Review of Bursting Bubbles by Robert Walters

Yet another book about Champagne? Yes, but this is no encyclopaedia covering a recap of the history of the region, the development of the traditional method and a rundown of the big names of Champagne.

As Walters makes clear in his introductory chapter, Disclaimers, this is not a textbook, covering all aspects of the region and its sparkling wines. It is, instead, a very personal and provocative look at Champagne focusing on a small group of growers who, suggests Walters, have helped to create a new, compelling version of Champagne.

Walters describes his personal journey of discovery, from a somewhat underwhelmed drinker of Champagne with a niggling doubt about its pretensions to greatness as made by the large producers, to the discovery of true “terroir” Champagnes, made by these great growers.

Walter’s thesis is that most fine wine regions – his model is Burgundy – are a celebration of terroir; whereas in Champagne, the vast majority of its most well-respected wines “blend away” terroir in the pursuit of consistency and house style. This argument provides a neat watershed to divide grower Champagnes, made from the grapes of specific vineyards and therefore able to express their  terroir, from those made by négociants and co-operatives, generally made from grapes sourced across the entire region, many of them purchased from contract growers.

The logical corollary of Walters’ argument is that only those Champagnes made from the same plot of vines year in, year out, whose grapes are tended by and wine made by a single hand, qualify for the moniker of fine wine. Is he really arguing that Dom Pérignon is not a fine wine? Or that Charles Heidsieck’s Champagnes are not fine wine? Walters is really arguing for a certain type of fine wine, which excludes these and many other undoubtedly fine Champagnes. He is looking for authenticity and individuality, a union of man (and his great growers are all men) and his land.

Walters feels that when we taste most Champagne, we are tasting winemaking, rather than a transparent wine which expresses its terroir. His kind of Champagne is very definitely a wine first and foremost and, he says, can be enjoyed even when its bubbles have gone, or when it’s served too warm. I feel some sympathy for his position and there is no doubt that his roll call of growers make fine Champagnes: Prévost, Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier, Agrapart and more.

Walters also peppers his book with a number of Champagne myths which he then seeks to explode. They range from the ho hum, such as the mistaken belief that putting a spoon in the neck of an open bottle of Champagne helps preserve the bubbles – no s**t Sherlock. Others are more thought-provoking and original: his argument that blending does not in fact produce a better balanced, better quality wine is a challenge to the very bedrock of our beliefs about Champagne.

The book is engagingly written and will appeal to a wide variety of readers (as long as they have a pretty intense interest in Champagne).

In a disclaimer, Walters states that “this book should not be viewed as an exercise in Grandes Marques bashing” and that “most of Champagne’s worst wines are in fact produced by lower grade growers, co-operatives and small négociants, not by the Grandes Marques.” However, throughout, Walters contrasts the approach, philosophy and wines of the great growers with “négociants”, without making any effort to differentiate between Grandes Marques and others. Walters’ initial assertion is therefore somewhat lost over the course of the book and the impression that the reader is left with is that a critique of the Grandes Marques is exactly what he has written.

This book is a consistently argued account of why grower Champagnes matter and to that extent it is an important book that anyone interested in Champagne should read. I find the need to build up growers (only the great ones mind) at the expense of everything else a little grating, but Walters sticks to his position to the very end. His prose is fluent and concise and he is like an entertaining, if slightly bossy, tour guide to his favourite growers. I would dearly love him to write more.

 

Bursting Bubbles is published by Quiller at £18.99.

 

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