Pascale Agrapart is a rebel grower-winemaker and a true master in his field. His work at Domaine Agrapart, a winery in Champagne dating back to the 19th century, is first and foremost terroir-driven – fuelled by a desire to allow the soil to shine through in all of his cuvées.
"The different parcels are vinified separately, in tank or barrel, using native yeasts. The idea is to let the fermentation happen spontaneously. I believe that each parcel has a specific yeast strain which perhaps contributes to being able to taste the terroir in the cuvée."
People: Pascal, Nathalie and Ambroise Agrapart
Place: Côte des Blancs, Champagne: half in Avize, where fellow rebel-domaine Selosse also have most of their vineyards. The rest are located in Cramant, Oiry and Oger
Varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier
Did You Know? Pascal believes that it is terroir that shines through in the wines, not the variety. With this in mind, and to prove this idea, he planted a vineyard as a co-plantation in 2003: 0.25ha of vines in the lieu-dit Fosse à Bull in Avize. He says,
“I had a hunch that when someone would taste it, they'd say 'Oh, this is a good Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs!’ But no! It’s not just Chardonnay – it’s Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Arbane and Petit Meslier. And after I made the wine, it was exactly what I'd imagined - it tasted like a Chardonnay Blanc de Blancs.”
Pascal is particularly celebrated for his work and deep fascination with natural yeasts. He says,
“We studied the terroirs across our different parcels, and when we calculated the yeast population – just after the harvest across our three different terroirs – we found that there were some yeasts which were common to all three, but we also found that there were yeasts specific and unique to certain parcels.”
He speaks so enthusiastically that we can't help but smile and nod continuously.
“I said to myself: ‘Wow. This is interesting. It confirmed my idea that spontaneous fermentation is important for terroir wine. So for the last 25 years, we've done natural fermentation only, and we've never had any issues; it always goes well... No deviances, no problems with stuck fermentations, etc."
However, one thing was bugging him. In Champagne, a second fermentation occurs in bottle. A dry, still base wine needs to have a mixture of sugar and yeast added in order for the refermentation to take place. This is done with lab-cultured yeast and cane sugar, neither of which come from Pascal's vineyards.
“I wanted to try to make a bottle of Champagne - one that came 100% from Champagne - like my winemaker friends in other regions who make their sparkling wines with only grape juice.”
He pondered this, and had a lightbulb moment:
“I had an idea. I could do the tirage during harvest, the next year. But it's not exactly easy (to say the least) doing tirage while you're also harvesting. For this reason, not everyone in my family was on board with the project. I really had to set aside a lot of time for it. But in 2003, we had a drought year, meaning our harvest was very small. This meant I had time to do a little experiment, so I used the grape juice from 2003 as my liqueur de tirage for the base wines from the previous vintage. This meant it was our own natural yeasts doing the second fermentation. It worked pretty well - I was really happy with the outcome."
It was a game changing moment. Happy with the taste, but knowing he could improve, he redid the same experiment in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Much to his surprise, after inviting friends to try the wines, the cuvée was authorised by the Champenois board.