A more Burgundian approach is something often cited by proponents of good grower champagne. But what does it mean? One of Adelaide’s leading sommeliers, Liinaa Berry, returns from Champagne and gives us her impression of two top growers, with divergent styles, employing the best from Burgundy.
In the last five to ten years, there has been a surge in grower-producer champagne made available in Australia. Instead of selling their fruit to Champagne houses, grower-producers make their own champagne. In doing so, they offer a more personalised wine, with the propensity to show individual characteristics and a sense of place, allowing vintage variations to shine through. They offer a window into the craftmanship of individuals who have a particular philosophy toward the way they treat their vines and land.
The best growers resonate with a respectful approach to agricultural work and biodiversity in the vineyard. Their wines are a totem to the magic that can happen when human hands and nature work together in symbiosis. Nonetheless, styles and approach vary significantly, from producer to producer, as is the case in any other wine region. A producer in the Loire can work sauvignon blanc very differently from his or her neighbour. In the same way, a winegrower from the northernmost part of Champagne can work differently from his southernmost counterpart.
As a sommelier, I am handed some of the best opportunities to get to know Champagne as a region and wine; meeting winegrowers and winemakers, visiting vineyards and chalk cellars. In the last seven years, I have tasted thousands of different wines across the spectrum of houses and growers, and have learnt to discern differences in style. As a wine lover, it’s a fascinating experience and one that never ceases to evolve.
This year, I travelled to Champagne where I met with a range of producers. Two stood out not only for their exceptional wines, but also for changing the way I think about champagne.
Both are visionaries, and pay homage to Burgundy in their approach, albeit using contrasting styles. Get to know them, and you will understand why there is an escalating interest in grower champagne from sommeliers like me.
Jacques Selosse – Avize (Côte des Blancs)
Sitting at wine bar and local institution, Gluepot, with two of my friends during this year’s trip to Champagne, I received a phone call from one of my mentors. She called to confirm our appointment with iconic winegrower, Anselme Selosse. I was ecstatic. One of my dream visits was to become reality.
I have been a disciple of Selosse since I first discovered his wines at the start of my career. Anyone who knows champagne knows of his lead role in today’s grower movement, and possibly the most influential of them all.
Unlike the sons of other vignerons in the 1970s, Selosse did not study viticulture at the Lycée Viticole in Avize, where more conventional methods of winegrowing and making are taught. Instead, he went to Beaune in Burgundy. The time he spent there made all the difference to his personal path, imparting an understanding of Burgundy’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) system, which reflects diversity of terroir, and the expertise of its winemakers, through a single vineyard network.
An ecology course he enrolled in also played a role in opening his eyes to ecosystems and biodiversity in the vineyard. Over time, he became more passionate about observing nature and making sense of geology and climate than he was about making wine. The discovery also manifested in the cellar, where he toiled away at making some exceptional wines from a genesis of healthy vines. Selosse’s biggest work started in the vineyard, decoding links between different soils – terroir – and, just like the appellation concept in Burgundy, understanding how Champagne could also make the finest wines using plots and communes. Today, he produces rich, voluminous wines with extraordinary depth and vinosity that, he says, is an expression of nature.
During our tasting, it was interesting to hear Selosse say that he was not responsible for making the wine, that it was nature. His role, he believed, was simply to accompany fermentation and guard the wine’s natural evolution. Selosse was curiously philosophical, verging on prophetic. Being in his presence was awe-inspiring, an exceptional human being who has done so much to inspire younger people to work organically and as naturally as possible.
Selosse’s style is also defined by perpetual blending. Some wines are produced by bringing all vintages together from a single terroir and topping up the vessel each year with a new harvest. And whilst it sounds like a solera system, it is not. By contrast, the solera approach keeps all vintages separate and then blended together to produce a desirable style. Not all barrels are blended and, at other times, some barrels are used more than others. Selosse, on the other hand, blends everything together. The idea behind it is to offer a more rounded expression of each terroir. And perhaps it explains the oxidative element to his wines, but also a profoundness, with layers and layers of complexity.
Cédric Bouchard – Troyes (Aube)
The Aube is a sub-region on the southern skirts of Champagne, closer to Burgundy, and possesses distinctive clay, marl and limestone soils with a warmer micro-climate. Unlike Jacques Selosse, which is located further north in chardonnay heartland, Cédric Bouchard works mainly with pinot noir, producing some of the most aromatic expressions of champagne. He crafts wine to reflect one parcel, one variety and one vintage. Think of it as wines from Burgundy, but with bubbles.
Bouchard’s passion can be found in regenerative farming and celebrating the connection of humans with the land. He rejects the notion of blending altogether and, rather than producing a consistent and predictable non-vintage wine, aspires for terroir-driven champagne. This, he believes, is best when avoiding oak, opting for enamelled cement, to bring out fruit richness and expression of site and variety. Having revoked many conventional champagne making practices, he is considered, by many, as a trail blazer for the industry.
Stylistically, Bouchard’s approach involves bottling with less pressure than usual – four and a half atmospheres rather than six. Bubbles, he believes can be distracting and aggressive, impeding the taste of wine. His wines, consequently, have some of the most refined beads I have ever experienced for a Méthode Champenoise. Even with a much softer mousse, the wine has incredible persistence and the tiny perlage stays with you until the end. And, as with Burgundy, Bouchard’s wines are made with no dosage. This makes sense to me as the Aube is a warmer sub-region, generally producing more ripeness and sugar in the grapes.
Here are my other picks from producers worth getting to know.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Liinaa Berry
Photography supplied by Pierre Paillard and Victor Pugatschew