“With climate change, I have to always remind myself that even in the years where we see less fruit, we still find the same, beautiful quirks in the terroir. They always shine through, and that’s really special.”
Pascal might be the grower-winemaker behind one of the most sought after allocations in Champagne, but you wouldn’t know it from his modest demeanour. A trailblazer in the grower movement of the region, Pascal has become a true master in all of his vinous endeavours.
He’s been doing this since 1985, but when we speak to Pascal over the phone, it’s like chatting to a winemaker who has just discovered something which will change the way the world sees Champagne. Pascal isn’t new to the scene, but his energy and excitement for his work and land are unerring.
Meet Pascal Agrapart
Pascal and his brother took over the 19th century Agrapart winery in 1985. Back then, it was a modest 4.5 hectares of vines which had been worked by his father – these days, he works 12 hectares across Grand Cru villages.
The Agraparts have been known for their Blanc de Blancs for centuries, and so taking over from his father was simply a change of hands – hands which would continue the work of their predecessors.
“I have always—since forever really—had an understanding of the comparison between working the soil mechanically and working it by using chemicals. I was already working with the soil as a child, and my parents had this same view – a view of how best to manage the terroir, how to live their lives, and maintain their garden in the best way.”
Although much of Pascal’s work is concerned with experimentation, the goal is always to test methods which will enable the terroir to shine through in the most authentic way possible;
“For me, nothing was completely new; it was really just a continuation of my parents’ work.”
His determination and zeal for his land enabled him to bring an already thriving domaine to the very top. Like polishing an already shining penny.
“In a way, I finished off some things which they had not done, like isolating the terroir and the parcels in order to make the most of the differences in the grapes – from the different varieties which come from the same village.”
But perhaps more than anything, Pascal’s drive is fuelled by doing this a little differently. He continually tests, evaluates and evolves his work, to ensure that he is giving his fruit and his terroir the best conditions to thrive. For Pascal, winemaking is personal and not defined by the region, or village, in which he tends to his vines.
“Champagne has constructed a very prescribed image of its wines, predominantly through the varieties, vintages, terroir and villages.”
Pascal tells us that, at the very start of his career – in the midst of the chemical revolution in farming – he was pretty much alone in his belief that there was a better, more kind and fair way of working with nature. Most others, meanwhile, somewhat blindly followed the chemicals:
“I was alone in this for 40 years. We were confronted with solutions which would simplify life and - of course - everyone was open to a way of simplifying things for the first time, without needing to think about the consequence for the future.”
Unsatisfied with this offering, Pascal started to delve deeper.
“When I arrived at university, we learnt by using chemicals. They told us it was the solution and the future. But I realised that this was wrong, and after three or four years I made the decision to change this. I reminded myself that we can work another way, without using harmful chemicals.”
Today, there is an ever-strengthening, ever-expanding movement of grower-winemakers in the region, but Pascal’s conviction just hits differently. At a time of difficulty and hardship for farmers and growers, he refused to believe that the only way to make a living was to risk the future health of his vines.
If Pascal’s initial conviction needed cementing, then it was his first unofficial ‘test’ which would confirm this.
“When I took over, we managed to pretty quickly recover a further 1.5 hectares. I realised that I didn’t want to mix the vines we were in the process of recovering from chemical herbicides and pesticides, with the ones which had always been de-weeded and managed by hand.”
“So I made two cuvées. I realised instantly that there was a huge difference between wines made from chemically farmed vines and those made organically. That was my first starting point of reflection. I thought to myself: ‘OK, I need to start taking more care of the soil, little by little.”
And so, at the beginning of the 90s – after a few years at the helm of Champagne Agrapart – Pascal began his work as a true keeper of the deep-rooted vines of the family winery - working introspectively and following only his intuition.
Today, Pascal works his 12 hectares in this way. 50% of the vines are planted in the grand cru of Avize, where fellow rebel-domaine Selosse also have most of their vineyards. The rest are located in Cramant, Oiry and Oger. Following his father’s work, he works organically (but isn’t certified – a personal choice) and focuses his efforts on maintaining the soils. The soils are ploughed when necessary and every year compost made from local manure is added to the vineyards.
When Pascal tells us about his work in the vineyard, it’s instantly obvious that his process is to work from the bottom-up.
“I began by identifying the terroir, the soil types. For some of it, I couldn't believe it was the same village I was tasting."
For Pascal, if the foundation is not solid – if the roots are not happy and thriving – then little else works as it should. His methods are often centered around the vineyard's natural rhythms, changing his approach to his work as the weather and climate change.
“In some years more than others, we find the same particularities in the wines – the terroir really has an importance in this. With climate change, I have to always remind myself that even in the years where we see less fruit, we still find the same, beautiful quirks in the terroir. They always shine through, and that’s really special.”
As terroir-driven wines, the soil types and quirks of the different villages of Champagne Agrapart continue to shape the way that we experience Pascal’s cuvées.
“In terms of vinification, not a lot has changed since the start. 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.”
It's this deep fascination with natural yeasts that Pascal is particularly celebrated for. 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.
“And that’s how my first Experience cuvée came about; released in 2008.”
It might seem complicated, but actually the notion behind it is very simple. As usual, the base wine ferments naturally, and then when it's time to add the liqueur de tirage, he simply replaces this with his own grape juice.
"I do it exactly as if I were doing a second fermentation with the sugar and yeast mixture, which is what's used normally in Champagne to create the bubbles in the bottle. Just instead, I add grape juice: so fructose."
Complantée is another of Pascal’s cuvées born from experimentation.
“I always say that the terroir determines the varieties. In Champagne, the Chardonnay of X or Y are not at all the same Chardonnay. Yes, they’re the same variety but terroir has such a huge influence on the organoleptic quality of the wine.”
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.
“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.”
He grins. It's a wine that proves his belief that the influence of terroir can, and often does, have a greater impact on the taste of wine than the grape variety itself.
“The idea was to make a cuvée to show that the terroir is more important. And it worked.”
There's a glimmer in Pascal's words – one which tells us that these experiments, these tests, proving that soil is the very foundation of all winemaking, are not for Pascal's own amusement. Rather, these are small gifts to the world; they are Pascal's way of showing us that we must respect the soil, and the Earth, for its impact on wine (but, really, this is about more than that; this is something immeasurable).