Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon concluded his address at the New Wave Champagne event by saying, “The true winemaker is time.” This constraint became increasingly apparent through his presentation. Roederer’s intellectual property winds into a double helix of action and complication. Small modifications accrue over time as the exploration of fixed territory becomes ever more detailed.
The constitutive gap between grapes and wine is a space within which alternative strategies and geometries of action and outcome are tested and interposed. Once established, these complex causal chains are hard to transform. Comtes would unravel if Taittinger withheld the 10g/l dosage; and Krug would be unyielding if all the barrels were swapped for stainless steel.
Chez Billecart, I’ve witnessed a 20 year transition from inox to barrels and foudres. Like Jason’s rebuilding of the Argot, blends were refitted and evaluated a plank at a time, the renewal taking place at a pace that didn’t interrupt the brand’s serene passage. Over this same period, Anselme Selosse refined his solera system. The vision is inspiring, but I doubt Anselme could have accomplished this transformation without having a grounding in biochemistry and (at times) a close working relationship with Distillerie Jean Goyard in Aÿ. Other regions have cut and pasted techniques and barrels from elsewhere only to discover 20 years later they moved too hastily. When I first visited Selosse in 1996 it felt like an insurgency. Now, twenty-five years on, the domaine’s change in direction looks like a life’s work.
The shift from still to sparkling wine production was Champagne’s moment of revolutionary upheaval. Dom Pérignon wasn’t the only actor facilitating the region’s radical shift in protocol, though it’s perhaps ironic that the church, having spent so many centuries demolishing human spiritedness, should have been at the forefront of this particular flourishing. The Enlightenment push toward assertiveness and self-expression didn’t just open Europe to human potentialities and novelty, it also revealed the extent to which the Dark Age worldview had been an unremitting God delusion. Somewhere along the way, mythical accounts of a foundational deity got hitched to the human impulse for experimentation and productive combination. Muddleheaded medieval theologians took the objects of our own desire and activity as evidence for the workings of an all sustaining power.
Analogously, some commentators take wild yeast activity and the environmental modification of phenols and metabolites as proof of an auspicious hidden hand within production. Self-organisation is a seductive idea, yet neither yeast metabolism nor the environment’s ability to effect the balance of metabolites and phenols gets us to end points called Chambertin or Palo Cortado.
As said, Champagne blends are exemplary of a constitutive gap between grapes and wine, though the idea of productive separation is as applicable to the wines of Jerez and Burgundy as it is to those of Aÿ. If we accept that the people of Tbilisi, Funchal and Beaune responded to their world in inventive and unique ways then we won’t feel compelled to admonish one another with arguments about industrialisation and fallenness. There is no mothballed unworldly realm waiting on our return. Champagne and Georgia don’t share a common discarded past that can be resuscitated and restored. The overzealous use of fungicides may have been inevitable in the land of Pasteur’s birth, but growers can just decide to use fewer synthetics, or buy alternatives as and when they become available. Commentators need to pause before condemning all progress just because some people made (now) unfashionable choices under the cloak of efficiency and cost saving. We risk infecting the past with our own prohibitions and jargon when we invoke 'authenticity', or suggest there's an edict coming from terroir urging Houses to junk dosage.
The use of organic and bio protocols in Champagne is a case in point. JBL alluded to the fact that mycorrhiza can help overcome the base (Ca++) saturation of chalk, delivering freshness and low pH to vin clair, but this symbiotic pairing with vine roots doesn't then further direct us to butcher blends into their constituent vineyards.
Aesthetic objects hold our attention, and a talented chef de cave will look to intensify this experience – exploiting energies of combination, and pursuing appealing vectors of flavour. I took JBL’s statement that ‘blending is an art’ to be a polite riposte to critics who choose to employ terroir as a reductive measure. The concrescence (Whitehead) between an aesthetic object and an observer is both a coming together and a becoming together. Wine appreciation pairs sensation with understanding: we can creatively manipulate the former to heighten the latter; or we can loop sensations back to gain insight and inspiration.
Tellingly, when we talked with one another after his presentation, JBL was effusive in his (unprompted) praise of Richard Geoffroy. He didn’t mention bio once; it was all about balancing redox across decades of ageing - sparkling wine’s genuine holy grail.