focused growers who are trying to make this “grower movement” into the grower revolution that it half promises to be. It would be impossible to talk about this movement, however, without a visit to Anselme Selosse, the “most significant figure in the great grower movement” (I like Walters’ modification, adding the word “great” to distinguish the stars).

Selosse, according to Robert Walters, was always an outsider as a child, and had a difficult upbringing. This led him to go away to school from age twelve, and to study wine in Beaune from age fifteen. It was a pilot ecology course at the Beaune Lycée which fired up Selosse’s passion, along with his discovery of the solera system whilst gaining work experience in Spain. It was his experimental nature, one of careful observation of the results of his actions, which led him first to abandon herbicides, and then to change his winery methods (abandoning filtration and the very important but still controversial technique of cutting back on the dosage, etc).

Selosse, and his impact, is a perfect reflection of how the region works in relation to the dominant houses and their grape growing suppliers. When his wines began to get noticed there was a lot of animosity. People didn’t like his challenge on quality and identity, because grape prices are high enough to make a farmer a good living, cropping high and keeping disease and pests down with synthetic products, without having to strive for perfection. He was accused of many things, including that he was “a fraud”. The “great growers” continue to face such animosity. One such producer I know a little (not one featured in the book) told me some of the things the head of a Grande Marque had said about these grower-producers at an event they were both attending. Arrogant and not pleasant.

Selosse, and all the other great growers for that matter, have always given credit to the Grandes Marques for creating a worldwide market for Champagne. Some of the negociants will (if grudgingly at times) credit these sought after growers with creating a renewed interest in Champagne as a fine wine, beyond the “festive fizz” image, as something more serious, and something to accompany food throughout a meal. In my view, these impacts have benefited the Grandes Marques, but some don’t quite see it that way. They merely see any idea of a “grower revolution” as a threat to their grape supplies, and their control of the market. This, despite the fact that growers in total produce a mere 5% of Champagne, and the “great growers” of the type we are talking about here produce a tiny proportion of that 5%.

I’d like to look at one final grower covered in Bursting Bubbles, Cédric Bouchard. Bouchard is in many ways the archetypal exemplar of the methods we are focusing on. His production comprises, with every wine he makes, of a single grape variety from a single plot. It comes from a total focus on terroir, allied to complete perfectionism. He looks for richness in his wines, and to achieve this he crops insanely low for the region (c26 h/hl in some cases), without any chemicals. This gives him ripe grapes (with potential alcohol of at least 11%, sometimes as high as 13%, where levels for Champagne are more commonly around 9% before chaptalisation, as Walters points out).

Bouchard clearly makes wine first and Champagne second. He tells Walters that he’d rather make still wine but he hasn’t yet been able to produce still wine of a quality sufficiently stunning for his perfectionist approach. Bubbles, he suggests, just get in the way!

I want to use a quote from Bouchard in Bursting Bubbles which for me sums up the region perfectly. “The great problem with Champagne is very simple. You have over-production and it’s a great pity, because we have…an enormously important terroir…when people have in their minds mostly money…it’s hard to see this situation changing”.

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Côte de Val Vilaine comes from a 1.4 hectare plot of Pinot Noir at Polisy, and was once called Inflorescence

The fear is that this movement, of which Prévost, Selosse, Bouchard and others are part, will fizzle out. Many vested interests would very possibly like that to happen. Despite the obvious benefits of having a group of producers in a bright spotlight, bringing kudos to a region for their “fine wine” interpretations of the genre, they are too often seen as a commercial threat, which is ludicrous. Perhaps it is more the challenge to the way in which Champagne is produced by the majority, and the challenge to the whole philosophy behind this sparkling wine, which really upsets people – it hits a raw nerve.

I’ve only really given a flavour of Bursting Bubbles here. There are also chapters on Champagne Myths in which Walters burst a few more bubbles, which I shall allow readers of the book to enjoy on their own. Quoting Andrew Jefford again, “No wine is promoted more pretentiously or mythologically than Champagne”.

Bursting Bubbles is, in my opinion, an important contribution to Champagne writing. It’s an easy read as well, less dense and technical than most books on the Region. As Walters says in his Introductory “Disclaimers”, it isn’t a wine guide. Nor, he admits, is it impartial, and nor is it intended as “an excercise in Grandes Marques bashing”. But it will without doubt help you to answer that question I posed, taken from Robert Walters himself, at the top of my article – What kind of Champagne do you want to drink?

My wife is currently reading a book by an American physician, Michael Greger, called “How Not To Die”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s a book which both advocates a plant-based diet from a health benefits point of view, whilst at the same time pointing out the very real potential harm to humans which can result from eating industrially farmed and chemically treated meat and dairy products.

This book would be likely to cause a number of different reactions, aside from that of “I’m not going to read that!”. First you might reject his arguments, possibly out of prejudice, or a refusal to consider their validity. If you are an American meat lover (EU regulation currently saves British consumers from some of the methods he mentions, which are outlawed within the EU) it is probably a tough read.

Second, you might read the book and leave with a nuanced viewpoint and a desire maybe to try a few of his ideas (eat more beans and pulses, for example). The third result might be a “Road to Damascus” experience, whereby you feel a light has been shone in a dark place. All of these possible reactions are equally valid for Bursting Bubbles. If you are happy with your bottle of NV Champagne at Christmas or on a birthday, fair enough. If your indifference to Champagne is based on it being, well, not quite a fine wine, then Bursting Bubbles might make you look again.

I think that for me, it is none of the above, purely because the inner geek in me got interested in (Great) Grower Champagne many years ago. My introduction was actually via the wines of Francis Boulard, Egly-Ouriet, Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Péters, and my long standing passion for growers such as Bérêche is well known. I was lucky, because these wines were far more affordable back then, and I have been able to try bottles from all but a few of the more recent people to come onto the scene. Bursting Bubbles simply reinforces and focuses some of my views and experiences, yet does so in a clear sighted and entertaining way.

The heart of the problem is this. For there to be a “Great Grower Revolution” these wines have to be tasted by lovers of fine wine, or perhaps I should say by those who like their wine to be an expression of the place where it comes from. People need to be able to judge them as such, and appreciate their uniqueness within the world of Champagne. Yet with tiny production, and doubling or tripling of prices in the past several years, they are in some cases no less expensive than the prestige cuvées of the Grandes Marques with which they now compete.

It is also sadly true that where such wines do appear on the shelves of wine stores, or on the wine lists of hip restaurant-bars (especially in Paris), their sale is occasionally refused to mere mortals deemed not worthy. I guess they don’t like the cherry pickers, and Champagne is not alone in this respect, as anyone who has got prematurely excited at seeing some Overnoy on a list will attest when the bartender or sommelier says “no!”.

All I can say is that if you read Bursting Bubbles there is a fair chance that you will be enticed into spending even more money than you can afford on the producers Robert Walters mentions…and if you spend considerably more on Peter Liem’s “Champagne” book as well, then the damage may be considerably worse. I think that’s a good thing. These wines (I use the term “wine” very deliberately) deserve our attention. Walters has done a great job in shining his own spotlight here.

If you have got this far I’m certain you will enjoy the book, or at the very least it will make you think. I’m sure it will be a book I revisit fairly soon. I really enjoyed it.

Robert Walters, Bursting Bubbles (A Secret History Of Champagne & The Rise Of The Great Growers) was first published in Australia in 2016 by Bibendum Wine Co. This edition was published in the UK in 2017 by Quiller Publishing, RRP £18.99 (hardback).

My article on Peter Liem’s Champagne can be found via this link here.

Below, a small selection of Grower bottles from the archive, all worth exploring, as are dozens more, all trying in their own way to reflect a different aspect of Champagne terroir

 

About dccrossley

Writing here and elsewhere mainly about the outer reaches of the wine universe and the availability of wonderful, characterful, wines from all over the globe. Very wide interests but a soft spot for Jura, Austria and Champagne, with a general preference for low intervention in vineyard and winery. Other passions include music (equally wide tastes) and travel. Co-organiser of the Oddities wine lunches.
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3 Responses to Bursting Bubbles – Robert Walters, and Some Thoughts on the Grower Champagne Philosophy

  1. Tom Blach says:

    An absorbing piece, David, thank you, I will get the book.
    I couldn’t agree more with the contention that , as I find with Sherry, Champagne finds its best expression at the table rather than en aperitif.
    I have very little serious knowledge of champagne but have been lucky enough to drink some transcendental bottles. I have often though noted that among my friends who really do live and breathe the stuff that their very greatest bottles have been exclusively from the Grands Marques, it being pointed out that their resources really do allow a selection of the best of the best. I wonder if that will remain the case.
    As far as ‘How Not To Die’ goes, why is it that the best plant based diets are always compared with the very worst diets that include animal products? we have the choice now to seek out very uncynically produced animal products though it certainly takes time and money.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Raymond Tilney says:

    As ever David, your thoughts are well explained and more than fair.
    I read the book a few months ago and thought the chap was a bit of a GM basher.
    Particularly I thought that it felt a bit anti-Krug, though whether that was just my impression or an intent of the author I am not sure.I have gifted the book to another champagne geek.
    Like you I have enough champagne love to accommodate the best growers along with the GM’s who have done so much to make champagne a topic that can be written about from a particular viewpoint as is the case with this book.
    Great that you have taken the trouble to spread the discussion about champagne the wine.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tin Phillips says:

    Bought the book based on your write up and just finished it. Really enjoyed the style – more of a series of excellent magazine articles than a book in fact, which made getting from one end to the other a pleasure. I’m sold on his viewpoint from a way back as you know – I just need to locate some of those wines now…..!

    Liked by 1 person

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