Book Review: "Bursting Bubbles: A Secret History of Champagne and the Rise of the Great Growers" by Robert Walters

"For too long, we, the wine community, have gone easy on Champagne. We have bought into the countless myths espoused by the marketeers of the region, and we have ignored the shortcomings of many of the wines. Time and time again, I have seen Champagnes dominated by overtly sweet, toasty, biscuity dosage characters described by experienced wine professionals in glowing terms without any critical comment. Time and time again, I have tasted very expensive prestige cuvées that lacked any of the breed, length, purity and clarity of terroir expression that we would expect of even the most basic Burgundy. In fact, the majority of even the most prestigious wines of the region derive almost all of their character from winemaking artifice, or what the French call ‘maquillage’ [make-up]."

Australian wine merchant, vineyard owner and writer Robert Walters has drawn his line in the sand in this heartfelt portrait of Champagne. Is there a reason why the markers of quality that we expect from other fine wine regions - sustainable viticulture, moderate yields, low-intervention winemaking, expression of place - should not apply to the Champagne region? The high yields, the de facto pesticide and fertilisation routines and the need to blend extensitvely are all justifiable, surely, because champagne is not expressive of individual sites and therefore base wines can be low in flavour intensity, light, elegant...

It's easy to see the circularity of this argument. If Champagne is created by blending, it need not express place; why bother going to the viticultural lengths required to bring about that expression? It's a convenient line for the bigger players to take in view of the fact that the region is simply not set up to incentivise responsible viticulture. Step up our heroes - the Great Growers!

The first post on this blog was a wine from Larmandier-Bernier, so it was a nice moment to read that the author's Champagne 'epiphany' moment was a taste of their Terre De Vertus: 

"I was floored. What I had in my glass was not Champagne, or at least not Champagne as I knew it. Rather, this was a remarkably fine, complex wine..."

Here emerges a theme of the book; that Champagne should have no exemption from the standards by which we judge any fine still wine. I have to say that his experience in coming to this conclusion, although perhaps a little more black-and-white than my own, is certainly a familiar one. Good wine can be boring. A lot of champagne is good. A lot of champagne is boring. A lot of champagne (and particularly the larger-production stuff) misses a vivacity of expression and texture that we expect from fine wine.

Throughout the book, the reasons for this shortcoming emerge as:
  1. Lack of respect for the soil. The best growers cultivate, not spray, and avoid compaction.
  2. Yields are too high to obtain vinosity
  3. Grapes are picked too early and underripe
  4. Winemaking is too interventionist (cultured yeast, fining/filtration, over-zealous dosage etc)
Occasionally the mantra does become a little over-repetitive, but that's almost the point; there are differences of approach between the growers (oak vs. no oak, small dosage vs. no dosage, zero-spray approach vs. 'common sense') but these are few in number compared to the noticeable similarities. There are certainly a few bones of contention; for instance, I would probably argue that, since it's (almost) always necessary to use a cultured yeast for the secondary fermentation it can't really be considered quite the baddie it's made out to be here. I think the ripeness argument is also a complex one, given how often we hear that Champagne is struggling with accelerated ripening, lower acids and shorter seasons. I can see that if you only ferment to 4.5 bar and add no dosage, you can certainly start with a lower-acid base wine of 11% or even 12% and achieve a balanced wine, but this might not be a stylistic model for everyone. The real art may be in maintaining acidity at this sort of ripeness level. I'm sure that if most of the Champagne vineyard was left to ripen to 12% the wines would be flabby and spineless, whereas it's possible that if yields are lower both acidity and sugars will be higher. The dynamics of grape-growing for sparkling wine get pretty interesting! 

Walters does acknowledge that it's unrealistic to expect the whole region to change its practices. You can only make an expressive wine if you have a great site, and these are hard to find. Perhaps it's ok if the average grower improves just a few notches, so long as the best sites are farmed to the highest standards possible? Or perhaps we may never know just how good some sites are if they're continuously over-cropped?  

The questions keep coming, which I take as a sign of a good read. In fact, this is one of the most enjoyable wine books I've picked up in years, despite it having left me with a long (and somewhat expensive) shopping list. Very much recommended for any Champagne student, enthusiast or sceptic.