"The realm of possibility when it comes to viticulture is enormous—and above all—learning from it is something to be enjoyed; to bring happiness."
Flavien might only be in his early 30s, but he speaks with the wisdom of the generations that came before him.
It’s the type of wisdom that can only come from a thinker—a person who regards their surroundings and contemplates the mysterious ways of nature. It’s thanks to Flavien’s own personal nature, and to his dedication, that this domaine has undergone a rebirth.
Under his guidance, the wines are going from strength to strength, while the vineyards themselves become healthier day by day. His work represents a foray into biodiversity, in a region that desperately needs it.
Flavien is the eighth generation of Nowack; the domaine was born in 1795. The family were originally tile manufacturers, and there’s still one parcel that shows the traces of this, with its name “Tuileries.” This was the first parcel planted by the family.
Born and raised in Champagne, Flavien did his studies in Avize, after which he travelled to Eastern Europe (his family were originally from the Czech Republic), doing harvest in Slovenia. He returned to begin working at the domaine in 2012 with fresh eyes, determined for change in the region.
His first mission was to stop herbicides, and then bit by bit began to convert to organics, achieving certification in 2016.
Flavien was fortunate to inherit a large amount of massal selection vines. As the domaine is located in the Vallée de la Marne, which is particularly famed for its Pinot Meunier, 75% of the sites are planted to Pinot Meunier (with the resulting 25% to Chardonnay and 10% to Pinot Noir).
“All of the Meunier are massal selection. They came from the generations before us. Back then, before commercial nurseries existed, everyone shared their wood selection. They had a briefcase full of Meunier, so to speak!”
The idea of planting via massal selection (ie. reproducing a vineyard from several mother plants, to ensure more diversity than modern clones) is important to Flavien. He explains,
“If you don’t share your plant material, you’ll eventually end up with clones. The more diversity, the better. You have more individuals. It’s like going to the theatre—each character has his or her own personality, and thank goodness! Imagine having 100 of the same character!?”
Everything Flavien does comes from a similar vein of logical thinking. It was this mindset that also led him to decide organics was the way forward:
“I couldn’t understand why I needed to use a product to control the grasses. I said: Stop. Then, of course the political context of the companies producing these products—and the messages to be found there—that’s also something that spoke to me.”
He’s a humble guy and remains very open to learning from others;
“Sébastien Mouzon [of Champagne Mouzon-Leroux] has helped me a lot. We taste and discuss together. I love what he does, and he loves to share his advice and ideas. He’s been such a source of inspiration, and a source of help.”
It’s a solid reminder that mentorship is increasingly important when it comes to a healthier future for farming. Flavien continues,
“We still have loads to do; I’d like to work on our cover crops; to experiment with what works best. The realm of possibility when it comes to viticulture is enormous—and above all—learning from it is something to be enjoyed; to bring happiness.”
He has also begun working with biodynamic practices, having begun certification this year. But it’s not just biodynamics that intrigues him; the idea of agroforestry is equally compelling.
He tells us that the Nowack vineyards are spread out on 35 parcels across a total of ten hectares. It might sound crazy, but that’s common in the region—due to parcels having been split up amongst families centuries before. It can be problematic; not just from a logistical standpoint, but also due to environmental reasons. If you have a small parcel which you work organically, yet it is surrounded by conventional neighbours, this is frustrating to say the least.
This is why Flavien is working to create what he calls “les clos environmentals.” Clos in French means a wall, and it nods to the old tradition of enclosed vineyards. Simply put, an environmental clos is the notion of surrounding your vineyard plots with trees and bushes.
“Here, in the Vallée de la Marne, there were historically many kinds of trees. In particular, it was famous for its cherries. I can still hear my grandpa talking about the cherry harvest with my father. Someone would then come and buy them, and they’d be sold in the markets of Paris.”
By planting trees and bushes, it better project the vineyards from any chemical drift coming from neighbours working conventionally. By planting an array of different species, it will bring extra diversity. The species he is planting include field maple, ash, hornbeam, elm, whitebeam, sorb, white mulberry, lime, willow, peach, pear, apple and—of course—cherry.
“The vine is fragile because we’ve planted it for the sole purpose of creating wine. We must research how we may perpetuate balance for our vines’ ecosystem. If other species of plants and trees can help a vineyard—well, that can only be beneficial.”
He pauses for a minute, then continues,
“We focus too much on what we can see: we see the vines' growth above ground. But that work comes from the microorganisms. We don’t understand enough about soil. The more diversity there is in a vineyard, the more complex a root system under the surface. In turn, this means the vine receives more messages. It is more informed, which means it can better defend itself.”
He explains that when vines grow in this diverse environment, even the wood itself becomes thicker, as there is more vegetative growth; “If you try to make a hole in the trunk, it’s difficult. It's just so dense.”
He is encouraged when looking at how far his own vineyard as come, and when looking at vineyards such as that of his mentor and friend Sébastien, who converted to biodynamics in 2008. Flavien says,
“We also can’t forget the importance of animals. Especially in Champagne, where monoculture has prevailed, we need to introduce an enormous amount of diversity. If we bring back elements of life to the vine, and introduce more species for interaction, then various avenues of diversity will emerge. More diversity means great news for the bacteria, yeasts and of course then—the fruit.”
It is this thinking that has led him to introduce sheep in the vineyards in autumn and winter. They bring diversity through their presence and manure, as well as acting as natural lawn mowers to chomp down the competing grasses.
It’s not just the vineyards that have changed. Before Flavien took the reins, all the Champagnes at Domaine Nowack were produced in stainless steel. Since 2012, they began to buy barrels bit by bit, to the proportion of barrel to steel began to grow. By 2017, the cellar was full of barrels and all the Champagnes were being aged in barrel. Flavien says,
“Winemaking is kept as simple as possible. I intervene as little as I can. Of course, I follow the wines, by tasting and analysing them to see in which direction they’re headed. Then, if I need to, I’ll intervene with racking or battonage. Or if necessary, I'll add sulphites.”
One of the most important changes for Flavien has been experimenting with the length of the press cycle. They use a traditional old wooden press, and he speaks fondly of the process:
“When you think of the word pressoir, you realise there are two words: press soir. Harvests were different back in the day, and people would have parties at night, gathered around the press. It was a moment to exchange and have fun together. These days, we’re entering a period where the pressing method is becoming standardised. People never seem to adapt the press cycle according to the vintage, and well—why not? It’s our first step as a winemaker, after all.”
Refusing to follow a one-for-all recipe, his experiments mean he's introducing short periods of skin maceration.
“I’m doing little maceration trials. I’ve tried six/eight month maceration periods for Chardonnay, too. I read in some old books that the mineral proportion of the grapes are found in the skins, stems and seeds. So, it’s interesting to play around with the press cycle to see what this brings to the wine.”
He is content with how it’s going, and hopeful for the future. This is a young man with his heart in the right place, and one who is obsessed with learning. That can only be a good thing for the region. As we finish our conversation, he adds,
“When I think about the future of our world of wine, I think it will be brighter. We sense that there is a movement; a will to do well and to change. We’re starting to understand things that we didn't before. At the turn of the century, people worked hand-to-mouth. Then, we entered the model of industrial agriculture. But now, it’s about a new intelligence: a new type of research and understanding of plant life.”
It’s one of the brightest conversations we’ve had, and we’re left full of hope, too.