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Bubble and tweak: inside the champagne rebellion

As the waiter in the brown leather apron drip-drip-drips a thin trickle of golden foam into my delicate Zalto Denk’Art glass, I know I’m among serious wine folk (yes, this is pre-pandemic). All around me, people with flared nostrils and puckered lips are turning and twisting and twirling their crystal stems, then swishing and sucking and spitting their now slushy quaff into stainless-steel milkshake cups. It would be disgusting if the vintage wasn’t so delicious.

About three dozen connoisseurs have gathered here, at the Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne’s inner north, not just to partake of the Abrolhos Island scallop tostadas and Macedon Ranges roast duck, but to sample some of the finest champagne in the world, that of the prestigious French label Larmandier-Bernier – and to learn a little more of the “David and Goliath” battle between such artisanal maisons and the grand marques that dominate the champagne industry.

Sitting across from me, a buyer for Dan Murphy’s gulps down a drop produced by husband-and-wife French winemakers Pierre and Sophie Larmandier, who are laughing just two tables over. “It talks to place, talks to time,” he says, completely unselfconsciously, as he eyes the bubbles. “It’s about what makes it different – not the same.” To my right, a buyer for David Jones explains how artisanal labels such as these are tapping a greater zeitgeist: “Discovery, authenticity, provenance, bio-dynamics – we’re looking for that in all walks of life. This ticks all the boxes.”

Such discussions are happening all over this room, in which barrel buffs and booze hounds talk minerality and acidity before moving swiftly on to serious questions about barrelling and pressing and sugar dosage. I feel lost during a dizzying discussion of – let me get this right – oxidation after maceration but before malolactic fermentation.

Their attitude is religious. The organiser of the lunch, Australian importer and vineyard owner Rob Walters – a self-proclaimed zealot who wrote a bestseller on this topic, Champagne: A Secret History – explains the appeal to me later. His epiphany came 15 years ago, over dinner at the home of a friend in France, when drinking a glass of Terre de Vertus – an entry-level champagne by Larmandier-Bernier – with a slab of duck liver terrine.

It was poured cool – but not chilled – from the cellar, and Walters was, he says, “disoriented” by intense aromatics of earth, salt flakes and chalk. (“It smelt like the ocean and like rocky silts immediately after the rain.”). Inside his mouth he felt a “mineral blast”: ferrous and with a long, citrussy saline finish. “I was floored,” he wrote. “I guzzled it as quickly as it was poured into my glass.”

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That’s when he became an evangelist for what’s known as the “grower champagne” movement. It’s a story that requires a few crib notes on champagne history. To start, consider that the finest sparkling wine in the world comes from the region of Champagne in north-east France, yet the drink is rarely held in the same high regard as any of the best still wines in the world. Champagne is the stuff you open when you want to celebrate, when you’re feeling frivolous or trying to seduce. It’s the bubbly elixir used for birthdays and engagements, for smashing against ship hulls or spraying over triumphant teammates.

Champagne is a very technical and highly expensive wine to make, requiring complicated interventions and costly premium glass.

It is also a very technical and highly expensive wine to make, requiring complicated interventions and costly premium glass. When sparkling wine first became popular roughly two centuries ago, the process was far too difficult for a farmer on a small plot of land to manage, so they sold their grapes to Gallic middle men – known as négociants – who would then on-sell them to merchants, who could invest in equipment and mass-manufacture.

It thus became – and has remained – a mercantile and industrial product. Consider LVMH, the largest producer of champagne in the world: this luxury conglomerate owns Moët & Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Krug, Ruinart and Dom Pérignon. Such makers buy the lion’s share of fruit from the region – about 80 per cent – then mix it together to create their famous blends. According to Walters, this has led to a reverse engineering of the story of the wine. “It justified the practice,” Walters says. “That theirs was the best way – or the only way – to make champagne.”

Owner-growers in France’s Champagne region are increasingly "disrupting" the making of bubbly.

Owner-growers in France’s Champagne region are increasingly “disrupting” the making of bubbly.Credit:Getty Images

It was only in the 1980s that a few producers – like the Larmandiers – began to break free of the paradigm. They didn’t want to add lots of sugar – or what the French call maquillage (make-up) – to disguise the “truth” of the wine. They also didn’t want to use chemicals, including pesticides and fertilisers. And they wanted to drop the widespread use of steel vats, and instead return to old oak barrels.

They wanted champagne that would express their specific terroir and character, just as the great still wines of Alsace or the Loire Valley or Burgundy do. The Larmandiers tell me all this the day after our wine lunch, before they move on to similar promotional wine dinners in Tasmania.

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Pierre, 56, is tall with broad shoulders, while Sophie, 55, has the whip-thin build of a marathon runner. Their vineyard is in Vertus, the southernmost village of the Côte des Blancs, with a 12th-century church and ruins from the Middle Ages. Pierre describes how cool fog pools in the valley floor there, leaving the grapes on the hills to warm in the morning sun, while the top of the hill is forested, offering shade from the worst of the afternoon heat.

“For many, what we were doing with champagne was too risky, or too much work. They think we are crazy.”

Champagne maker Pierre Larmandier.

He took over the vineyard of his late father in 1988, when he was 24, and began to challenge the orthodoxy of the region. He met with resistance. The current system works incredibly well for most farmers, who simply grow fruit and sell it for a song. “For many, what we were doing was too risky, or too much work,” Pierre says. “They think we are crazy.” Following the Larmandier path of disruption has involved death threats for some, relationship fractures for others. “We’ve had people come into our vineyards, cut vines,” says Sophie. “Pierre’s mother, she stood with us, and nearly lost some friends over this.”

Pierre and Sophie Larmandier: "We’ve had people come into our vineyards, cut vines,” says Sophie.

Pierre and Sophie Larmandier: “We’ve had people come into our vineyards, cut vines,” says Sophie.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

They derive meaning in their lives from expressing this place they adore. And what a place. One patch nearby is called Le Bas des Culs Chauds, which, loosely translated, refers to a geological feature known as “the hot arses”. Or follow the valley down through Longes Verges, “the place of long erections” – so named because the wine was outstanding. (This is typical of France. Take the area of Burgundy known as Les Amoureuses. Tourists are told it means “the lovers”, and sigh wistfully, yet it’s named for the way the clay becomes sticky underfoot after it rains, as if – ahem – someone had just made love there.)

Walters insists he doesn’t want to sound inflammatory, but in straining to describe the difference between a great grower champagne and a grande maison champagne, he betrays the strength of his feelings, likening the comparison to a pizza made by an old master in his wood-fired oven, and one delivered by Domino’s. “Anything that’s mass-produced and mass-marketed always has to take a very different direction, and make a lot of compromises, compared to the artisan who’s interested only in quality, and has total control,” he says.

“Anything that’s mass-produced has a lot of compromises, compared to the artisan who’s only interested in quality.”

Champagne importer and vineyard owner Rob Walters.

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Other people are more balanced, he admits, and are happy to drink Bollinger one day, Agrapart the next. “But that doesn’t make sense to me, because I’m a purist. Once you’ve made a decision that you prefer a certain level of literature to page-turners you can buy at the airport, it’s very hard to read the latter – because you see what you’re being sold, and you see the shortcuts and formula.”

Once Walters “saw the light”, he began conducting comparative tastings in Australia: getting a group of wine professionals into a room, explaining the story and showing the wines blind. “We put entry-level artisanals against the Krugs and the Cristals – the prestige cuvées of the big houses. Universally, the professionals went for the better wines. It was a revelatory moment.”

Self-proclaimed bubbly zealot Rob Walters, who says he was “floored” when he first tasted a grower champagne. “I guzzled it as quickly as it was poured into my glass.”

Self-proclaimed bubbly zealot Rob Walters, who says he was “floored” when he first tasted a grower champagne. “I guzzled it as quickly as it was poured into my glass.”Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

Good Weekend drinks writer Huon Hooke was there, at one such tasting in Sydney a decade ago. “I’m not sure that I agreed 100 per cent with Rob [Walters],” Hooke says. “I do remember a Louis Roederer Cristal and a Krug Grande Cuvée – two very expensive, conventional-style champagnes – and he put them up against two of his top grower wines: Egly-Ouriet and Larmandier-Bernier. My mind was opened, but I was also impressed with the Krug and the Cristal, and that’s probably not what Rob wanted to hear.”

Furthermore, the “terroir thing”, Hooke says, can sometimes be mere marketing. “Soil, rocks, a privileged aspect, a little block of vines: it’s a way of saying, ‘Our wine is unique and you could never make it elsewhere.’ I really like Rob’s book but I do think he overstates the point that anybody except the small growers makes industrial wine. There’s great wine being made by the big houses.”

And the notion of a David-and-Goliath battle? “That’s been overstated; I don’t see evidence of that,” says Hooke. “And what’s the battle over? They can coexist. One doesn’t have to die in order for the other to survive.” (Indeed, Larmandier-Bernier might release 120,000 bottles in a good season, but it’s hardly a threat. Moët alone produces an estimated 35 million bottles a year.)

The great artisanal growers, Hooke is careful to note, thoroughly deserve every accolade that comes their way: there’s a reason a regular bottle of Mumm from Dan Murphy’s will set you back about $50, while a basic Larmandier-Bernier will cost twice as much. Independent makers have earned their prestige and, he adds, are the creative force within the industry, because they’re in a position to be inventive. “You don’t find the corporates coming up with a new style of wine,” says Hooke. “They jump on the bandwagon later.”

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Speaking of bandwagons, Australia did not jump on this one but rather led the way. It turns out we’re huge champagne drinkers, and have been for more than a century. Wine expert Tyson Stelzer publishes an annual summary on our bubbly consumption, “The State of Play of Champagne in Australia”, in which he notes that we imported 7.6 million bottles of champagne in 2019, meaning Australians – per person – consume more than twice as much as Germans, three times that of Italians, Spaniards and the Japanese, and almost five times that of Americans. “Why? I think there’s a lovely synergy between our climate and cuisine,” says Stelzer. “It’s a celebratory drink, and Australians love a good celebration.”

Yet Australia is a notoriously challenging market for high-end artisanal champagne, because of our supermarket duopoly. “The giant négociant houses rule in Australia,” writes Stelzer, “and growers and co-opératives occupy but a minuscule presence.” Labels such as Jacquesson or Didier Chopin may be the darlings of our finest sommeliers and hippest bartenders, yet barely one in 50 bottles sold here is a grower champagne, compared to roughly one in five globally.

Champagne bottles from French owner-growers, shown at the Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne. Despite their high quality, artisanal production is falling.

Champagne bottles from French owner-growers, shown at the Carlton Wine Room in Melbourne. Despite their high quality, artisanal production is falling.Credit:Kristoffer Paulsen

The trouble lies in France as much as here. Champagne is the most lucrative French wine export, valued at about €2.9 billion ($4.7 billion) annually, yet even as overall production ramps up, artisanal producers are making less. In 2008 they sold 78 million bottles, but in 2018 they sold 54 million bottles. Stelzer’s handbook contains a section with an ominous header – “Is this the beginning of the end for the grower-producer?” – with more than a few reasons to worry.

Climate change is beginning to bite, he notes, with yields suffering “bitterly” in 2016 and 2017. (Erratic harvests hit artisans harder, because they’re relying on a small block of vines, whereas the big houses buy grapes from dozens of growers.) Then there’s the French taxation system. Children are stung with a 45 per cent inheritance tax on large assets, so as the founders of the movement retire or die, the next generation often see selling to négociants as a more stable option. (In 2018, 112 grower-producers – out of more than 4000 – followed an increasing trend and closed down.)

“Going forward, I have no doubt the truly great growers will uphold their position,” Stelzer tells me. “There’s no way those growers are going to go quietly into the night. The acclaim of their cuvées will only increase. But the growers who don’t have that presence will probably give it up; they don’t have the resources to ride everything out.”

There’s also the pandemic factor. For many local liquor retailers, sales during the coronavirus lockdown have been like Christmas, but if we’re all truly sitting at home drowning our anxieties – and we are, right? – our comfort drink is probably not expensive, artisanal champagne. Yes, we’re drinking more, but also more cheaply. We’re not toasting good health at mass gatherings. And we’re not dining out so much at restaurants, where high-end brands sell much of their product.

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Yet back in France, at the start of the supply chain, Hooke guesses that – theoretically – the growers might have a slight edge. They do a lot of the work themselves, after all, which is very different to employing a large workforce on an industrial site. (Good luck social distancing with the latter.) If growers can maintain their methodology and commitment, they might just be rewarded by a swelling global cohort of discerning buyers. “The rise of grower champagne parallels our overall interest in detail and quality, the dissection of origins and provenance; whether your piece of steak comes from Cape Grim or your oysters from Coffin Bay,” says Hooke. “It’s all feeding into the appreciation and knowledge of the consumer, who has never been more inquisitive.”

It’s not just the drinkers asking questions, either. For Pierre Larmandier, this whole folly – or mission, or rebellion – began in the vineyard of his father, when he stood on the chalky earth and asked himself the simple question that continues to drive him forward: what is champagne? “In the simplest terms,” Pierre answers now, “it is a wine with bubbles, but sometimes we forget it is a wine first of all. And this is something we should never forget.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Brisbane Times.

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