Champagne is all about fun. We love those cascading bubbles, that vivacious zing and the laughs that follow. It symbolizes celebration. But for a winemaker, champagne and other “methode champenoise” sparkling wines present winemaking’s greatest challenge.
Eric Fry, winemaker at The Lenz Winery, who has over 30 years’ experience, says, “Making bubbly requires a leap of faith.”
The complexity of coaxing yeast through two fermentations, added to the surprises that come with aging on the lees both challenge and excite him.
He explains: “There is magic with bubbly. You’re not in control. You say, ‘This is what I think will happen … I hope this happens’ … you’re wishing. There are unpredictable occurrences, and I like that, but you must be flexible: wait and taste and think and deal with it. With still wine it’s different: you know what you’re getting.”
Fry’s observations are borne out by others who wrangle yeast into sparkling wine via the methode champenoise. Gilles Martin, the French-born winemaker at Sparkling Pointe in Southold — who told me he began his career “at the beginnings of modern oenology, where biotechnological tools [like freeze-dried yeast cultures] were not available” — honors his experience, saying, “The non-measurable and unpredictable part of harvest … is what grows our savoir faire.”
The first trick is getting the harvest to complete its first fermentation. The resulting still wines, called vins clairs, are not made to be beautiful, stand-alone wines. They are part of a jigsaw puzzle and have few apparent fruit characteristics. Gilles Martin considers them “the modest larvae which will later metamorphose into beautiful butterflies: the sparkling wines.”
That first fermentation is the key to success at every other stage. In March, when I traveled to Champagne to taste the vins clairs with 10 of Champagne’s top producers, fifth-generation winemaker Laurent Champs at the lauded grower-producer Vilmart, told me, “80 percent of your quality is made by the end of the first fermentation. You have to be good from A to Z. Champagne makers must be very precise; it’s a delicate wine and there is no way to cover flaws.”
Cyril Brun, winemaker at Champagne Charles Heidsieck, looks beyond the fruit when tasting his vins clairs. He explained, “The key quality for me is the aging potential. It should not be drinkable now. You should taste it and grip the table!”
At Veuve Clicquot, cellarmaster Dominique Demarville had just finalized the blend for its popular “Yellow Label” after tasting vins clairs with his team every day since late October. “By January,” he told me, “sometimes you wonder if you can make accurate distinctions any more. The wines go dumb, and you wonder if it’s the wine or you … When I’m evaluating these samples, it’s all about emotion.”
Much of the wines’ quality will develop from the biological processes to come, during the second fermentation and lees aging. Tasting the vins clairs myself, I could see how difficult it is to imagine these thin, highly acidic wines emerging with the depth of character and complexity lovers of champagne seek.
While the enormous brands of Champagne (like Veuve Clicquot and Heidsieck) work to create consistency from year to year, the region’s grower-producers put their personalities into their wines. One of Champagne’s most highly regarded grower-producers, Laurent Champs of Champagne Vilmart, told me, “We make wine like we are. You put your energy, your mind, your spirit into it.”
Champs uses small barrels for aging Vilmart’s base wines before the second fermentation. Not only do these barrels add unique wood flavors to the resulting wine, they also add complexity via extended contact with the dead yeast cells (the lees). Every barrel is different — and not entirely predictable. Champs says, “Wood is a good servant but a bad master.”
Emphasizing again the careful precision that goes into making his wines, Champs says, “It’s like cutting a diamond. You start to cut the stone and keep only the heart.”
At that point, sipping his vintage 2009 Coeur de Cuvée, I had to agree when he said, “It can cure your body and your spirit.”
The same was evident at the cult Champagne house of Selosse. There, Guillaume Selosse clambered from barrel to barrel, drawing samples of vins clairs while discussing the merits of varied wood sources and how various minerals in the soils of different sites contribute nuances to the wines. Magnesium! Sodium! Calcium! Bitterness, salinity, freshness. These words fall short. In these unfinished wines, I tasted compulsion, mysticism, desire.
If emotion defines the experience of tasting these wines, it’s still the relationship between the vintner and the other living organisms that creates the thrilling outcome. Nothing can be taken for granted. Most Champagne producers use commercially cultured yeast, chosen years ago from indigenous yeasts in the region, to ensure clean, reliable fermentations. But some, like Selosse, rely on their own indigenous organisms, counting on existing yeast in the vineyard and cellar to make the wine ferment. When Selosse expanded the family cellar he had difficulty getting the wines to ferment in the new facility, so he sprayed lees from existing barrels onto the stone ceiling to inoculate the building itself.
Long Island’s makers of bubbly are like Champagne’s grower-producers; they make small amounts that rely on fruit from their own vines, rather than blending from a wide region like the big Champagne houses. Like Selosse, winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich at Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue also relies on indigenous yeast for the primary fermentation of his sparkling wines. He says, “By allowing this [fermentation] process to occur naturally there is a huge population of flora that takes hold, especially at the beginning of fermentation before the primary yeasts dominate. In this way I see the flavors of our place amplified in my wines and brought in to focus.”
Working in a facility where cultured yeasts have been used for years makes this a less risky practice than beginning in a new facility would be, and Olsen-Harbich does use cultured organisms for the second fermentation in the bottle “because they are not too strong and can be quite delicate under pressure.”
Like the other sparkling wine producers I visited, Olsen-Harbich is still in awe of the parts of the transformation that are not measurable or predictable. “There are so many mysteries about wine that we still don’t understand,” he says. “It’s what makes what I do so interesting and dynamic.”
At Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, winemaker Roman Roth also regards the natural metabolic process as “a miracle.” He says, “Winemaking is down-to-earth and not rocket science … but there is also a lot of intuition and gut-feeling.”
Roth looks to vineyard manager Richie Pisacano as his partner “to bring it all together.” Their efforts to achieve balanced wines begin in the field with sustainable growing for healthy vines.
In Champagne, it’s impossible to talk about wine without looking to the soils: the “terroir.” One of the most fascinating winemakers I visited there, Alexandre Chartogne of Chartogne-Taillet, has returned to some of the ancient practices of the monks who first planted the same plots in the 7th century. While others continue to standardize and mechanize viticultural practices, Chartogne is diversifying his techniques the way the monks did, with different pruning systems depending on soils. He uses horses to cultivate between rows and sheep to help with weeding, because, he says, “when soils are compacted and shallow the taste [of the wine] is no longer of the soil but of the plant.”
Chartogne’s soil studies reveal that some of the yeast organisms that make the wine are found in the subsoil. His interest in the life force found there extends to the energy field he experiences working specific plots that the monks cultivated a thousand years ago. Although he himself is trained in modern oenology, he believes that “we have to be more than savant (know-it-all). We need to be sage (wise). Nature has surprises and we need to be open to them. I want to make wines that can make you dream.”
This story was originally published in the summer 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press