I applaud all efforts, experiments and innovations that lead to a more natural and more sustainable way of making wine. This does not however mean that all developments discussed over the past series of articles really add something to the wine. Natural yeasts I can follow up to a certain extent, but the practice also comes with restraints. You need to have a fermentation happening to start a pied de cuve, so you are limited in how long you can age your still wines as you only have one harvest fermenting each year. This may not lead to the best decisions.
Say that you prefer to age your wines in oak. If after a year you notice that the oak is still overwhelming the wine, you can simply wait until it is more integrated. If your goal is to only work with natural yeasts however, you have no choice but to postpone the second fermentation for a full year. Taking into account the fact that the wines have to stay sur lattes for a minimum period of twelve months, it means that a wine can only be commercialized three years after the harvest. This costs money; any accountant will tell you that a low inventory turnover can kill your business. Vignerons will therefore often bottle too soon, leading to a harsh oakiness, or they will just charge an extra premium to the client, hoping that they can put the funds aside in order to have some financial stability.
I honestly have a bigger issue with the use of rectified grape must for the liqueur de dosage. I find it hard to believe that this can really make a difference for the best, for the simple reason that the exclusion of cane sugar may lead to something that is 100% wine, but that can no longer be called natural wine. For starters, the origin of the grape must may not be the result of biodynamic or natural viticulture. Growing grapes is hard work as it is, but if you want to do it the natural way, be prepared to spend all your time in the vineyard. Why would you then use healthy grapes that have received more attention than anything else over years to create a sugar substitute? A huge source in France for RGM is the Languedoc region, traditionally known for being a very active contributor to the European winelake. These two elements, the source of the grapes and the effort that is unlikely to be made do not exactly scream complementarity with natural and biodynamic viticultural practices.
Even if we were to assume that the grapes used for RGM had been grown by Nicolas Joly, the godfather of biodynamics, himself, they may go in as a natural product, but they will not come out as one. As mentioned before, I am not a chemist so frankly I don’t understand the production completely but there are two important steps: getting rid of everything non-sugar and getting rid of the color. The first step is done through the addition of ion exchange resins which will bind with the elements (e.g. acids or salts) that you want to remove. Discoloring is then done using charcoal. Full details can be consulted in this patent and in the 150-page (!) long EU guidelines. Safe to say, this is not a natural process.
Of course you can say the same about sugar. It is produced and refined on an industrial level and travels half the world before it finds its way to Champagne. But, you can choose to source your sugar from an organic producer, at least making sure that the cane used has not been nuked with pesticides and herbicides. Unfortunately, RGM is becoming increasingly important in dosage as European subsidies have made it by now cheaper than cane sugar in many cases. Vignerons may claim that they use RGM because they want their champagne to be 100% wine, or because it is easier to use, but it’s not difficult to understand that financial motives can take the leading role here.
In my opinion, the most important work that needs to be done in order to create a stunning wine takes place in the vineyard. I can absolutely understand that you do not want to ruin all the efforts done here by adding god-knows-what in the cellar, but I refrain from the dogmatic thinking that sometimes takes over. A big part of the natural wine community is building wine up again from how it used to be done, without needless intervening and I applaud this as I believe that it is essential in creating an identity. At the same time however, we need not ignore all the progress that has been made in vinification techniques as several of them have proven their worth over time, leading to better wine.
The Champagne Series
- A state of affairs
- Elegance in the Côte des Blancs – De Sousa
- A quest for terroir
- Terroir geekery at Laherte Frères
- Natural winemaking in the Champagne
- Dosage – less is not always better
- The dosage experiment
- Biodynamic conversion in practice – Francis Boulard
- The downside of creating natural champagne