FULL CHAPTER: From the Gate of Champagne

Gilles Martin taking a sample.

Gilles Martin taking a sample.

The first part of this article ran in the Spring Issue of Edible East End. On our website we’re running the full chapter on Gilles Martin in Eileen M. Duffy’s book on Long Island wine, Behind the Bottle.

The bottling line is clanking away, clearly audible in the open white tasting room of Sparkling Pointe in Southold. Gilles Martin, the winemaker, is distracted, leaning toward the clatter. “I can tell if it’s not working by the sound,” he says in a thick French accent. He’s granted a few hours to sit down during bottling season, which at Sparkling Pointe takes three weeks in the late spring; when things are going full tilt, the line can fill 2,400 bottles per hour. “If it’s not going right,” he says, “it goes down to 1,200.” He’s clearly got a schedule, and the three people manning the mechanized bottling line surely know it. They are filling wire crates with the thick bottles used expressly for sparkling wine, strong enough to withstand without bursting during the in-bottle second fermentation that creates the bubbles.

This is the first stage of making sparkling wine. A base wine is pumped into bottles with a small amount of yeast and sugar and topped with a crown cap. The yeast, which eats the sugar and in turn produces alcohol and carbon dioxide, will do its work over the summer. When the wine is ready for sale, the workers will return to the bottling line to expel the dead yeast and pop in the distinctive cork used to top sparkling wine and secure it with a wire cage.

This method of getting bubbles into wine was created, legend has it, by accident by the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon. Less time-consuming and expensive ways of injecting bubbles into wine have been invented since, either by doing the second fermentation in bulk or gassing the wine like soda. Martin calls the way he does it “méthode champenoise”; the Champenois prefer the term “méthode traditionelle,” so jealously do they guard the use of the name Champagne. It’s not illegal to call sparkling wine Champagne in the United States, but a large majority of domestic producers respect the wishes of the French and call their cuvées sparkling wine. It’s a little clunkier but, hey, what are you going to do?

Martin untwists the wire cage on a bottle of his 2005 Brut Seduction, what the French would call his tête de cuvée, a sparkler made only in years that have a certain je ne sais quoi. It’s something he can come close to describing, relying on vague terms that, when they come out of his mouth, sound precise.

“It’s a unique blend of chardonnay and pinot noir,” he says. But what can be unique about blending chardonnay and pinot noir? Were the grapes especially ripe?

“It’s not only the ripeness,” he answers with the slightest hint of impatience. “It’s the quality of the base wine, a balance of acidity and alcohol that reaches that harmony.” And the wine must have the ability to age; the 2005 is nine years old, he points out, and still tastes fresh.

“It’s a unique cuvée that can perform that long,” he says. “You have to have that knowledge and memory to put it together year after year, but in certain years only.” One benefit of growing grapes for sparkling wine on Long Island, he says, is that the climate is not as difficult as it is in Champagne, where the short growing season dictates the style of the wine.

Martin untwists the wire cage on a bottle of his 2005 Brut Seduction, what the French would call his tête de cuvée, a sparkler made only in years that have a certain je ne sais quoi.

Without having really explained his process, he gives up and tastes. “This is very sophisticated wine,” he says. “They never had wine like this on the East Coast.” Essentially he is telling me the proof is in the bottle, stop overthinking it.

Martin was born in Meaux, an agricultural region just northeast of Paris that he calls the gate to Champagne. His grandfather, after suffering the pollution of early 20th-century Paris, moved back to his roots, an apple orchard in Meaux, where he made cider. “The pear is the queen of fruits,” says Martin, “but the apple is king.” The family had apples year round, storing them in a cellar because they had no refrigeration. “There was one, the pomme du moissonneur, what is the word for that, when you cut the wheat,” he asks. A quick Google search turns up “reaper.” “Like Jack the Ripper?” he asks. Not quite. With that cleared up, he explains it was the apple ripe for the picking when the reapers were doing their work.

Wine did run in the family; an uncle was a winemaker who worked in a research station in the south of France run by the government. And wine was always on the table, from Alsace, where part of his family was from, and the rest of the France: Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Burgundy. But the first vineyards he ever saw were in Champagne.

In school he gravitated toward the sciences, biology in par- ticular, and graduated with a diploma in technology from the University of Paris focusing on the food industry and biotech- nology. His first job out of school was at General Foods where they were developing the first sugarless chewing gum. He was happy with the job but wanted to get a master’s. His uncle said, “Why not enology?”

“He was the one who wet my feet in the pommace,” says Martin. So he moved south to Montpelier and its university, where the degree took two and a half years. At the end he was recognized for having written the best master’s thesis in the country—on cold filtration—in a ceremony conducted by President Jacques Chirac. But, he missed it. He was working an internship in Australia, because he wanted to be fluent in English. “It was a bad place to go to learn proper English,” he says, but he did see a side of industrial winemaking completely for- eign to a Frenchman. “It was unbelievable that the grapes were coming from 400 miles away,” he says. Another internship, in Germany, taught about the country’s tradition of riesling. He went back to France for an extended internship at the INRA, the National Institute for Agricultural Research, followed by a job as a consultant in a lab that served 25 wineries in Nîmes, in the south of France.
“My feet were now dark purple with the grapes,” he says. “It was also fantastic that I started in a year that was quite rainy. It was an eye opener. I learned a lot of tricks when it comes to winemaking in a bad weather year.”

Martin was itching to travel, and one of his former profes- sors knew it; he told him about a winery in Virginia, Oasis, that was looking for a winemaker. The lab didn’t match the offer, so in 1988 Martin left for the States, where he would finally settle. (Oasis made the news in 2009 when its owner, Tareq Salahi, and his ex-wife, Michaele crashed a state dinner at the White House.) In Virginia, Martin worked with French wine grapes as well as American hybrids. “It was a beautiful area,” he says, “but after two years, I realized the whole wine industry was in California.” Through his uncle, he had a connection with Roederer Estate in the Anderson Valley, a sparkling wine house started by the French winery Louis Roederer. “I called him and then took my car and drove across the States,” he says. “They told me if I wanted a job to get my paperwork done. I drove back to Virginia and then took a vacation in France while I waited for my visa.” Paperwork in hand, he returned to Virginia, packed his car and drove west.

Martin’s six years at Roederer started in 1990. Even though the winery made only sparkling wine, one year a still wine from pinot noir was so good they released it.

“I enjoyed my time there,” he says, “but have you ever been to Anderson Valley? The people are born there, they live there and they die there, or they move.” While at Roederer, Martin had the opportunity to visit the North Fork, trying to sell bulk wine during an economic downturn. He did some business with Pindar and was able to try some of the wines. “In the early ’90s, it was still a bit rough out here,” he says. “But the ’93s were the first best wines I had.”

Roederer is an independent part of a company that includes the Champagne house of Deutz, and Delas, a winery in the Rhone Valley. Martin’s next move was to Delas; during that time he met his French wife, a linguistics professor at Rutgers in New Jersey. For a few years she tried to find a job in France but could not. Through the industry Martin found out about a job at Macari and started in 1997. “That’s how I ended up on Long Island,” he says.

In 2000, he moved to Martha Clara, just helping out with their sparkling and dessert wines. At the time, not many wineries on Long Island were making sparkling wine. Lenz always has, and so did Pindar. He also started consulting with Sherwood House, where he still serves as winemaker, and Broadfields, a vineyard established in Southold in 1997 that was sold in 2005 to Napa Valley investors and then ripped out. Martha Clara makes all its wine at Premium Wine Group, the custom crush operation in Mattituck owned in part by Russell Hearn. There, Martin started to work with Hearn and met newcomers to Long Island Wine Country wishing to start their own labels. By 2002, he had taken over as winemaker at Martha Clara, where he stayed until 2007. Next stop: Sparkling Pointe.

The vineyards at Sparkling Pointe were planted in 2004, and Martin had a hand in choosing the varieties and clones to plant. Cynthia and Tom Rosicki, attorneys with offices on Long Island, in the Hudson Valley and western New York State, had contacted Steve Mudd, the man who has planted numerous local vineyards, telling him they wanted to plant their own. “Steve asked them what they liked to drink,” says Martin. “And they said ‘Champagne.’ He told them ‘This is what you do. You plant a sparkling vineyard, and I know the exact person you should do it with.
“It was a great idea,” says Martin. “The Rosickis approached me and said they’d like me to make the best sparkling wine; we like your style. No one on Long Island would want to do that. They have guts, that’s for sure. No one else is committed as we are to sparkling wine. And if visitors don’t know that much about Champagne or sparkling, and then they come here? It’s a winning situation.”

Martin and Mudd decided to only plant the three varieties permitted to be used for Champagne: chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. To acquire the vines, the men used cuttings from vineyards where Martin had already used the grapes. “I knew exactly what I was getting started with,” he says. The vines were French clones; early on, Long Island vineyard managers planted clones from California. The years have proved French clones produce better wine in the local climate. The Rosickis also gave Martin carte blanche when they added a winery to the property; he was able to build what he believed was needed to make great wine.

Originally, the Rosickis planted 10 acres on their property on the North Road, across the street from some of the Mudd family’s original vineyards. When Ray Blum, the founder of Peconic Bay and Ackerly Pond wineries, died, the Rosickis added his 17 acres. Next, four more acres of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier—the real stuff, says Martin—will be planted next to the original. Hopefully they will help to add to the production of Brut Seduction, a brand Martin created before he started working at Sparkling Pointe; 2005 is the first time he made it there. That vintage was a roller coaster of emotion for vineyard managers and winemakers alike. By late September, everyone was prac- tically giddy with expectation. The summer had been so hot and so dry; the grapes were pristine, all they had to do was hold on until the end of October and be picked at optimum ripeness and health. Then the sky opened. Starting Columbus Day weekend, it started raining and didn’t stop until a week and 17 inches later; some wineries weathered the deluge, others lost a considerable amount of fruit. It was a good year to be in the sparkling wine business, which can start picking in the last days of August. The early harvest takes into account the desire to keep alcohol levels low; the secondary fermentation, which creates the bubbles and boosts the alcohol content of the wine. But earlier harvested grapes have higher acid levels. Thus, the winemaker must consider dosage, the last addition to sparkling wine made in the traditional method before corking. Dosage is a mixture of reserve wine and sugar syrup designed to fill the space left by disgorgement—the expellment of the dead yeast cells—and to balance the natural acidity of the wine. Martin says dosage is the way to polish the style of a cuvée.

And if there were a word for the 2005 Brut Seduction, it would be “polished.” “There’s a fruitiness,” says Martin. “A doughiness, like brioche. The bubbles are very tiny, ticklish on the palate, but distinctive.” He adds, “There’s elegance, and a balance with the fruit profile, the acidity and aroma.” He credits the traditional method with giving the wine a deep structure due to the yeasty character.
This is where I tell you not to save sparkling wine for a special occasion. Martin and Sparkling Pointe produce a range of wines at a range of prices to serve as aperitifs and to com- plement a assortment of dishes including shellfish, seafood and white meat, like veal and pork. The younger wines have a fruitiness, like the apples of Martin’s youth, but the Brut Seduction has something more. In 2009, Martin entered his 2000 vintage, made before he joined Sparkling Pointe, in the San Francisco Chronicle’s annual wine competition. It took best in class. “There’s a lot of American competition there,” he says. “It really put us on the map.” And the honor secured his place as a premiere sparkling winemaker, which he credits to the time he spent with Roederer and the years he went back to Champagne to help with the blending and finishing of wine for Louis Roederer and Deutz.

“My winemaking style is Gallic,” he says. “I’m French born, raised and educated.