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Tasting One Man’s Experience: The Champagnes of Agrapart et Fil

“Lots of winemakers want to have an easy life,” says a grizzled and clearly muscular Pascal Agrapart. “Not me. I want to go work in the vineyard and I’m not asking what time it is. If the sun is shining, I’m in the vineyard, it doesn’t matter what day. Weekends too. This is what you do if you work the soils. If I used a lot of chemicals, I would have much more time.”

As he talks, he gestures with hands that clearly belong to a farmer — thick and callused, with dirt still under the fingernails. He’s been apologizing for his English all morning, as we tromped through his grand cru vineyards in the little town of Avize, but what we’ve seen hasn’t required much explanation. His vines are meticulously cared for, the cover crops that he grows recently turned under the soil, and the displeasure he feels about his neighbors use pf pesticides and herbicides so close to his vines quite visible on his sun-worn face.

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When we finally taste his wines, the apologies cease, and he becomes much more at ease, content to let his wines do the talking. And they do.

“My great grandfather made wine in Avize,” says Agrapart, who can trace his family’s roots as winegrowers back to early in the 19th century. “My father, Pierre started with 4 hectares [10 acres] and during the fifties and sixties he expanded the vineyards. I took over in 1980.”

Agrapart grew up and went to school for winemaking in Avize, which is the most prominent local school for winemaking. When he took over the family domaine, the family had cobbled together 25 acres of land over 50 separate plots in the Cote des Blancs, both in and around the town of Avize, where they live, but also in neighboring villages of Oger, Cramant, Oriy, Avenay Val d’Or, Bergères les Vertus, and Mardeuil.

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Agrapart is a big fan of older vines, and is content to achieve lower yields rather than replace his older plants. His vines average 40 years of age across his many small plots. He farms organically, proudly owning what appears to be the only compost pile in the town, a big (beautifully) messy pile between the vineyards that he says amuses most of his neighbors, who don’t see the point.

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Most people also don’t see the point of including the heritage grapes of Petit Meslier and Pinot Blanc in their vineyards and wines, either, but for Agrapart that’s a tradition that’s worth keeping.

“I don’t want to change things from what my grandfather did,” says Agrapart. “Everyone else says they want to change and improve, but I don’t want to change.”

“My work is the work of terroir,” he continues. “I work the soils to make the roots go deep because that is where the expression of the soil comes from. I make a vintage wine every year, and I think that the particularity of the vintage each year, 75% comes from the soils and the sub soils, and 25% comes from the weather and the leaves. If the roots are deep, you express the terroir.”

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Compare: Agrapart’s organic vineyards on the right. On the left, a heavily treated neighbor’s vines.

Agrapart strongly believes in making sure his soils do not get compacted (one of his parcels is worked by, and named for his horse Venus), and do not see chemicals of any kind, except in emergencies.

“I am not certified organic because if there is an emergency I want the chance to save my fruit with a chemical treatment,” he says. “I had to do that 2 years ago with the horrible rain.” But such treatments are rare for Agrapart.

In keeping with his organic orientation, Agrapart also maintains a fairly strict, non interventionist approach in the cellar. All his wines go through their initial fermentation with indigenous yeasts (including malolactic fermentation for most of his wines), and age for longer than the minimum requirements on their lees in the bottle.

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“I like to keep all my parcels separate if I can during fermentation and elevage,” says Agrapart. “I like to blend them later.”

His blending is selective and careful, with an eye to expressing more specificity of place than is typical in Champagne. His “Les 7 Crus” is the only wine that adheres to the typical model of Champagne as a blend that spans many different sites. His other wines are always expressions of a single soil type across several similar parcels.”

“If I blended all my parcels, I would have a good wine, but just a wine,” he explains. “The terroir is important. Champagne comes from the soil.”

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Agrapart’s wines have a dynamism and a distinctness to them that lends credence to his passionate interest in expressing place in a way that is fundamentally un-Champagne-like, but perhaps none so much as the electrifying oddity that is his Cuvee Experience.

He explains it like this:

“This is the only Champagne in the world that is really 100% wine.”

Huh? I wonder for a moment whether he is about to leap off the deep end into some seriously dogmatic natural winemaking bullshit, but seeing my puzzled face, he smiles and patiently explains in his broken English until I understand what he is saying, and by the end I astoundingly believe him to be correct.

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To understand the uniqueness of this wine, you need to understand how Champagne is made. Here’s the short lesson: grapes are harvested at high acidity levels and low sugar levels, and then fermented into a still (non-sparkling) wine that is referred to as vin clair. Sometimes even at this point, winemakers add sugar to the fermentation, a process known as chaptalization, the first addition of a non-wine substance (though many add a sugar that is essentially syrup extracted and concentrated from grape must).

Once the wine is finished fermenting, winemakers usually put it into a big tank, and to this tank they add yeast and sugar. But they don’t just dump packets of dry yeast into the tank. Instead they have prepared the liqueur de tirage, a smaller tank of wine, dissolved sugar, and yeast hydrated with water, which they then pour and stir into the tank of their vin clair. There’s your second addition to the wine.

This yeast and sugar produce the bubbles that we all know and love through a secondary fermentation. After an appropriate amount of time, the bottles are disgorged, a process which involves ejecting the leftover yeast particles from the bottle (along with a tiny bit of the wine). Then quite often, the final addition to the wine is made in the form of liqueur de dosage, a combination of sugar and (often older, reserve) wine whose purposes include both adding complexity to the wine, as well as balancing out the high acidity of the wine. That’s your third addition to the wine.

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“All Champagnes, including my other wines, are between 3% and 6% something other than grape juice,” reiterates Agrapart. “But not this wine.”

Agrapart, perhaps in a fit of what some call madness, but what others might eventually recognize as genius, decided one day that he wanted a wine that was pure grape juice and nothing else. So he decided to try something that most winemakers would never attempt, if only because it forces them to do their two most stressful, high-labor pieces of work, at exactly the same time.

Here’s how it works. Agrapart makes his vin clair the same way he always does. But then in the middle of harvest, he presses fresh grape juice from the next vintage (which naturally contains about 24 grams per liter of sugar), mixes that with his yeast, and mixes it into his vin clair, which he then bottles under a cork (rather than the usual crown cap used for the secondary fermentation). After suitable amount of aging, he disgorges the bottles by hand, and puts their final cork in, with no additional dosage whatsoever, yielding what might be called the “purest” Champagne ever made.

“It’s quite difficult to bottle right in the middle of harvest,” says Agrapart, grinning with the acknowledged understatement. “People thing I am crazy. They have a difficult time understanding everything I do, but especially this. I do not follow the logic of Champagne.”

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Agrapart makes a mere 600 bottles of his Cuvee Expression every year.

“I do not want to make all my wine with this process, but I want to understand my wine better, and I do it with this wine. I think if you add a lot of different things, the wine is different. And when I think about it, perhaps if you add less sugar that is better. And if you add less water, that is better.”

“I make wine for me, that I like, never for marketing” says Agrapart with a shrug. “If after, the customer likes, that is good.”

Yes it is.

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NV Agrapart & Fils “Les 7 Crus” Champagne Blend, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale gold in the glass with fine bubbles, this wine smells of greengage plum and sea air. In the mouth, bright green apple, greengage plum, and sea air mix with a coarse mousse to deliver a very crisp, green and mineral aspect on the palate. Excellent acidity and length. 90% Chardonnay, 10% Pinot Noir. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $44 click to buy.

NV Agrapart & Fils “Terroirs” Blanc de Blancs, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Light greenish gold in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of bright apple and anjou pear. In the mouth, bright and round flavors of apple and pear and unripe berries mix with nice mineral qualities and a faint saline kick at the end. A blend of 60% from the 2010 vintage and 40% of 2011 from 4 grand cru vineyards. Average vine age of about 30 years. 100% Chardonnay. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

NV Agrapart & Fils “Complantee” Extra Brut Champagne Blend, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of unripe berries, green apple, and bit of lemongrass. In the mouth, a bright voluminous mousse carries tangy flavors of berry, apple, and exotic citrus across the palate. A blend of 20% 2010 and 80% 2011 wines, made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Pinot Blanc, Petit Meslier and Chardonnay. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $73. click to buy.

2008 Agrapart & Fils “Mineral” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale gold in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, lemon pith, and sea air. In the mouth, a soft silky mousse delivers very vinous, tangy flavors of green apple, lime, and wet chalkboard all strained through a kelpy, bright, seawater. A blend of two parcels, once from Avize vinified in tank, one from Cramant vinified in barrels. Both parcels of 100% Chardonnay are from extremely chalky soils. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $100 click to buy.

2008 Agrapart & Fils “Avizoise” Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale gold in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of sea air and dried apples. In the mouth the wine has an expansive, tangy quality with sour apple, grapefruit, and dried tropical fruits delivered on a wave of soft mousse. In the finish the wine narrows to sea air and wet chalkboard and a dried chrysanthemum character that is quite fine, with a salty aftertaste. Gorgeous. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125 click to buy.

2008 Agrapart & Fils “Vénus Cuvee” Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold in color with fine bubbles, this wine smells of Fuji apples, sea air, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth wonderfully saline flavors of Fuji apple, dried apple, greengage plum, and kelp flavors have a bright tangy, juicy quality that is stunningly delicious. Delicate, balanced, and mouthwatering. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $190 click to buy.

NV Agrapart & Fils “Experience Cuvee ’07” Brut Nature Blanc de Blancs, Avize Grand Cru, Champagne, France
Pale greenish gold in color with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, green apple, and greengage plum with just a hint of sea air. In the mouth, deeply mineral chalky flavors of tangy green apple and greengage plum mix with sea air. Great acidity and stony length have a cistern-like resonance and depth. Mouthwatering and profoundly stony. 12.5% alcohol. Zero dosage. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $245 click to buy.

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