Franck Pascal grew up in the Chatillon area of the Vallée de la Marne, where he now runs a micro-estate of 4 hectares following biodynamic practices. After a short stint as an industrial machine engineer, Franck was ready to return to his agricultural roots. Naively assuming that all viticulture was void of chemicals, he was surprised by his father's conventional practices and quickly decided to study viticulture and oenology to form his own opinion on the matter.
Part of Franck's previous job involved him training the French army for chemical warfare; much to his surprise, many of the pesticides his studies instructed him to use in the vines were derived from the exact same techniques and chemical components used to kill soldiers on the battlefield. This shocking realization led Franck to seek out viticultural alternatives; after experimenting with conventional, organic and biodymamic practices all at the same time, Franck found that biodynamics brought unparalleled minerality to the wines, and decided to convert the entire estate.
At just 4 hectares, the estate is extremely fragmented, spanning 20 parcels over 5 villages. The soils mostly consist of clay and hard limestone, but there are also parcels of clay and flint, pierre melière (the stone used to sharpen knives), marls and sandy limestone. Over 70% of the vines produce Pinot Meunier, with 20% Pinot Noir and the rest Chardonnay. A quarter of the estate is regularly worked by horse, and Franck hopes to increase this over time. Currently, 4 Champagnes are produced: Reliance, Tolérance, Quintessence and Harmonie. Additionally, a small amount of Coteaux Champenois called Confiance is extremely delicious and sometimes available.
This interview with Franck Pascal took place in his tasting room in June, 2013.
Tell us about the estate.
We work 4 hectares in the Vallée de la Marne. The estate consists of my parents' land, as well as my wife Isabelle's. We work principally with Pinot Meunier, which represents over 70% of our production. 20% is Pinot Noir and the rest is in Chardonnay. My initial instinct was to call our various terroirs homogenous, but it wouldn't be the correct term; in our area we are mostly on terroirs of clay and hard limestone, but there are also areas with clay and flint, pierre melière, marls and sandy limestone.
However subtle, I find these soil variations very interesting, particularly in regards to biodynamics. In my early years, I experimented with chemical viticulture, organics and biodynamics all at the same time. We have a lot of hard stone here (limestone, flint and melière), and I can't tell you what it was exactly, but the wines made from biodynamic grapes had more finesse, elegance, tension, precision and finish; you could really taste the minerality, the freshness of the rock. This led me to converting the entire estate to biodynamics. It's a lot of work, and requires one full time employee per hectare.
Part of the estate is worked by horse, because certain parcels are too dangerous to use a tractor. But the horse is also very important for young plantations and newly acquired parcels (the majority of which have been subject to years of chemical viticulture) because the roots are still at a very superficial layer, and the horse -with its softer impact and slower pace- assures they don't get ripped out in their early development.
Your first career deeply affected your viticultural choices. Could you elaborate?
If I found organic and biodynamic viticulture, it's very much because of my past work as an industrial machine engineer. Part of this work focused on military service, where I trained soldiers on what to expect during combat, more specifically the types of toxins and chemicals that could be used to kill them and what antidotes to use.
When my younger brother passed away, I decided to come back to the estate. I already liked wine and always saw myself running my own business, so I thought: "Why not vigneron?". I started with next to no knowledge, and thankfully my father and grandfather were there to guide my beginnings. But I'm the type of person who's always thinking about why things are done a certain way, and how they could be approached differently. So I decided to study oenology and viticulture in hopes of forming my own ideas.
The final stages of my studies dealt with "protection of (viti)culture", which was essentially a long list of chemical products to use in specific situations. A few of the names were really familiar, and I quickly realized that many pesticides used in vineyards were derived from the same techniques and products used in military warfare. I knew right then and there that I would not follow that path; I wanted to focus on keeping things alive.
Had you heard about organic or biodynamic practices before your studies?
No. I came into this thinking that Champagne was a natural product, because that's what everyone in my family told me! I had no preconceptions on how I wanted to run the estate; all I knew was that I wanted to follow my own path and make the best Champagne possible with the terroirs available to me. When I found out that synthetic molecules destroy entire elements of life in the soil - and we must remember that the soil is where everything starts- it felt like I could't make a wine of terroir this way.
Can you trace back the evolution of the estate, and how things have changed over the last three generations?
My grandfather lived in a period where the pressures of viticulture were very different. Back then, the thing vignerons feared most was frost, because it meant potentially losing an entire crop. It was also a time where working the soil with horses was the norm.
By the 60's, mildew had become an increasing threat, and chemical use was beginning in the vineyards. My family started using herbicides in the 70's, at a much lower rate than what is practiced today. I remember my father doing a light désherbage in the Spring. As modern techniques of viticulture became more popular, my father chose to follow these developments, so when I came back to the estate, it felt like relearning what had been lost over the last generation. I really wanted to understand how the soil and plant's interaction to the climate actually worked.
Tell us about the Champagnes you produce.
Currently, we produce 4 Champagnes: Reliance, Tolérance, Harmonie and Quintessance.
I originally named our first Champagne Reliance because I couldn't find a name that wasn't already trademarked by another producer. There wasn't much thought put into the name's symbolism, but over the years I've come to see it as a convivial Champagne, one you'd serve to your friends and family. It brings people together, links us to one another (note: "relier" translated to linking in French). Later, I discovered the idea linking mind and body from a Quebecois customer who is a partitioner of yoga. Before you even begin pursuing yoga, your body and mind must become one. For example, when I decided to start working biodynamically, my mind could not grasp the philosophical concepts, but the results I saw in other biodynamic estates made me feel it was the right thing to do. I was able to find that link to nature through my work with biodyamics. It's the same with vinification: there is a moment where I know everything has come together in perfect alignment.
The idea for Tolérance is different. The wine is a rosé born from Champagne being blended with 6% red wine vinified from Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier from my lowest yielding parcels (40hl/h). Doing a saignée rosé felt like I couldn't capture all of the grapes' essence, so I vinify the Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier as red, then blend. The idea is to show that two wines of different color and style could easily go their own way, but just like people, they can achieve something greater by working together, by accepting each other's differences and creating a new whole.
Quintessence is two words: quinte and essence. The quinte is the name of a musical note, and the essence is in reference to all the flavors and complexities nature has to offer from its terroirs. The symbolism here is that it's the vigneron's job to make music with nature, to put everything into place so that all the notes create the most beautiful arrangement possible. This is also why Quintessance is always vintaged; it is the true essence of what that year has to offer.
When we were in the vines earlier, we started talking about a rolling device you plan to use in the vines. Your reasoning for wanting to buy one was really interesting, and I was hoping we could talk about that.
The Rolo Faca device is based on principles developed in Brazil. It focuses on letting a soil function even in conditions of extreme dryness and heat. In those cases, the thing the soil suffers from the most is hydric stress. 2003 is a great example: the lack of water completely blocked the plant's ability to function, and therefore the grapes could not ripen correctly. This obviously makes you lose a huge qualitative potential in the wines.
Having healthy, productive soils is of utmost importance. This entails having microbiological activity working slowly but surely at the process of mineralization, with the interaction between the plant and the microorganisms of the rhizosphere functioning smoothly, resulting in the plant extracting a maximum amount of minerals.
In the case of darker soils (like ours), if herbicides have been used or the soils have been worked to rid them of grass in times of extreme heat, they will get very dry, very fast. Once the soil lacks proper humidity, the microorganisms cease to function, and the entire biological cycle is halted. So the idea is to keep grass, and use it as a cover or shield for the soil, giving it the shade it needs. This lowers the temperature in the soil, meaning the microorganisms keep functioning.
The catch, however, is that the more grass you leave, the more water it will absorb, which penalizes the vines in a different way. The Rolo Faca is the intermediary that permits us to keep grass without it consuming too much water. It's a cylindrical roller adorned with metallic bars. It is very heavy, and as it rolls on the grass, the bars pinch the grass, thus blocking its circulation of water. So a 40 cm blade of grass is going to be laid flat on the ground and pinched in several places, effectively drying it out. This doesn't stress or kill the grass, it just halts its growth. So you simultaneously solve your humidity issues while avoiding too much competition with the grass.
In these increasingly warmer times, focusing on this type of approach seems much more important than ridding our soils of grass. A major factor we often don't take into account is the fact that when grass is cut, it requires a ton of water and minerals to close its wounds.
How do you feel about the term "natural wine"?
It's a term that bothers me because more and more, you are seeing producers at natural wine fairs who work chemically in the vineyard. This makes no sense to me. I'm also starting to realize that for many producers, I'm not quite sure how they would manage to sell their wines if they weren't pushing them as "natural". The wines are so flawed, so oxidized, so NOT GOOD that that it really helps them out to give them a positive sounding label. However, there are of course many people who work very well and their wines are very good.
It boils down to work practices. For me, there cannot be a single synthetic molecule being used in the vineyard, period. Then there should be no manipulation or additions whatsoever in the winemaking. This of course leads to the sulfur debate: can you add some or is it "cheating"? For me, the most important are native yeasts and spontaneous malolactic bacteria; if you cover these two criteria, I feel you've already achieved something good.
We've been experimenting with the idea of sulfur free vinifications since 2006, and started making small volumes of sulfur free wine since 2008. Much to my surprise, it produced the best wines. I'm still not sure how to approach this, but since you're asking I'll elaborate on my thought process.
I work with an expert in bio-energy, the process of measuring the energy of anything alive to ensure that it is centered. At first we focused on our bodies, but eventually we started applying this philosophy the wines. Every living organism on this planet has had to adapt to its environment, and every cell has neuro-receptors: these permit them to analyze the environment they find themselves in. Biologically, this can be interpreted as the cell's intelligence, and many scientists are convinced that this is what permits them to mutate and evolve. Much of this has to do with electric polarities; when a polarity changes on the outside of a cell, it affects the inside of it, affecting its shape. When a shape changes, its function changes.
This is true on a molecular level, but also on a vibratory human level. For example, if you're walking alone late at night, our bodies are able to sense imminent danger, therefore preparing ourselves for the possible outcome. After millions of years of evolution, our bodies have adapted to our environment to survive. Bringing this all back to wine, the yeast is here to help make wine, so we want to dig out exactly what it needs to produce something precise and pure. By using this knowledge, we can start a vinification knowing exactly how to achieve success. Initially, my mind refused to believe you could make such a wine with native yeasts and no sulfur. But it worked, and those wines were incorporated in Quintessence 2008.
In 2009, we had a tougher vintage in the vines, so I focused on the task at hand. But I returned to these ideas in 2010, this time in barrel AND in a vat with a removable hat. My reasoning was that the vat was much more unstable and prone to oxygenation, so I wanted to see if the wine could actually survive in those circumstances. It was so good I made a special cuvée with it. All this to say that this particular wine is what I imagine a perfect "natura"l wine to be: a wine guided by viticulture, not winemaking.
What do you like to drink?
I like to drink good wine! I define my taste as agreeable and easy to drink. For whites I love tense acidity and when you can really taste the minerality of the terroir. It feels real, it has a soul and you can taste that a vigneron worked hard to make it. I'm not as distinguished at tasting red, but I love finesse, elegance, mastered power and fruit. I'm not a fan of extracted tannin, heavy wines where all you taste is alcohol. I like my wines to be harmonious!
This visit with Franck Pascal took place in July, 2013.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by John Kafarski, Maya Pedersen and Jules Dressner.
We started our visit with Franck by visiting a parcel that goes into Harmonie. For some reason, my professional photographer crew only captured this one picture of the surrounding landscape.
They were promptly fired and replaced.
Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are planted here on soils of marl and limestone. The vines are exposed east to West.
"It's a really great exposition here considering how flat it is. It helps the grapes ripen optimally."
Most of Franck's parcels border neighboring growers' vines, and initially Franck was working up to 2 extra hectares of land just to avoid chemical overlap between rows (keep in mind he only had 3 h at the time). Unfortunately, this backfired, and the shock from convential to biodyanimcs was too much for his neighbor's vines.
"I quickly realized that what worked for me wasn't for my neighbors. The plants couldn't adapt: they started getting very sick and many of them produced next to no fruit."
Franck made it up to them by giving them some of his harvest, and now sells the grapes from overlapping rows to a négociant.
The second and third parcel we visited are in the village of Belval-sous-Châtillon.
Mostly Pinot Meunier here, co-planted with Chardonnay. The top of the plateau is sandy limestone and the coteaux consists of micha-schist. The oldest vines here were planted in 1955.
"The coteau and the plateau are so different that I've started treating them like two separate parcels. I work the soils in different passes and we don't harvest the same day anymore."
Just like at Francis Boulard's, Franck is obliged to have clearly visible AB signs and little white squares posted everywhere so helicopter sprayers know that his parcels are being worked without chemicals.
Franck is in the tiny minority who actively works his soils.
He recently acquired 3 new parcels from his wife Isabelle's side of the family. The estate is extremely fragmented, spanning 20 parcels over 5 villages for a total of 4 hectares.
"One is only 115 square meters!"
That' 1237.8 square feet. The guy who sold it said it was too small to access by tractor, so Franck jumped on the opportunity to buy it. It is one of the many parcels he works exclusively by horse.
"Every time I acquire a new parcel or plot, I go with the horse. If there has been consistent herbicide used, the roots remain very superficial, and a tractor would tear them right out."
1/4 of the estate is regularly worked by horse, and Franck remembers when his grandfather worked all 5 of his hectares this way.
"I remember the mornings after big parties. My dad would doze off and let the horses do all the work!"
The last parcel we visited was a beautiful, isolated plot of Chardonnay planted on dark limestone.
In the tasting room, we tried current releases, most of which were disgorged in either March or May of this year.
They tasted good.
We then drove over to a restaurant by the water and drank a magnum of 2003.
Blanc de Noirs Extra Brut "Harmonie"
Grapes: 50% Pinot Meunier, 50% Pinot Noir
Grapes: 57% Pinot Meunier, 38% Pinot Noir, 5% Chardonnay
Dosage: 3.3 g/l with organic cane sugar
Grapes: 33% Pinot Meunier, 34$ Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay
Dosage: 9.6 g/l with organic cane sugar
Grapes: Champagne consists of 58% Pinot Meunier, 39% Pinot Noir and 3% Chardonnay. A small amount of red wine (6%) is then blended with the Champagne to produce this rosé.
Dosage: 4.5 g/l with organic cane sugar
Vintages: 40% 2007, 60% 2008
Grapes: 20% 2007 Pinot Meunier, 20% 2007 Pinot Noir, 60% 2008 Pinot Meunier