Monday, April 7, 2008

100% Grapes

I spent the morning with Pascal Agrapart, tasting his outstanding 2007 vins clairs as well as the current range of champagnes, including the superb 2002s. Towards the end of our tasting, Agrapart disappeared into the cellar to fetch a bottle that was sur pointe and agrafé (stoppered by a cork that’s held in place with a big staple), and proceeded to disgorge it. (This photo is actually of a different wine that he disgorged afterwards, but you get the idea. It was an action-packed morning.)

The wine was wild—ripe and vibrant, it showed intense, nearly severe richness on the palate, with a laser-like structure and curiously umami flavors on the finish. While it was delicious, it certainly didn't taste like classic champagne. It turns out that this is part of an experiment that he tried for several vintages, attempting to make as natural a champagne as possible. “In 99 percent of champagnes, four to seven percent of the bottle isn’t from grapes,” he says. “There’s sugar, water, stabilization agents, all sorts of other things that are added. I wanted to make a bottling that was 100 percent grapes.” Harvested in 2003 at 11 degrees of natural alcohol, this was fermented with natural yeasts during the first fermentation, as all of Agrapart’s wines are, but the difference here is that the second fermentation was also done with natural yeasts. After the initial wine was finished, he bottled it together with must from another wine that was still fermenting, thus producing effervescence in the bottle.

Pierre Larmandier told me once that he had tried to do this and it didn’t work—the wine was too variable and sometimes it failed to finish fermentation in the bottle. I asked Pascal if he had ever had any problems and he said no, it always went smoothly, and he tried it in four different vintages. The only problem is that it’s illegal, as you aren’t allowed to bottle wines during the harvest, and I don’t think you’re allowed to use indigenous yeasts for the second fermentation, either. So you can’t buy it. But it’s incredibly interesting, nevertheless.


Cliff said...

Does this process bear any resemblance to the sort of thing Renardat-Fache does in the Bugey? If so, is there a reason why it would be harder to pull off with Champagne? Perhaps wanting to get the fermentation to go all the way dry?

Jon Webster said...

The idea of a completely natural champagne is very appealing to me, I would love the opportunity to taste one someday. What really grabbed my attention here though, is the idea that a second fermentation by way of natural yeast would not be permitted???! Is it because of the variability issues, and that the champagne houses want to have a "house style" year in, year out?

Peter Liem said...

Hello Cliff,

It's not exactly like what Renardat-Fache does. With the méthode ancestrale that's used in Cerdon, you stop the initial fermentation at about six degrees or so of alcohol, then bottle it and let it ferment a little further to create bubbles. What Agrapart does here is to make an initial wine of 11 degrees, just as with normal champagne, and then add partially-fermented must, with enough residual sugar and powerful enough yeasts (hopefully--they're indigenous, so there's always a risk) to ferment to dryness in the bottle. At least one reason why this would be more difficult than Cerdon de Bugey is that there's more alcohol present, which can inhibit the action of the yeasts. Like I said, Pierre Larmandier tried this and had a bunch of problems with the second fermentation.

Peter Liem said...

Hello Jon,

I actually don't really know if a second fermentation with natural yeasts is prohibited. I don't see how you could make it happen by any other way than what Agrapart is doing, though, and what he's doing is definitely illegal because he has to bottle during the harvest (he needs that fermenting must). I do know of one producer who isolates a yeast strain from his vineyard and uses that for the second fermentation, but that's somewhat different. (I'm not going to name who it is, because he does sell his wine, and I think that what he's doing is also illegal.) I think (I don't know this for sure, although I should) that there are only three cultured yeasts that are legally acceptable for use in the second fermentation. I imagine that variability is the primary motive for that -- not variability of house style, but just variability in fermentation. It wouldn't do to have one bottle in a batch at 6 bars of pressure and another at 5 because it didn't ferment all the way.

David McDuff said...

Great post. This reminds me in a way of the method used by biodynamic farmer Francois Barmès at Domaine Barmès-Buecher for production of his Crémant d'Alsace. He ferments solely with native yeasts, the main difference being that he harvests at 13% potential, stops the fermentation with temperature control at 11%, then bottles. The second fermentation begins naturally as the wine comes back up to temperature. The wine always shows a clear vintage character but I've never noticed any issues with bottle variation.

Peter Liem said...

Hello David,

That's interesting about Barmès's Crémant. I've tasted the wine but I didn't know that he made it that way. It sounds a lot like the méthode ancestrale, competed at a higher alcohol level.

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