Everyone knows Champagne, the bubbly epitome of celebration, but most people don’t really know that much about it.
When wine writer Alan Tardi first went there he found the landscape ‘mysterious’ and was baffled by the complex process of constructing a cuvée, so much so that he convinced one of the most prestigious producers — Krug — to let him follow them through the entire process for a year.
The result is a new book called “Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink,” which recently won a Gourmand Best in the World award in the French Wine category. We caught up with Alan recently to talk about the book and his behind-the-scene experiences in the world of Champagne.
Social Vignerons: You are known primarily as specialist in Italian wine. What made you decide to write a book about Champagne?
Alan Tardi: Yes, it’s true, I love Italian wines and have lived in the Barolo village of Castiglione Falletto since 2003. But I love many other kinds of wine too, especially Champagne.
When I first started going there, I was struck by the fact that it looks much less dramatic than many other wines areas I had visited. But then I realized that the real drama is deep underground, concealed in the soil and in the cellars, which made me want to explore it even more.
Also, unlike Barolo or Burgundy, most Champagne is a blend of different grape varieties from many different places within the area, and even many different vintages. I became totally fascinated by how some producers can create such incredibly complex and seamless compositions from all these different individual parts. And exploring this became the driving force behind the book.
SV: “Champagne, Uncorked” follows one Maison through the entire process of creating a classic champagne cuvée. What made you select Krug?
AT: There are many great champagnes and many exceptional Champagne houses, and each has its own unique history and style.
But when it comes to the art of blending, no one takes it quite to the level that Krug does. They source grapes from many specific plots throughout the region, ferment each plot separately, and then keep each individual wine separate until it is all utilized. They also maintain a huge cellar of reserve wines going back over 10 years. And all these different wines — upwards of 300 at any given time — constitute the base material for their blended non-vintage champagne called Grande Cuvée, the ‘recipe’ of which must be recreated each year because the wines are always a bit different.
What’s even more interesting is that while Krug, like most other producers, also makes other Champagnes that cost a lot more, including a vintage (in some years) and two single-variety single-parcel Clos, Krug says there is no hierarchy in their range of products. In fact, as I discovered, the non-vintage blend is actually their most important wine in many ways and the most difficult to make.
SV: But Champagne houses — especially prestigious ones like Krug — have a reputation of being very secretive. How did you convince them to let you in?
AT: Well it wasn’t easy!
I had the crazy idea of writing this book and I sent them an email. A few weeks later, much to my surprise, the Krug CEO replied. But that was just the beginning. We went back and forth, talking about it for over a year. In fact, I was asking a lot: complete and open access to all activities and personnel at all key stages in the winemaking process as well as access to all archive material. But there was no other way I could have done it.
Finally, Krug said yes. And I started in the spring of 2013.
SV: So what was the most exciting thing about your time at Krug?
AT: All the people I encountered were extremely generous and open, and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity.
It was a truly fantastic experience and I savored every moment of it. However, if I had to pick the most exciting things, I would say the pre-harvest visits to suppliers and vineyards with Chef de Cave Eric Lebel, and sitting in on the numerous tasting sessions of vins clairs and reserve wines with Eric and his team that lead up to the creation of the Grande Cuvèe (and the other champagnes) for that year.
Oh, and one other thing: seeing the first juice come out of the press on the very first day of harvest 2013 in the Clos du Mesnil!
SV: Wow, that sounds great! But Champagne, Uncorked isn’t only about Krug, right?
AT: No, it isn’t. Of course, I do talk a lot about Krug because I wanted to follow one house through the entire process of making a classic champagne, and that’s the one I followed.
But essentially Krug is a sort of case study that provided a doorway into the entire world of Champagne. Very early on I realized that for the description of the winemaking process to make any sense it would need to have a historical context and a backstory: How did this crazy process develop and why? How does the house of Krug fit into the history of Champagne and how has it evolved from its inception to where it is today?
So in addition to telling the story of the making of a classic cuvée I had to weave in the entire history and evolution of Champagne, from the earliest origins to the present day and beyond.
SV: What were some of the most surprising things you learned about Champagne while doing the historical research?
AT: Well, I’m not an historian and I was kind of afraid the research would be tedious and boring, but that was not the case at all.
On the contrary, I encountered many, many amazing characters and delved into many arcane but fascinating related subjects such as the molecular structure of bubbles, the development of glassmaking (and of Champagne glasses), and the influence of pop music figures, old and new.
SV: What was the biggest challenge about writing the book?
AT: There were lots of challenges but here are the top two:
- One was the sheer amount and complexity of information I was getting, both on my first-hand experiences in the region and in the background research I was doing, and I wanted to be sure I got everything right and explained it in a clear, accurate way.
- The other thing was finding the right structure.
SV: What do you mean?
AT: Well I knew I needed the historical context but I wanted to keep the primary focus on what I felt was most important: the real-life real-time experiences in the vineyards, cellars and tasting room tracking the making of the champagne.
And I didn’t want to use the standard format with the historical background first because I wanted to get right to the action. So I made two timelines, one the history of Champagne and the other the making of a Grande Cuvée, with all the significant events relative to each one. Then I laid one timeline over the other, interweaving them where it made sense, and broke the compilation out into sections and chapters. This means you jump back and forth between the two timelines, but I think it works: the historical stuff informs various stages in the real-time events, and my real-time experiences in Champagne bring the history to life.
SV: You talk about the history and evolution of Champagne, from the very earliest beginnings to the present day. What are some of the most significant developments in Champagne during the past few decades?
AT: Looking over the entire history of Champagne you realize what a vibrant, ever-changing wine appellation this has been from the very beginning. And that holds true today.
I would say that the two most important developments in Champagne in recent times are the emergence of the grower-producer phenomenon and the growth in importance of terroir, both in the ways farmers and producers view the land, and capturing those qualities in the wine. Champagne is no longer just about bubbles and brand.
SV: The popularity of the sparkling wine category is booming right now. Has Champagne lost any of its luster with the rise of other sparkling wines like Prosecco and Cava?
AT: No, not at all. There are plenty of great wines out there, and they come from many different places and in many shapes and forms. Many of them are bubbly and many even use the method and grape varieties that are used in the Champagne region.
There’s room for all of them — especially the good ones. But there is and always will be only one Champagne.
SV: You said Champagne is ever-changing. How do you think it is going to develop in the immediate future?
AT: That’s a good question! One thing is for sure, and it’s major: the map of Champagne is going to be revised in the not to distant future; they’ve been working on it for a while now and the proposed changes will probably be announced within the next 2-3 years.
While the overall boundaries are not likely to change, many good growing areas that were excluded during the original mapping process will be restored and a few others that were included that don’t pass muster may be eliminated. Another possible development is that many producers are advocating for much stricter requirements for the Champagne AOC in order to significantly increase the minimum level of quality. Besides these two things, I think we can expect Champagne producers, large and small alike, to continue to explore better and better ways of expressing particular aspects of their winegrowing area in their wines.
SV: Any final thoughts about “Champagne, Uncorked”?
AT: Yes. There’s only one Champagne but there are a million facets to it.
Historic Grande Marque or small grower-producer, there are lots of wonderful champagnes being made today and there’s always something new to explore and discover. I had a great time researching and writing this book and learned so much in the process! I hope reading it gives people additional insight and appreciation about what Champagne is and where it comes from, both literally and figuratively, that enables them to enjoy it even more.
After all, that’s what it’s all about, right?