The Ultimate Artisan: A Visit to Champagne Agrapart

We arrived at Agrapart to find that Pascal wasn’t quite ready for us: he was in the middle of disgorgement. But this was not the usual machine with its wonderful automated array of equipment for dipping inverted bottles in ice, turning back up, removing crown caps, and inserting dosage before corking: this was Pascal. His son was dipping the inverted bottles into the freezing mixture and quickly turning them back up, Pascal snipped the cork off with a pair of pliers, stuck the end of the pliers into the neck to release the foam, then sniffed to check all was well, before the bottle was passed on for dosage and bottling.

agrapart4Pascal engaged in disgorgement

Agrapart is on the Avenue Jean Jaurès, which is Avize’s equivalent of Avenue de Champagne in Epernay–a long line of Champagne houses one after the other. It was founded by Pascal Agrapart’s grandfather and is still a family domain. Pascal’s father started to commercialize the Champagne in the sixties and seventies. Pascal built the domain up from 3 ha to 12 ha. “We wouldn’t grow beyond, say, 15 ha and be able to continue as we like to consider ourselves true artisans,” says Nathalie Agrapart. Vineyards include more than 70 individual parcels, mostly Grand Cru with some Premier Cru on the Côte de Blancs, and a little Pinot Noir on the Montagne de Reims. “We are specialists in Chardonnay, we just have some small plots with Pinot Noir,” says Nathalie.

agrapart5The courtyard at Agrapart

The artisan nature of the operation becomes clear going around the cellars, set around a charming courtyard off the street, and somewhat larger than they appear, as they go down for three levels. The top level is for vinification, the second level is full of pupîtres, and the third is for stockage. There are two old presses, where the juice runs out directly into an underground vat. (Not in use at the moment, the presses have bicycles stored in them.) Riddling is all manual, but “the problem with the pupîtres is that we don’t have enough space, it would easier with gyropalettes.” There’s no transvasage, remuage is done manually up to jeroboams.

There are 7 cuvées. Only two are based on assemblage from different parcels; the majority are single vineyard wines or represent specific terroirs. Only one is Brut, the rest are Extra Brut or Brut Nature. Pascal thinks a lot about his cuvées. “The idea in my head was…” he tends to explain with a gesture, as he introduces each cuvée. The range gives a terrific expression of different terroirs through the prism of Chardonnay. An extremely fine sense of texture runs through all cuvées. Flavors in the citrus spectrum are subtle, and deepen going from the vins d’assemblage to the single vineyard wines, but all cuvées have that impression of refinement and delicacy, giving a sense that a fine coiled spring is waiting to develop. The Extra Brut style allows purity of fruits to shine through.

There are four Blanc de Blancs representing specific terroirs. “We have vineyards very close to the Maison and make three completely different wines.” Mineral comes from very calcareous plots in Avize and Cramant. “In the same village you can find different terroirs, clay or calcareous, different depths of soil. My idea is to reflect those differences by selecting vineyards that show the mineral side.” Avizoise is a vintage that comes from the oldest vines (60 years) from soils with more clay in Avize. “Mineral has the verticality, Avizoise has more volume and breadth.” Exp. 12 is a Brut Nature from Avize. “This is nothing but Champagne. No dosage, no sugar at all. The liqueur comes from another vintage. So it’s all Champagne.”

Complantee is an unusual blend that in addition to the usual three varieties has Pinot Blanc, Arbane, and Petit Meslier. The name reflects the fact that the varieties are all intermingled in the vineyard. It comes from a tiny plot (less than a third of a hectare) which Pascal planted in 2003 because he thinks terroir is more important than cépage. For me, cépage does come through, however, because I get that faintly herbal, faintly spicy impression that comes from the old varieties.

It’s an experience to taste through the range at Agrapart as each cuvée has something different to say.

 

Artisan Champagne, Biodynamics, and Music at Éric Rodez

Arriving for a visit with Éric Rodez at what looks like a residence in a quiet back street of Ambonnay, there’s a crane hovering over the building, with everything under construction. Éric Rodez is constructing a new winery at the family house. He has separate cellars close by in the town, but they have run out of space.

The Rodez family has been making wine in Ambonnay since 1757, and after a stint in Burgundy followed by experience as an oenologist at a large Champagne house, Éric came back to run the family domain. “My first vintage was an exceptionally bad year, 1984, and this created a tsunami in me. I felt no emotion in my new wine,” he recollects. Éric bubbles over with comparisons between wine and music, all the while drawing parallels between the emotions they create. “When you go to a concert, every concert is a new emotion, it’s not just a repeat. For me this is the logic for terroir wine. Every year I am writing a melody with a new interpretation.”

Éric is committed to biodynamic viticulture, but that is not enough. “Now I am using aromatherapy. Organic viticulture uses copper for mildew and sulfur for oïdium, but copper is toxic for the soil and sulfur is toxic for the wine. Using oils reduces the need for copper.” Out in the vineyards, he explains the morcelated character of his holdings, which consist of 35 separate parcels. “These 13 rows of Pinot Noir come from my father, these 39 rows of Chardonnay come from my mother.” He points to his vines where the berries are small and the bunches are small, then we cross the street to a neighbor’s vines, conventionally farmed, and Eric points to the difference: the berries and bunches are much larger. “It’s not bad,” he says, “but it’s nice industrial champagne, it dilutes the terroir.” He’s fervent about the advantages of biodynamics.

ericrodezgrapestwo

Eric Rodez’s biodynamic grapes (left) are much smaller than those of neighboring plots (right).

Winemaking is traditional in some respects and unconventional or modern in others. “Traditionally Champagne is 80% the new year and 20% reserves, but I use 70% reserve wines and only 30% of current vintage.” Pressing uses old manual presses constructed in 1936. “I don’t want to use a modern press. It’s very important to press slowly.” But there are a couple of gyropalettes, so Eric is not stuck thoughtlessly in tradition. The cellar contains stainless steel vats and barriques; 20% of the wine is fermented in old oak, and most élevage is in oak.

ericrodez1Behind the house, a new winery is being constructed.

Dosage is always low here. “All my wines are Extra Brut, but I put Brut on the label because I never know for the next vintage.” The style really showcases cépage, and you see the differences between the character of each cépage in a way that is unusually clear for Champagne. The Blanc de Blancs says, “I am Chardonnay,” and the Blanc de Noirs says, “I am Pinot Noir.” Coming from the Ambonnay grand cru, the blends have only Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “I’m not interested in Pinot Meunier because it doesn’t age well,” Éric explains. All the wines have a great sense of balance and integration between density and vivacity.

“Cuvée des Crayères blends the structure of Pinot Noir with the sensuality of Chardonnay,” says Éric, and it shows that characteristic balance of the house. The Blanc de Blancs comes from Ambonnay and has a typically elegant uplift. The Blanc de Noirs has that characteristic sense of Pinot Noir’s density. “For the Blanc de Noirs I did not do MLF in order to have more sensuality.” The Zero Dosage is perfectly balanced, with no sense of anything missing, as sometimes happens in the category. It comes from a plot in the middle of the slope which gives good ripeness. The Cuvée des Grands Vintages is “a blend of the best vintages, it is very complex. “Les Beurys is “one plot, one vintage, one cépage,” from a plot of Pinot Noir with east exposure and 35 cms of soil. “It’s almost an anti-Champagne because there’s no assemblage.” The vintage Blanc de Blancs, Empreinte De Terroir Chardonnay, “is my view of the terroir of Ambonnay.” Long and deep, unmistakably Chardonnay, this says it all.

Flavorful would be a good one word summary of the style. You can only get a result like this if you hold back on the sulfur, says my companion, the Anima Figure, and indeed it’s very low. These are very distinctive wines, with everything focused on bringing out terroir and cépage.

 

 

 

A Visit to Michel Drappier is Full of Surprises

Given that the basic concept of Champagne is to maintain consistency of the product by evening out vintage variation by blending, one tends to think of Champagne as a bit static in its approach. A visit to Michel Drappier gave me a different perspective, when I visited last week as part of research to update my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of Champagne.

Located on the Côte de Bar, well south of the main area of Champagne, and in fact closer to Chablis than to Reims, Drappier seems to occupy the center of Urville with a large group of buildings off the main road. Driving from Troyes to Urville along the Route Touristique de Champagne gives a rather different experience from, say, driving along the Côte de Blancs south of Epernay. The Côte de Blancs gives the impression of a monoculture of vines on gentle slopes: the Route Touristique along the Côte de Bar passes through more fields of sunflowers than vineyards, giving somewhat the impression of an alluvial valley. The vineyards in fact are along slopes a mile or so off the main road.

ChampagneRoute2The Route Touristique on the Côte de Bar passes by sunflower fields and granaries rather than vineyards

The visited to Drappier started with a trip out to his top vineyard, Grande Sendrée, in a fleet of old Citroens, led by the bright yellow Torpedo from the 1920s, followed by a 1930s model, and ending with the famous DS (which for me always brings Maigret to mind). The name of Grande Sendrée reflects its origins. A big fire in 1836 burned the whole village and the forest around. The ash was a good fertilizer so the area was planted with vines. Before phylloxera the village reached 370 ha, but now has only 170 ha. “This is an improbable place to make wine but it’s become iconic,” says Michel.

GrandeSendee1Michel Drappier’s fleet of old Citroens provide unique transport to the vineyard

“Grande Sendrée is a terroir not a clos. The name comes from cinders, it should be Cendrée. But whoever made the mistake made our fortune, because it’s a monopole.” The particular feature of the soil is that the limestone was broken up so it has more clay and humus. “It’s Grand Cru Chablis soil with Pinot Noir from Burgundy to make Champagne,” Michel says. Grande Sendrée was one of the early single vineyard cuvées. “In 1974 we decided to make a separate vinification and wanted to have a separate cuvée, but it was an awful vintage so we did not declare it. The first release was 1975,” Michel explains. It’s usually produced every 2-3 years.

From the 5 ha of Grande Sendrée you can see back to Urville and some of Drappier’s other vineyards beyond the village. Michel points to a plot of Pinot Noir that is used to make a red Coteaux de Champenoise. Adjacent to it are plots of some old varieties, no longer much grown in Champagne: Arbane, Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc. These are the basis for the unusual cuvée, Quattuor.

“Quattuor was almost a joke. I wanted to make a new Blanc de Blancs with no Chardonnay. I planned to have one third each of Arbane,  Petit Meslier, and Pinot Blanc, which I planted in 2000. The first crop was 2004, and the first release in 2007. The blend was too vegetal–it was like Sauvignon Blanc–and at the last minute we decided to add Chardonnay. So now it has one quarter of each. Pinot Blanc gives fat and texture, Chardonnay gives balance and makes it all come together. Some years Arbane dominates, some years Petit Meslier.”

“We blend and press Arbane and Petit Meslier together, the others are made separately. The total surface of Arbane in Champagne is 1.6 ha, and we have 0.6 ha, so we are the largest producer of Arbane in Champagne. I found out why my father and his generation spent 30 years pulling it out, you work for nothing. But it’s elegant. We don’t produce Quattuor every year because I want to have one quarter of each cépage.”

“My father is very experimental and is always trying things,” says Charlene Drappier, as she takes us round the cellars, which date back to 1155 and were built by St. Bernard (who left Burgundy to found the abbey of Clairvaux). St. Bernard is supposed to have brought Morillon (a possible ancestor of Pinot Noir) from Burgundy. “So we have 800 years of Pinot Noir in the house,” Charlene says. “The cellars are made of Kimmeridgian limestone, so the vines grow on Kimmeridgian limestone and the bottles mature in it.” One experiment manifested itself in a wooden “egg,” in which the wine is supposed to mature with a natural movement of fluid that in effect keeps it in contact with the lees without any battonage.

After visiting the vineyards and cellars, we tasted through the range. Quattuor makes a sophisticated impression with faint herbal overtones. Michel says this release is dominated by Petit Meslier. Later in the week, at Champagne Duval-Leroy, we taste an unusual 100% Petit Meslier, which shows a distinctive herbal spectrum; you can see why it adds complexity in a blend. Drappier’s Millésime Exception from 2012 is quite different. “For Millésime Exception the idea is the vintage not the terroir. It has to reflect the weather of one season. It is chosen from lots in the cellars, not by picking–the other cuvées are chosen in the vineyard—but for Millésime we choose those wines that are an especially good reflection of the vintage.”

Grande Sendrée 2008 is not so much overtly rich as simply full of flavor. The Grande Sendrée rosé is unusual for its perfectly integrated red fruits. For me, obvious red fruits give a rosé a disjointed impression, but this is a rare case in which they really integrate to make a characterful wine. And then there is the Charles de Gaulle cuvée, faintly toasty, showing the typical body of Pinot Noir, which certainly dominates, with an impression more towards stone fruits than citrus. “The Charles de Gaulle cuvée is named for the general because he was a customer in the sixties, but not a big one. We would have preferred to have had Winston Churchill. That is probably why Pol Roger is a major house and Drappier is a small one,” Michel says wryly. Dosage is modest on all the cuvées. “My father used to have 13 g dosage, when I began it was 12 g, then it came down to 11 g, and from the nineties to 2005 it was 9 g. Now it’s always under 7g,” Michael says.

We wound up with a wine that had been matured under the sea. This was Grande Sendrée 2005, placed under the sea at St. Malo for a year, and then retrieved to be sold as part of a charity event. It was very smooth and supple, with only the first touches of development. “I have done experiments to see what affects aging,” Michel explains. “I tried putting Champagne at altitude in the mountains, but altitude is not the answer, it ages very quickly in the mountains, so I thought I would try the opposite, under the sea. The idea was to see the effect of pressure. The temperature is 9-10C, the pressure is 2.5-3 bars, and of course there’s no light. So you lose less pressure. There’s a slight difference, for me it seems a little better after a year under the sea.”

Drappier5 Jeroboams are riddled by hand

Michel is on a constant quest to understand and control every aspect of his wine. The liqueur d’expedition is produced in house and matured for 15-20 years in oak vats and glass demi-johns, there is no transvasage and sizes up to 30 liters are matured in the bottle, and a new shape of bottle is about to be introduced with a narrower neck to reduce oxidative exposure. It’s all go.

Ungrafted Vines and Rare Varieties: the Unusual Wines of Henry Marionnet

I have been following the wines of Henry Marionnet ever since I first encountered his cuvées from nongrafted vines, so I was delighted to be invited to have lunch at the domain when I was in the Loire updating my Guide to Wines and Top Vineyards of the Loire. The vineyard is pretty much at the eastern edge of Touraine, not far from the great Chateau of Chambord (of which more in a moment).

“Here we only make special wines that others don’t make. All my life I have looked to make the best wine, and not like the others,” says Henry Marionnet. Henry’s father started the domain before the first world war, but he had 20 ha of hybrids. Henry built it up to its present level, mostly with Gamay and Sauvignon Blanc, but with an interesting in reviving the original wines of the area, in this case meaning cultivating some old varieties, planting vines on their own roots, and making wine without adding sulfur. Today his son Jean-Sébastien is the winemaker, but Henry is still very much in evidence.

Ungrafted vines are a specialty of the domain, and there are presently 6 ha, including Gamay, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, and Romorantin. Both the cuvées of Romorantin come from ungrafted vines. Romorantin is an old variety of the area that has almost disappeared, possibly because it’s a late variety—it is always the last to be harvested. (It is permitted in Cheverny AOP and is the basis for Cour-Cheverny AOP). Indeed, most examples of Romorantin give me the impression of having struggled to reach ripeness. It is different at Henry Marionnet, where there are two cuvées.

Pucelle de Romorantin comes from a plot of ungrafted vines planted in 2007, while Provignage comes from a plot of vines that precede phylloxera. We started with Provignage before lunch, because “it has so much finesse and elegance it deserves to be appreciated alone,” Henry says. The very old Romorantin was a small part (a third of a hectare) of a 4 ha plot that Henry purchased in 1998. The plot was not regarded as anything special by the previous owner, who included the grapes with other varieties he sold to the cooperative, and it’s lucky it survived; it would probably have been pulled out but these were among the only vines to survive the great freeze of 1956, so they were left alone.

Charmoise3Are these the oldest vines in France? Henry Marionnet dates this plot of Romorantin from the 1850s.

“The owner proposed to sell the vines to me 15 years ago. I immediately called INAO and asked them to come and take a look at the vines. They couldn’t tell the age, and asked if they could pull out two vines. They dissected them at Montpellier and reckoned they had been planted in the first half of the nineteenth century.” The plot still contains more than three quarters of the original vines; when a vine dies it’s replaced by using marcottage (sticking a branch into the soil until it roots). Curiously for the era in which the vines were planted, they are in tidy, well separated rows. Henry claims these are the oldest vines in France. Provignage has dense flavors, with an impression somewhat reminiscent of white Burgundy with a touch of Chenin Blanc. It is unique.

Other varieties have multiple cuvées. “We’ll compare the normal cuvée­—well, there is nothing normal here—with the ungrafted vines,” Henry says, as we start our tasting. In fact, things rapidly became more complicated as there are three lines: “normal,” Première Vendange, which is made in exactly the same way but has no sulfur used at all in vinification or maturation; and Vinifera, which comes from ungrafted vines. For Gamay, Renaissance is a cuvée that is a two-fer, coming from ungrafted vines and having no sulfur. Jean-Sébastien first made it in 2014. There is also Les Cépages Oubliés, a cuvée from the unusual variety Gamay de Bouze. This is thought to have come from a village near Beaune, around the 18th century. It’s a partial teinturier (the juice has some color) and was banned at one time—“because it made good wine,” Henry says dryly.

The Sauvignon is very good but the Vinifera has an extra level of purity. “The damage that phylloxera did lingers on,” Shakespeare might have said. When you taste the Gamay, you think, this is very good, it puts most Beaujolais to shame, then when you taste Première Vendange, you think, this goes a step further, and then Renaissance pushes that back, Each wine successively becomes more subtle and complex. “This is a pure wine, no sulfur, no rootstock,” Henry says when we reach Renaissance. Gamay is the heart of the domain: “here you drink Gamay and you eat Gamay,” Henry comments as we finish lunch with a fruit tart made from Gamay with a sauce made from Gamay de Bouze.

As if all this was not enough, the Marionnets are presently involved in a project to recreate the vineyards at Chambord, the great chateau built by Francoise Ier, who is supposed to have brought the variety Romorantin (from Beaune) to the region in 1517 when he built the chateau. A new vineyard has been planted about 1 km away from Chambord, 14 ha altogether, including Romorantin, Pinot Noir, Pineau, and Sauvignon Blanc, in an attempt to recreate the varietal mix of the original vineyards. Of course, the vines are ungrafted. The name of the wine is undecided, as the authorities will not allow it to be called after Chateau Chambord—”it’s crazy,” says Henry, “but that’s France.”

Chambord

The fist vintage at Chateau Chambord (although not under that name) will be 2019.

When I mentioned to the sommelier at my hotel that I had visited Henry Marionnet, he said that the wines were good but rather expensive. That they are: but how often do you get to drink wines from 150-year-old vines, or for that matter from ungrafted vines in Europe? They are worth trying, and the comparison between vines on rootstocks and franc de pied (what the French call vines on their own roots) is fascinating.

Does Terroir Survive Distillation?

“I really believe terroir survives distillation, but you have to work for it,” says Guillaume Drouin, at Calvados producer Christian Drouin. Guillaume’s grandfather made Calvados as a hobby, his father started producing commercially—“his intention was to make the best Calvados he could”—and Guillaume has taken the company further into artisanal production, concentrating on vintage Calvados as well as a range of blends with differing ages. Drouin was the perfect producer to visit to investigate the effects of terroir on spirits.

I have always been sceptical about the role of terroir on Cognac. The official definition of an appellation hierarchy decreasing in concentric circle around the town of Cognac is, of course, a geological nonsense, and I’ve always been puzzled how terroir can exert an effect when the starting point for production is to make a wine that is as neutral as possible. I thought Calvados might be different, as coming from apples, via an intermediate stage of cider, it offers more opportunity to show differences  that might survive or even be magnified during distillation. And Pays d’Auge comes only from apples, whereas Calvados AOP and Domfront, another appellation, farther west) can include pears as well.

Drouin is located at the northern edge of the Pays d’Auge, the best appellation within Calvados (AOP Calvados can come from a wine range of areas with outcrops as far as Cherbourg and Neufchatel). In fact, you might regard Drouin as a cool climate Calvados, as the 30 ha of orchards are near Honfleur. Two parallels with vines are the location and ages of the trees. Some orchards are 10 km farther south and harvest is later there. And they get better as they age,  “Apple trees last up to 60 years, and flavors get deeper in old trees,” says Guillaume, although it seems that the effects are not so pronounced as with Vieilles Vignes.

Drouin1Drouin’s winery is typically Normand.

 

There are probably a couple of hundred varieties of apples in the region. “Every producer will tell you he has more than 20 varieties,” says Guillaume, “we work with 30. It’s important in our style. We categorize the types of apples as sweet, bitter sweet, bitter, and acid.” Because there are so many varieties, picking lasts from the end of September to early December. Apple trees function on a two year cycle, so if a variety gives high yields one year, it compensates with low yields the next year. Blending is the crucial tool for ironing out these differences from year to year. “Every time I have tried to make single variety cider or Calvados, I was very disappointed,” Guillaume says.

The blending process has many parallels with aged tawny Port. A blended Calvados has an average age, rather than an exact age. At Drouin, VSOP is 6-8 years, XO is 10-12 years, and Hors d’Age is 15 years (the legal minimum average for Hors d’Age is 6 years). Some producers make a range comparable to the ages of tawny ports—at Domaine Dupont, I tasted 20-year and 30-year Calvados, and the increase in refinement going from the younger to the older was very similar to my experience with tawny Ports. In the same way, blending may involve many lots, including very small amounts of very old spirits as well as larger amounts of younger ones. “Up to 40 lots might be blended, but the exact number is a secret,” I was told when I asked for details.

As the objective of blending is to maintain consistency of style, this does not seem fruitful grounds for investigating terroir, but Drouin also makes vintage Calvados. Most producers make vintage Calvados occasionally—when the year is good and when market demand supports it—but Drouin is really committed. “We are a specialist in vintage and make one every year,” Guillaume explains. “We bottle it after 30 years aging. Probably 70% of character is due to the aging, and 30% is the quality of the vintage. We find differences from one vintage to the next, but not as much as you would find in a wine region.”

Issues of balancing acidity and tannins are similar to wine. Lots that are unusually well balanced are not blended but are kept aside to become vintage Calvados. While blended Calvados is aged in French oak, for the vintage other sources may be used, depending on the year. “Calvados is traditionally blended, it’s the way to get balance. With vintage we change the source of the casks each year to get balance. The blend is made by the same production method each year, it has to have the same style, but for the vintage every year is aged in a different way.” So the 1993 shows a light, delicate style—it was my favorite in a vertical tasting—and it was aged in casks from Sauternes. The 1995 is much denser and was aged in old Port casks. When I commented that it seemed more classic, I was given the 1973—“this is really classic”—which was aged in Calvados casks.

So this makes it a little difficult to assess the effect of vintage. The differences are sufficiently striking, however, that it seems fair to conclude that, much like wine, they reflect what happened to the various cultivars in the specific conditions of that year, perhaps even amplified by the choices made during aging. Vintages are a bit easier to compare with Calvados, of course, because there is no aging in the bottle: once the Calvados has been imprisoned in the bottle, the signature of that vintage has been captured for once and for all.

There are really too many variables for it to be possible to compare terroirs. I’m not aware of individual producers making different bottlings from different orchards; comparing different producers would be complicated by different blending choices; and with vintage the main point is to emphasize the success of the year. But I am quite convinced that vintage Calvados offers something of the same interest as comparing vintages with wine, and certainly allows for choices in matching style to palate.

A Visit with the Rocca Family in Barbaresco

The Roccas have owned land in Barbaresco since 1834, but today’s winery is a story of the last three generations. The winery is a modest-looking group of buildings off the road about a kilometer from Barbaresco, in the Rabajà Cru. Built around a courtyard and larger than is apparent, there’s a splendid terrace behind the buildings with a view right across the vineyards. Standing on the terrace, you feel the microclimate of Rabajà in the wind that is channeled across the vineyard by two hills. Underneath the buildings, the modern cellar is in three storeys, built into the hillside in 2008 to allow wine to be moved by gravity. “The library is now where my father used to park the tractor,” says Luisa Rocca.

Rocca1The family dog was defending the Rocca winery when I arrived

The land here was bought in the fifties by Francesco Rocca. “The grapes were already known to be good, but 1 km at that time was a long way from the center. “Grandfather used to sell the grapes in Alba every year, and the first and easiest grapes to sell were always those from Rabajà,” says Luisa. The winery started in 1978 when Francesco’s son Bruno started estate bottling. His children, Francesco and Luisa are now involved, Francesco with winemaking and Luisa with marketing.

This is very much a family affair—”there is no consultant, the wines are made by Bruno and Francesco,” says Luisa. The wines include, Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, Chardonnay, Nebbiolo d’Alba, and several Barbarescos. The general Barbaresco blend comes from young vines (although not the youngest, from three vineyards in the Neive area). Coparosa comes from two vineyards (one in Neive and one in Treiso), but 2013 is the last vintage because the lease on one of the vintages expired. Maria Adelaide is a selection from several vineyards. Rabajà is the leading single vineyard wine. The Currà Riserva will be added with the 2012 vintage. “This is important because it’s different from Rabajà, which is powerful and rich, but Currà is elegant and feminine. It’s the first Riserva we will make and it’s Francesco’s project so it symbolizes the passing of the generations,” says Luisa.

Winemaking is very particular here, focused on a natural approach to highlight elegance. Fermentation uses yeast which were isolated from the Rabajà vineyard in a four year project. The grapes are broken very gently by using vibration in an interesting looking machine that also selects the berries. “I don’t want to crush the bunches, I would rather do more pump-over than crush, says Francesco. Carbon dioxide is used during sorting and crushing to minimize the need for SO2. “We use very gentle fermentation (in a mix of conventional vats and some rotary fermenters),  I’m looking for elegance and balance not power.” Barbera is matured entirely in barriques, the Barbarescos also in barriques, Rabajà spends one year in barrique and one year in cask, and the Currà Riserva spends three years in large casks,” because the barriques made it too fat, we were looking for elegance.” The minimum age for the oak is 14 years—”We prefer wood that doesn’t add anything to the wine. You need old wood with not too much toast.”

The Roccas do not consider themselves modern. “I consider modernists are people who make wine in the laboratory,” says Luisa, “traditionalists are people who make wine in the vineyard.” Yet the wines are very approachable. Bruno is not patient, say Francesco and Luisa, he has always made wines more on the approachable side. “We don’t believe that lots of tannins necessarily mean the wine will age well. When you use more extraction you have a wine that is more powerful and richer, but not elegant.” Bruno describes his approach as, “Our philosophy has become much more focused on the terroir. In the past we couldn’t do this because of the limitations of the winery. Now that the next generation are interested, we can make more investments, and we plan to move to 100% single vineyards.” The style here is very fine, from the lightest Barbaresco to the weighty Rabajà, there’s a sense of extremely finely textured tannins, silky, but always ending in an impression of finesse.

 

A Visit with Gaia Gaja

My first call in Barbaresco was to Gaja, hidden behind an extremely discreet entrance in the main street of the village. Through the door is a vast courtyard with the winery all around, and some years ago Angelo Gaja bought the old castle across the street, so he appropriately bestrides Barbaresco like a colossus. Last time I visited, I spent the morning with Angelo; this time I met with Gaia Gaja.

Gaja1

The unobtrusive entrance hides the presence of Piedmont’s top producer behind the doors.

She is just as enthusiastic about the Langhe as her father. “Finally winemaking in Italy is becoming unchained, today producers are making wine completely differently from the past. There is no other region like Langhe, with such consistent high quality. I think Piedmont is like it is because we had the confrontation between modernism and tradition, so we moved to cleanness, producers have a proper style, and now there is a new way of pushing the boundaries, to be more natural. Modernism helped the traditionalists even more than the modernists.”

How has the region been affected by climate change? “In the last fifteen years we have been changing a lot of things in the way we manage our vineyards and make our wine in the cellars. Each time we make a decision we think about climate change. Climate change is why we have more reliability today. In the seventies and eighties we were fighting to get alcohol, there was chaptalization even into the nineties. In the last ten years we’ve focused more on the vineyard, less on the oak.”

“Langhe farmers are very precise, grass has to be cut, the vines have to be without a leaf out of place, we have had to learn to be a bit wild. We let the grass grow and we don’t top the canopy any more. Now we twist the leaves at the top instead of cutting, so the plant stops making leaves. If we keep cutting, the plant keeps pushing back by making more leaves. We have been bringing down the height of the canopy because with extra brightness we don’t need so much canopy. In 2004 we changed the pruning system in all our vineyards to a modified Guyot. The transition caused a drop in yield while the plants adapted.”

“We don’t get any proper winters any more. We had 105 days without rain in the last winter. We always had to try to keep water out, but now we have to try to keep humidity in the soil. We have to switch. All the hot vintages in the past we thought to be the best. Today we can’t continue with this mindset. I feel that the cool vintages today are when we get the best balanced wines.”

Winemaking has also changed. “In the traditional way there was a lot of racking, the wine needed a lot of oxygen. Today we don’t need so much. We are changing everything in order to make the same wines.”

The big news of the week was that Gaja is returning to the Barbaresco DOC (with effect from the 2013 vintage). “When the Consorzio defined the regulations, Angelo wanted them to allow 5% of another indigenous variety; this was based on the history, and the view that it could not reduce quality.” When the Consorzio decreed that Barbaresco had to be 100% Nebbiolo, he simply labeled his wines as Langhe. “The news about our return to the Barbaresco DOC was read as a sign of generational change. I and my sister have a different perspective. We will never own his memories. We decided to go back to Nebbiolo at 100% because we would like to express things the way they are today in the Langhe. It’s true that Barbera gives density and juiciness as well as acidity—but Nebbiolo is more juicy today, it has sweeter and softer tannins; Barbera used to cut the tannins.”

“So the wines will taste a little different. What changes for me when there is a little Barbera is that you see it first and then at the end: first there’s a sense of freshness from the acidity, and then there’s more roundness. When it’s only Nebbiolo, it’s a purer expression, the wine gains in purity, it will be more vertical. Nebbiolo for me is a very discrete taste, that’s the beauty of Nebbiolo, you get a sense of cleanness.” What will you do with the unused Barbera grapes? “They’ve been sold in bulk so far, but we haven’t decided. I have already calculated the Barbera could make 7,000 bottles…”

Are your wines now more approachable earlier? “Some of our young wines are more approachable now than the wines of the eighties are today. We work to ensure the wines will age as long as they used to. Our objective is to make long lived wines. That’s been with Nebbiolo, but we can also express the personality of the Langhe in whites. No one knows, it is a pity, but there is an opportunity here for making very long aging white wine.”

Gaja is simply sui generis, not to be pigeonholed as modernist or traditionalist or any sort of –ist, but simply standing alone in the independence of his style. It seems that will continue under the next generation.