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Book Review- Bursting Bubbles, By Robert Walters


25-Mar-2018

Robert Walters, an Australian wine importer, vineyard owner and writer has written a provocative book that all wine lovers who enjoy drinking Champagne should read. The title ‘Bursting Bubbles’ is apt in that the book puts forward a very different perspective of the world of Champagne as the vast majority of wine interested people understand it. The sub-title is ‘A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers’. It is in essence a telling the story of how grower Champagnes are becoming more popular, as seen over the last 25 years.

The foundation of Walters approach and philosophy is that the prevalent model of making Champagne a ‘fine wine’ differs to almost every other region in France and the world. Champagne as we know it is a blended wine, of a large region of 25,000 ha, of different varieties, made to a house style, the rhetoric being the total is greater than the sum of the parts. When taking this path, how can terroir be truly expressed, he asks. From the recognition, understanding and expression of terroir, one arrives at quality, and Walters cites the example of Burgundy showcasing this classical approach. The author puts forward a different perspective on how Champagne can be expressed in greater terms of showing terroir with a higher level of quality and character, as seen by the work of the best growers who make their own wine from their own fruit from specific plots of land. It is important to note that Walters admits he is not impartial and that he has commercial interests in grower Champagnes, but also that his aim is not to criticise the Grandes Marques as much as highlighting to work of the best growers.

Bursting the Bubbles
The author says that he has enjoyed many fine Champagnes made by the accepted conventions today. But he points out a number of factors that have resulted in the dominance of the accepted way of making Champagne, and how they limit the quality that is possible. To do this, he provides a history of how Champagne came to be a sparkling wine, from what was seen as faulty, to what became a trend and fad. The role of the negociant which morphed into the Champagne houses as we know them today took away from the work of the grower, yet the two groups are symbiotically linked, even today. The magic of marketing has made Champagne the glamour wine it is today, and with all parties making a good living, there is no incentive to change the modus operandi. Walters points out that vast sums of money are spent in perpetuating the image and status quo, with benefits to the region as well as all the players.

There are a number of practices and impediments to established Champagne preventing it to show the terroir and quality that the region is capable of, according to Walters. Soil health is extremely important, and he points out the abuse of the soils with refuse and chemicals, as well as compaction. High yields are another factor that prevent quality being expressed. Walters points out the permitted yields are incredibly high compared to other regions. For the vast majority of Champagnes made, there is no recognition of site, barring the general classification of grand and premier cru sites. Single vineyard wines are proportionally very rare. He also points out the current viticultural and vinification techniques, such as extremely early picking to ‘ensure’ neutral base wines (logically counter-intuitive!) and the reliance on the Maillard reaction to produce the biscuity flavours we’ve come to appreciate and love. Walters admits there can be beauty and finesse in Champagnes blended from different varieties, regions and vineyards, but asserts this is not the only way for Champagne.

To add context and detail to what the author sees as shortcomings in the contemporary approach to Champagne, he has written ten short ‘Myth’ essays which debunk some commonly held beliefs, such as Dom Perignon ‘inventing’ Champagne, the superiority of the grand cru vineyards over others, smaller bubbles being a sign of quality and how a spoon in an opened bottle will preserve the bubbles. A number of these are already known but some will surprise most readers.

Championing Grower-Producer Champagne
The author asserts that an increasing number of growers who are making their own Champagne wine are showing the degree of terroir, character and quality that puts them into the league of some of the world’s best winemakers, with wines of remarkable interest. The reality is that the amount of wine made this way is infinitesimal, but the wines are noteworthy and truly significant. Walters suggests these wines should be judged to the same criteria as other great wines of the world, rather than conventional Champagne. Winegrowing, rather than winemaking, and authenticity are key factors to their production, as is respecting the soils and sites. Organics and biodynamics are found here. Yields are invariably low, and the fruit more often than not vinified and bottled separately to demonstrate terroir. The grower-producer Champagnes tend to be dry, avoiding significant dosage, in the attempt by growers for minimal inputs.

Arguably the most interesting chapters of the book are the author’s reports and story-telling of visits to key grower-producers in Champagne’s different regions. They are Jerome Prevost, Francis Egly, Pascal Agrapart, Anselme Selosse, Pierre Larmandier, Emmanueal Lassaigne, Bertrand Gautherot and Cedrich Bouchard. Some will be well-known, others less so. Walters in his portraits tells their background and how they came to respect the soils and sites, and become integral with the land. They are perfectionist towards detail and quality, constantly trialling the best ways to exhibit their wines and terroir. Walters also has tasting notes of the wines for each of these grower-producers, and these give a strong impression of their style, and what makes them different to conventional Champagne.

It’s hard not to be swayed by Walters’ enthusiasm and passion for what the best grower-producers in Champagne are achieving. I don’t believe he is expecting a sea-change in the Champagne scene, but is hopeful of the adoption of some of the philosophies and activities of these growers. He predicts the growth in number of grower Champagnes will increase, and that appreciation of their craft will come. Not all grower Champagne will be great, and much conventional Champagne will deliver plenty of satisfaction. It is interesting times, and this book is a marker of it.
 
Bursting Bubbles, By Robert Walters
Quiller Publishing, Shrewsbury, 2017, ISBN 978-1-84689-254-7
RRP AUS$39.99
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