I have come to Champagne to observe and learn about the finer points of producing Champagne during the harvest period. I am interested in discovering the differences and influences of terroir, the characteristics of the fruit at harvest (flavour, texture and analysis) and the approaches taken in the cellars. I had a certain expectation of what I would find, what I would see but I also expected some surprises. And surprises I have had.
Old school, new school
The typical Australian school of thought for the production of sparkling wine is very protectionist – in wine speak “reductive”. That is, at all stages you protect the grapes/juice/wine from any contact with oxygen by means of sulphur dioxide (SO2), using inert gases in tanks, and very careful handling. My first day in a champagne cellar I witnessed the complete opposite. I don’t think you could handle fruit and juice in a more oxidative way – basket pressing, no inert gas, very little SO2, pumping juice with bucket loads of air, open tanks for settling juice. I was astounded. I had to keep reminding myself that this was the cellar of one of the great grower producers, whose wines I greatly admire and cannot perceive any oxidative characteristics in the wines. Baffling. The next morning I was in another producers cellar and it felt much more familiar – enclosed press, inert gas, refrigerated tanks with lids! The wines are no less in quality or character, just different.
Reconciling the extremes
Within two days I had experienced the two extremes of champagne methodology. Between these two extremes there is very conceivable degree of variation and adaption. There is very little uniformity in champagne. The variation in endless. There are thousands of individual plots of land with their own terroir and there are thousands of producers all with their own methodology and style. In my mind I have to reconcile the extremes and come up with a balance that I can justify and work with. Champagne is a fascinating region and the learning curve is steep. But it is these experiences which provide the challenges and the knowledge for a winemaker to return home and make better and more interesting wines.