Beyond the Bubbles: the Esssence of Champagne

French Wine Society Champagne Program

The essence of champagne for me is its strong sense of unity that bridges across the regions diversity.

It starts at appellation level; Champagne is the only AOC for the sparkling wine of the region. Unlike other French appellations, there are no regional sub- or micro-appellations – in fact the sub-region does not even feature on the label. This unity at appellation level allowed the ‘Champagne brand’ to go from strength to strength. In fact, the brand is so strong that that it is considered its own category in the wine world – there is champagne and then there is sparkling wine. It is an aspirational category for winemakers and consumers alike because it is perceived as the summit, the ‘El Dorado’ of sparkling wine.

The appellation unity is closely guarded by the Commité Champagne (CIVC), the region’s interprofessional organisation. The Commité Champagne, which is made up of equal representatives of the Champagne Houses on the one side, and champagne growers and cooperatives on the other, makes all its decisions unanimously. Whilst this sometimes means that decisions are slower and often more complicated to take, it also means everybody adheres to them once they are implemented. There is a general belief that the decisions will benefit everyone. A major decision taken every year is the appellation’s maximum yield and production figures. Unlike other regions, the production is partially set to accommodate future wine sales, making sure the market will not be flooded after a particularly abundant year.

Besides defending and promoting the appellation, the main task of the Commitée Champagne is research. The research is focused on producing a higher quality wine and hence covers a wide variety of topics. Some examples are; more disease resistant vines and rootstocks, better practices in the vineyard and winery and better environmental practices. The results are readily available to everybody working in the champagne industry as the aim is to improve the whole of the industry.

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

When we look at the actual champagne wine, the unity is very much expressed by the philosophy of blending. Blending is done three ways: across grape varieties, across villages and across vintages. Around eight out of ten bottles sold are non-vintage blends of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier from more than one village. As the second fermentation process and aging are strictly regulated, most champagne will share common characteristics. Once the champagne is ready to be sold, it is tasted by a committee of professional tasters who decide whether the wine is typical enough of the region.

We also have a certain unity in the soil; the whole of the champagne region has very chalky subsoil. There are variations in the exact consistency of the soil; generally different combinations of limestone, clay, wet chalk, marl and sand. While the differences in soil, microclimate and exposure make for differences in the wine, just about all champagnes have mineral notes and great acidity. Combine this with the fine bubbles from a slow second fermentation at low temperature and we have the main typical characteristics of champagne.

Groups photo St Vincent de l'Archieconfrerie 2015

Finally there is a unity in the history and culture. Life was often very hard in the Champagne region and since the Middle Ages, the winegrowing confréries of St Vincent, provided a system of social security for vignerons on village level. Help varied from looking after the ill and elderly to working in the vineyard and the cellar. Today the confreries still celebrate St Vincent in most villages of the region. The whole industry joins the celebration of the St Vincent de l’Archieconfrerie on the third Saturday of January. It is a day where growers and houses from the whole region celebrate mass together to give thanks for the previous harvest and ask St Vincent for a prosperous new harvest. Outstanding services to the champagne trade are recognized with an annual ceremony and Champagne’s unity is sealed with ‘a flute of the friendship’ and a piece of brioche.

Author’s note: I wrote this article for the French Wine Society Champagne Program Scholarship. I feel this program would be very educational as it it has the world’s top Champagne educators will share their knowledge. Wish me luck!

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Organic wine bashing – why I feel it is wasted energy in more ways than one

AB = allowed to bash??

This morning I read yet another thread of organic and biodynamic growing bashing on Facebook, this time in the so called enlightened “The science of French wine” group. The discussion started by somebody posting a link to a study which ‘proved‘ that ‘both vitality and biodiversity of indigenous yeast populations are highest in conventional vineyards when compared to organic and biodynamic vineyards‘. Interestingly enough, the poster, a wine producer in the Netherlands, failed to acknowledge that conditions of the study were more than a little suspect. In fact the PhD thesis study was split up in 4 parts – which I struggled to relate to each other. The first part dealt with the potential of biomass (earth) to absorb and break down chemical components, the second part dealt with crude glycerol as a soil amendment on microbiological and chemical component of soil, the third part compared the effects of different fungicide treatments on the yeast community colonizing the berry surface and the 4th part studied yeast interactions during mixed wine fermentation. Looking a little closer into the testing conditions of the third part – as it was this part which gave the results quoted here above – I was baffled to see that the conclusions, which our dutch winemaker used as ‘facts’ against organic farming, where based on a one off count and comparison. By this I mean 1 experiment was conducted in which 12 bunches of undamaged grapes were picked on the same day (10.10.201) in two different vineyards of the same region. The vineyards were not adjacent, however they were located only 500 meters apart; one vineyard was organic, the other conventional. After picking the grapes were bagged and brought back to the lab for yeast population analysis. The study contains little details on the specifics of the tests; eg there is no mention as to why the vineyards were chosen 500 meters apart rather than right next to each other; the conditions and time frames of the treatments have not be clarified either, and there is no information on the bunch selection process. In fact all we know is that a one off test was carried on a specific day.

As an ex researcher I therefore really struggle to accept the results of this test as being scientifically conclusive. In my experience and opinion multiple tests preferably conducted over several years are needed to give any scientific relevance to the experiment.

However our poster saw the study (and especially its results) as gospel and countered any argument to the contrary. He described himself as ‘sustainable’ and was joined by several other sustainable winegrowers who all more or less claimed that organic farming was a far greater risk to the environment than their sustainable way. They also sent out the general idea that organic proponents are brainwashed hippies who really do not have a clue as they are driven by conviction rather than facts…

This ‘organic and biodynamic bashing’ is something I have become very familiar with since I have started to write my book. Again most of it has come from a few self proclaimed sustainable growers and winemakers who I believe are frustrated with the organic market. I believe they lash out because they struggle to get the recognition they feel they deserve and/or because they would like to sell their wine at the higher organic price.

It is a fact that most governments recognize that organic farming is more environmentally friendly than conventional farming. In France it is far more strictly regulated and the AB label stands for a better environmental quality. And this is something customers increasingly look for and are willing to pay extra for.

The sustainable farmer however, is not restricted by organic ruling but in return he has to work harder to get the same customer recognition. Even if AB theoretically only qualifies better environmental practices, customers often perceive it as a more generic quality label – probably because most organic products tend to taste better than more conventionally farmed ones. Consumers generally do not mind paying for ‘quality’ they often do not bat an eyelid at a higher organic price. They probably feel the same about a sustainable product if they see it as outstanding, but in my experience people too occupied with organic bashing lack the focus needed to make their product shine and stand out… After all it is hard to excel at multiple tasks – especially if these tasks take up a lot of ones time.

But lets go back to our Dutch grape grower and winemaker – to find the study he posted he probably spent a fair few hours trawling the internet. Once posted, it took most of his time for at least one day to keep the organic bashing debate alive and animated. All the time he spent glued to his computer he was not in the vineyard nor winery; and in my opinion that is where one needs to invest time if one wants to produce an outstanding product customers are willing to pay more for. After all there are plenty of awesome sustainable producers (I include several in my book); but all of them are focused on their vines and wine rather than on the organic competition.

I would like to conclude by saying that in my opinion, a positive happy story draws people in; it makes them want to understand and learn more about why the winemaker works the way he does. Once ignited by the winemaker’s passion, they will want their share of it, by buying the wine and talking about this winemaker to their friends and family. A negative story on the other hand drains people; it makes them want to run away to a more positive place. It doesn’t matter if the story teller is organic or not, what matters is if he believes enough in himself to be positive and passionate about his trade. If all those organic bashing winemakers and grape growers could only understand this they would not need to bash others anymore. Instead they would be too busy sharing their passion, telling their story and selling their wine.

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Charlie Hebdo and our Freedom of Speech

Last tweet by Charlie Hebdo

Freedom of speech is something we writers take for granted – it is a bit like oxygen, we need it to survive, but we never really think about it. That is until it is not readily available anymore, then it becomes the only thing on our mind…

Last Wednesday January 7th 2015, three heavily armed men gatecrashed the editorial meeting at Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people; 9 of the victims were cartoonists and journalists. Charlie Hebdo is a weekly satirical magazine featuring critical non conformist cartoons and articles taking the mickey out of current affairs, religious zealots and politicians. The magazine has often been criticized for being too crude and disrespectful, but the editor and staff have always stood by the principle of free speech. The fact that they eventually paid for their believes with their lives send shock waves through France and way beyond it.

It is hard to be loved by idiots

The killers, Said and Chérif Kouachi, were French Jihadists claiming to avenge the prophet Mohammed – who had often been at the receiving end of Charlie Hebdo’s gags. When leaving the building they shouted ‘Allahu akbar – we killed Charlie Hebdo; We avenged the Prophet’. The killers remained on the run for another 2 days before they were caught and shot in self defense by the French special services yesterday afternoon.

So with this week’s event freedom of speech has suddenly become something very fragile. Even if the whole of the French Press closed ranks with the few surviving Charlie Hebdo writers and cartoonists to guarantee the magazine’s survival, most of them fell short from reprinting the ‘offensive’ cartoons, the one’s which were deemed worth killing for. Surely this would have been the best answer to the terrorist groups; by reprinting the images the message would be loud and clear:“you tried to shut them up, well you failed cause now these images are everywhere”. Besides anything else, for me this would have been the most adapt homage to the slayed cartoonists and journalists.

However, since Wednesday lunchtime I have realized that even though the nation is in mourning, not everybody sees this attack as a direct attack on the freedom of speech. Most of the nation condemn the murders, and most French see the attack as their 9/11. “Je suis Charlie” has become a slogan on social media (#jesuischarlie) and in the streets during silent vigils. Politicians seem to have closed ranks across parties and thousands of people are expected to join the European politicians at the national march in Paris tomorrow. However, why are most people marching? Is it for the freedom of speech, which the team of Charlie Hebdo saw sacred, or is it against the attacks?

Personally I think that a lot of people want to march to show the terrorists that France stands united and is not afraid. Whilst freedom of speech is indeed one of the pillars of the French nation, the interpretation of this freedom is more than a little hazy. The Charlie Hebdo team always knew this yet always stood by this right. I admire their belief and struggle and that is why I will join the march tomorrow.

The Untouchable

But I feel that at part of the nation is not so sure about this absolute right to express oneself, at least looking from the reactions on Twitter and Facebook. I am pretty surprised to have read and heard several people say that “of course we condemn the attack, but in a way Charlie Hebdo asked for it”. In my book no drawn or written provocation, however profound or shocking, justifies the killings. Besides, freedom of speech means that one is allowed to express one’s opinion in writing, drawing, painting or music.

The reactions to the #jesuiskouachi campaign which was launched by other (French) Jihadists to praise the slayed gunmen as heroes is just as intolerant with people demanding Twitter and Facebook to shut down the accounts of people praising the killers. I would like to state here that I really do not appreciate the comments written by the Kaouchi fans, however, in my book, freedom of speech means that they also have a right to voice their opinion in writing or drawing. This is as far as I am concerned the same right Charlie Hebdo had. Trying to prevent them from communicating means that we are curbing their freedom of speech and doing this in the name of Charlie Hebdo feels very wrong to me.

Love stronger than hate © Charlie Hebdo

I am not sure what the answer is as I also do not like the hate messages against the extremist. Hate breeds more hatred and radicalization; revenge is generally more bitter than sweet…

It is not always easy to be tolerant and open minded, especially in the face of these horrible attacks, but I believe it is the only way we can truly embrace the freedom of speech. Or in a picture of Charlie Hebdo, a week after their premises were petrol bombed in 2011, “l’amour plus fort que la haine” (love is stronger than hate)

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#TerroirChampagne #thebook reached its target! Now what?

Terroir Champagne - The Book

On Tuesday afternoon around 6 pm my Terroir Champagne book campaign reached its €10,000 goal which means I can get it published!!! Whilst this made me mega happy – the ride to success after all had not been that smooth – quite a few people pointed out I should write a post explaining why I still need more funding.

And yes – I do need more funding because when one puts a crowd funding campaign together we focus on the bare minimum we need to realize our project. For #TerroirChampagne #thebook project this included the printing costs for a 2000 book run as well as a photography, editing and layout budget. This will be covered with the €9,150 I will receive after Indiegogo and Paypal fees have been deducted.

However, I will need more money to achieve everything I want to achieve. You can still pledge here

As I am talking about the real luxury I really would like to publish the book with a hard cover. I also would like to include illustrations to lighten up the reading. But maybe most importantly I want to market this book so it can reach the widest possible audience.

I know there is a demand for more environmentally produced Natural Wine, including Champagne especially in the North American, Antipodean and European markets (especially the Nordic countries). Isabelle Legeron’s excellent Natural Wine Book did not cover Champagne – because the strictly regulated second fermentation process is based around the addition of yeast and sugar. This means that to date there is no guide book published on more environmentally friendly Champagne and it is also one of the reason I am writing this book. However I need to find ways to get my book to the audiences looking for it, either through marketing or book tours. Both cost significant amounts of money.

I did not include these extra costs as I believe that I can still find ways to raise more money whilst I finish writing my book. One of the ways will be to continue to pre-sell my book, the t-shirt and tours online through www.terroirchampagne.com from December onward. However, since I still have 4 days on Indiegogo I hope to raise more money there whilst the going is good. The #TerroirChampagne project is slowly getting more and more traction, and I want to use this to push the sales to 120-150% of the target. If I can reach 150%, I can also pay myself a little which means I can focus solemnly on getting this book out and promoted rather than having to take every teaching job that comes along. This is why I would like to ask you to keep the buzz going and keep spreading the word about this environmentally focused Terroir Champagne Book.
You can still buy it here

Thank you very much!!!

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Terroir Champagne: my book project through crowd funding

On October 20th I have launched a crowd funding campaign to try and raise €10,000 to self publish the first book on environmentally friendly Terroir Champagne. The tittle of the book says it all: Terroir Champagne: the Luxury of Sustainable, Organic and Biodynamic Cuvees. The aim is to have the book published and delivered by September 2015.

It is no secret that I have long been drawn to Terroir Champagne – in fact it was my love for these wines full of character and soul that drew me to the region almost 3 years ago. Living here I quickly realized that Terroir Champagne’s identity was created in the vineyard. After all if we want to talk terroir, we need to have a living soil. Whilst this seems quite logical I found out rather quickly it is also quite rare in Champagne. This is why I feel that these environmentally friendly produced Terroir Champagnes are the real luxury cuvees of the region, in the sense the word was originally defined: rare, hand made and authentic.

As I visited more terroir producers, many of whom work organically and biodynamically, the idea came to share my experiences and out this often closed world of small producers so others could more easily discover these often generally limited production Champagne cuvees. I first wanted to put all of the info I had online, so I registered the TerroirChampagne.com domain – but something seemed to stop me… As the summer turned cold and grey in August, so did my mood; I got more and more frustrated as to what I needed to do with all the Terroir Champagne information I had gathered… The answer finally came when the sunshine returned in September: the fact that I believed these Champagnes are the real luxury required my findings to be presented in a luxury package. And however great my love for the internet, yet another (paid) site would not do justice… Instead I had started to dream of a hardcover book, with beautiful pictures and illustrations…. I knew however, that if I wanted to stay neutral, I would have to find a way to control the publishing process which brought me to the self-publishing idea.

Earlier this year, in the middle of spring I had received Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine Book. Wink’s remarkable Kickstarter Campaign in March/April 2013 had allowed her to raise around £14,000 to self publish the first English book on Jura wine. Knowing how small the production of Jura wine is and how few bottles are exported inspired me to go down the same route. After all, even if I only talk about a fraction of the total Champagne sales, a big chunk of these wines are exported so we are still looking at a considerably larger amount of bottles that the Jura wine exports.


Having an example of how it could be done worked both in favour and disfavour of my campaign. Positives were that I had a proven model to follow, and I did take inspiration from Wink’s campaign on several levels. Whilst I had to choose a different crowd funding platform (Kickstarter is not available in France) I was greatly inspired by her reward system and video; so much that I decided to include other speakers in the video, just as she had. I am eternally grateful that Australian Fine Wine Importer Ian Westcott, Natural Wine guru Isabelle Legeron MW, Swiss Champagne Ambassador Kat Morse and Author and Philosopher Cain Todd agreed to share their passion for Terroir Champagnes in my video, made by the very talented Onneca Guelbenzu

However, I found out that following a very successful example is also quite nerve racking… Ever since I put my Terroir Champagne – THE BOOK campaign life on Indiegogo my life has been an emotional roller coaster, going up with every pledge only to fall down again as the campaign was quite slow to start. Luckily last week the pace picked up and I am happy to report to be just over the half way mark with 21 days to go!!! Having said this I do realize that I will have to hand sell many more books in the next 3 weeks to make the target and hopefully make a little more so I can be paid too. The target only covers all the costs surrounding the print run of 2000 hardcover books, the editing and illustrations as well as professional photographs. On this last topic I am very proud to announce that Mick Rock from Cephas, the same photographer who took Wink’s pictures; offered to collaborate on my Terroir Champagne Book Project just a few hours after I put the campaign live!!

That is why I have and continue to ask people who are interested in these more natural Champagnes to get behind my campaign and help me realize this project. The campaign will end on 30th November and I really need to collect the target of €10,000 (about US$12,500 or £7,800) within this time frame or I will receive no funds at all and will NOT be able to publish this book… In the case that the campaign would fail (god forbids), everybody who has pledged and supported the project will be refunded.

The video and text on the Indiegogo Terrior Champagne campaign page aims to explain the project and the book content. All donors will have their name included in the acknowledgements of the book. As well as an e-book and hard cover version which you can pre-purchase here for €20 and €25 respectively, I have also put together a selection of exciting perks, which will give you your own inside view into the exciting luxury world of Terroir Champagne!! So please if you can, get behind this project and help me publish the first ever book on environmentally friendly produced Champagne cuvees!! THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!!

For anybody who hasn’t purchased it yet, you can still buy Wink’s Jura Wine Book here

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Natural Wine by Isabelle Legeron

Isabelle Legeron Natural Wine

I very rarely publish a book review here, in fact I believe this is the first time ever that I want to share a book on this blog… The reason is very simple, Isabelle Legeron‘s Natural Wine book completely blew me away. The main reason for this is that Natural Wine gives a very clear overview of natural wine, tackling each and every (mis)conception regarding this often highly volatile subject one at the time. The introduction gives a clear overview of grape farming and wine today – our dependence on additives in the vineyard and winery means that in most of today’s wines the focus is on standardization. But there is another way, and this is the main topic of the book.

The book is split up in 3 parts. The first part talks about what natural wine is, and looks at how it exists and expresses itself today in the vineyard and cellar. After this Legeron touches on how an open mind allows one to taste natural wine and immediately be drawn by its vibrancy and soul – even if these wines can be very different to our preconceptions of what wine should be – before touching on several misconceptions regarding wine faults. The first part ends on the question of health – is natural wine better for us than regular wine…

Part two talks about the Who, Where and When of natural wine. The who are the producers, which Legeron refers to as artisans: they carefully craft their wines. Just about all of them are driven by their love of the land as well as a holistic approach to life itself. A lot of natural wine producers have lost faith in the industrialized ways of farming and standardized manners of wine making and feel they have gone back to the more natural ways previous generations worked in the vineyard as well as in the cellar. However, this does not mean the road to market is as natural. As most natural wines are very individual and unique, the artisans are often treated as outsiders; in other words their wine does not fit in the standardized preconceived box and this means they often have to struggle against their regulatory bodies to be able to sell their wines.
The where and when is all about the different natural wine organisations, natural wine fairs, and shops and restaurants who are vivid supporters of the movement.

In the last part Legeron gives an overview per wine style/colour of some icon natural wine cuvees. For each of the wines she touches on the main wine making principles as well as giving three flavour descriptors. I especially like the last part as it allows us to first pick wines with flavours we like before adventuring ourselves in complete discovery.

It is not only the content of the book which really spoke to me – the layout and the beautiful yet discrete illustrations make Natural Wine very easy to read and very hard to put down :-) It is not often that a non fiction book tells so many stories in such a beautiful way. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will know that natural wine and terroir wines are very close to my heart, so it is not haphazardly that I came to this book. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by what I got out of it – both in terms of scientific knowledge and inspiration. And that is why I highly recommend it for the Holidays/Christmas Season. The recommended retail price is €22.99, £16.99 or $24.99 and the book is available from Amazon.

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One Step Beyond – Franck Pascal’s Bio-energetic Champagne

Franck Pascal's amazing wine journey

At the beginning of June I spent my birthday learning all about bio-energetic Champagne at Franck Pascal‘s. Franck and Isabelle had invited me together with the staff of La Truffiere, a Michelin starred Parisian restaurant, to share their 20 year wine making journey with all its ups and downs.

I had first tasted Pascal’s's wines 3 years ago at the Terres et Vins de Champagne event and I was especially blown away by the vins clairs Pascal presented. As mentioned in earlier posts, vins clairs – or the wine before the bubbles – are not the easiest wines to taste; they are often highly acidic, lacking in fruit intensity and generally a bit thin. However, Franck Pascal’s still wines had body and a vibrant character – and bizarrely enough they spoke to me even more than his Champagnes.

Year upon year it seemed this vibrancy in his still wines increased, and with every visit I understood a little more. And then this sunny day in June when Franck and Isabelle shared their full story all the pieces of the puzzle just fell into place and I saw the full holographic picture :-)

Franck and Isabelle Pascal

It all began in 1994; Franck Pascal decided to give up his career as a chemical engineer in the printing industry to take on the family vineyards. Several reasons had contributed to this sudden change of heart at the end of his studies. When the bright business intern proposed an innovative printing concept he quickly found out that in a corporate environment long term gain was a long way behind short term benefits and that if he would continue a career in engineering this would lead to many a frustration. A second reason was the pull of the family history: a few years earlier Pascal’s younger brother had died which meant the family’s wine making tradition would live or die with him.

Going out on his own initially proved easier than Pascal had anticipated. His university degree opened all kinds of unexpected doors and he breezed through the paper work. However he struggled a bit more when it came to working the vines – with hardly any experience he quickly found out the vigneron trade needed a bit more to master than simple bloodline… Eager to learn more, he embarked on a vine growing and wine making course in 1996 and paid close attention to every little detail – going as far as reading the fine print on all of the products he used. This is how he one day stumbled upon a familiar name on a pesticide; with a little research he discovered it was a very toxic product used by the army to produce chemical weapons. Though he realized the quantities of the poison were significantly lower in the treatment as in the weapons, he could not shake the feeling that continuous exposure would eventually poison him. He thus decided to stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers in 1998 and looked for alternatives in organic viticulture. From 2001 he also started to experience with indigenous yeasts.

Franck Pascal in his vineyard

A year later, looking to find ways to further improve the life in his vineyards he tentatively started to experiment with biodynamic farming, going about it very empirically: he divided up a vineyard in three – farmed one part conventionally, one part organically and one part biodynamically. Very quickly the noticed a big difference in the soil (and other) life in the biodynamic part. The wines from this part also showed more complexity and tension. The move toward biodynamic farming had been spurred by Pascal’s meeting with François Bouchet, a guru on the subject. Bouchet had adopted biodynamic farming in 1961 and became a real mentor for Pascal. In the very hot summer of 2003 his vines were turning yellow in a vineyard planted on a hard chalk soil. Pascal had treated the vineyard with a nettle mixture to resolve the issue, but it was not working. He explained the situation to Bouchet, who advised him to treat the plot with a chamomile solution, told him where to find the flowers and how to mix up the solution. Pascal converted completely to biodynamic farming when he saw his vines turn green whilst he was still treating them – it took just 10 minutes to restore the vineyards health. The chamomile mixture had resolved the heat stress the vines had been suffering.

Bio-energy in the vineyard and winery

The last step – conversion to bio-energy started with Isabelle being diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of 2006. Even though she trained as a micro-biologists and was very aware of the dangers of cancer, she could not come to terms with having to go for chemotherapy. In fact she was convinced that chemo would kill her rather than cure her. In her search for alternative therapies she stumbled upon a bio-energetic treatment offered in Paris and convinced Franck to let her try it. Almost immediately her blood levels improved and the couple actively looked to embrace the bio-energy principles deeper. They enrolled in a course and when the time had come to do the 2005 blends they decided to test the bio-energy principles on their wines. In September, they continued the experience on the juice of the new harvest.

Whilst most of us are familiar with organic and biodynamic farming, bio-energy is a bit of a black hole – at least it was for me… So what exactly is this bio-energy??

Sérénité - the perfect name for this bio-energetic cuvee

Bio-energy is all around us and it guides our natural way of living.The universe is made up of atoms in motion; it is a big energetic field that vibrates. Everything, including vines has their own bio-energetic fields; in the case of the vines the earth’s energy – the energy in the centre of our planet – is responsible for rooting the plants whilst the sun’s energy allows them to grow upward. Grapes, as fruit of the vines, are influenced by both energies. Before harvest, Franck and Isabelle go out in the vineyard to prepare the grapes for the harvest. They inform the vines about the upcoming harvest and the change of energy and form it will bring. When the grapes come in they receive another information session to prepare them for their imminent changing status (from grape to juice). After this, the juice and later the wine also undergoes regular information sessions till bottling.

The ‘information’ session consists of an exchange of vibrations – and vibrations are waves. So if by know you are thinking that bio-energy sounds a lot like some esoteric hocus pocus, it really is not some etheric bullshit reserved for a few ultra greenies or weirdo’s. Instead these exchanges of waves are scientifically proven in the study of quantum physics.

Pascal believes that the use of bio-energy allows his wines to show the true characteristics of his terroir. He sees his vineyards like children from the same family; they have similar characteristics – traits from the area and the winemaker. However just like every child is different from its brother or sister, so are his vineyards – they each have unique and individual characteristics. Pascal further compares the informing of the vines, juice and wines with the individual care parents take for each of their offspring; they care differently according to the child’s needs and by doing so they allow their child to grow up into a wholesome, healthy and happy individual. The same principle can be applied to vines and wines – they all have slightly different needs. When these are taken into consideration the result is a wholesome, unique and vibrating Champagne – with very little additives using very low or no sulfur and indigenous yeasts.

Pascal’s two first bio-energetic cuvees will hit the shelves next month. Pacifiance is Non-Vintage solera blend from the 2006 and 2007 Quentaissance – Pascal’s vintage Champagne. It is a super fresh champagne, characterized by its mineral flinty notes and its amazing texture reminiscent of raw silk.

Sérénité 2010 is blend of Chardonnay and Meunier, vinified bio-energetically without the addition of sulfur – the energy, elegance and depth of this wine completely blew me away. No other wine I have ever tasted has left as deep an impression on me. Only 600 bottles are made so do try not to miss out!

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M is for more meunier and miammiam

Meunier vines in Festigny

Meunier has often been considered the week little brother of the more powerful and structured Pinot Noir, or the ugly wee sister of the elegant Chardonnay. Instead of bringing structure or elegance, it only adds fruitiness to the blend…

When the Champagne appellation was defined in 1927 (and formalized in 1936) – the powers who were at the time decided Meunier was not noble enough to be granted Grand Cru status; this exceptional status was reserved for the noble Burgundian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. When the Grand Cru status was revised in 1988 and a few villages were upgraded to one hundred percent on the Cru scale, Meunier once again was left behind; after all the grape variety is too fickle to guarantee quality when the desired quantity becomes too high. And with quantities increasing in Champagne to meet market demand, it was obvious that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were safer choices.

However the grape variety started to make a slow comeback toward the end of the nineties, when several visionary vignerons saw the true potential of pure Meunier cuvees.

La Closerie by Prevost

In 1987 Jérome Prévost inherited two hectares of vineyard in Geux from his grandmother. The Beguines vineyard had been planted with Meunier (massale selection) in the fifties and the vines had been rented out previously, but Jérome decided to give grape growing a go. He wanted to make a terroir Meunier and went to work for Selosse for a while to learn the finer details of the trade. He made his first Champagne in 1998 under the name La Closerie – Les Beguines. It was one of the first single vineyard, single vintage Meuniers of the region. More importantly it was delicious and it very quickly became a cult wine when it was first released a few years later.

A sample of Sparnacien soil at Champagne Tarlant

Around the same time, Benoit Tarlant also decided to make a single vineyard single vintage Meunier. La Vigne d’Or (meaning the golden vine) comes from an old plot of Meunier in the village of Oeilly, where the Meunier vines – again by massale selection – had been planted on Sparnacien soil by his grandfather in the forties. Only 1000 to 1200 bottles are produced in the years the family decides to make the wine. Unlike Prévost, Tarlant ages the cuvee extensively (ten years); by doing so Tarlant furthermore shatters the myth that Meunier does not age. La Vigne d’Or is a rich and layered Champagne with an amazing salinity and freshness.

1975 Meunier by Loriot

A few villages further down the Marne river in Festigny Michel Loriot has been making pure Meunier for quite a long time. Festigny is considered by many as one of the best terroirs to grow Meunier. Loriot makes two pure Meunier cuvees today: Authentic Meunier, which is a fresh and fruit forward easy drinking Champagne and the more complex and round Monodie en Meunier Majeur, a vintage champagne made from seventy years old vines of the very steep south-west facing slopes of the village. I was lucky enough to taste a bottle of freshly disgorged 1975 Loriot pure Meunier about 3 weeks ago and rather than being old or over the top this Champagne was very vinous, layered and complex with a very fresh finish – proving once again that Meunier can age very well.

What all three growers have in common is that they work well in the vineyard. Furthermore they work at the rhythm of the Meunier rather than at the appellation rhythm. By this I mean they produce less quantity of better quality, harvesting the grapes when they are at their optimum.
This makes for richer, silkier wines – with a texture and structure which often reminds me of crushed velvet. The ripe fruit characteristics and sweet pastry notes Meunier can develop when it is grown and harvested this way are very seductive and pleasurable: personally I find them very miammiam and morish!!

A press load of Meunier at Champage Dehours

A person which has been following this Meunier movement in Champagne closely is Oenologist Anne-Marie Chabbert. She has long been interested in how these rich often vinous characteristics of Meunier will pair with food. This is why she regularly chooses Meunier cuvees for her Champagne a Table project where she works with Michelin Star chefs to create a tailor made menu to accompany the cuvees. I attended a Meunier press lunch at the end of May last year hosted in Le Grand Cerf in Monchenot where Dominique Giraudeau had created a menu around 4 Meunier cuvees picked by Anne Marie. Three cuvees of two vignerons really made an impact on me – so much in fact that I since have visited them on multiple occasions. One of the winemakers I already knew, but having the chance to talk to him in more detail over lunch made me take the initiative to visit him a few weeks later. I have visited Jérome Dehours in Cerseuil several times since as I really like his way of working and his wines.

Dehours makes two single vineyard, single vintage Meunier cuvees: La Croix Jolie and Les Genevreaux. La Croix Jolie is only bottled in Magnum and comes from a very low yielding old vine Meunier vineyard. Most of the vineyard is used to produce Jerome’s Coteau Rouge (Still red wine). The fruit is left to ripen fully – Jerome is always one of the last one to harvest in the Valley – making for an intense, complex Champagne. Les Genevreaux comes from an adjacent vineyard planted in 1979. Both vineyards have poor decarbonized clay soils, which accounts for the rich texture of both Meuniers.

David Bourdaire next to his Meunier Vines

A new and happy discovery for me at the Champagne a Table event was David Bourdaire. We tried two of his Meuniers – one white and one rosé. Champagne Bourdaire-Gallois is based in Pouillon in the Massif de St Thierry, at the very north of the Champagne appellation. His soils are a combination of sand, clay and limestone and Meunier is thriving in his vineyard. His entry level Non Vintage Champagne (Brut Sans Année) is made exclusively from Meunier and it is a very easy drinking fruit forward Champagne. The Meunier in Pouillon has characteristics of rich stewed stone fruit and naturally tastes sweet. David does two versions of this wine – the younger one has a dosage of around 6 grams, whilst the older one has no added sugar added at all. The Rosé is bursting with sweet red fruit flavours and pairs beautiful with red fruit deserts. It really is a very seductive Champagne – and it sets an example of how Meunier can shine as a Rosé as well!

There are a few other excellent Meunier cuvees that I briefly want to mention here. Cedric Moussé Special Club is a mouth watering pure Meunier from Cuisle (Vallée de la Marne). In 2012 he also made a Special Club rosé and I can hardly wait to taste the finished product especially since I was lucky enough to taste the vin claire.
Nathalie Falmet very recently released an exclusive single vineyard Meunier cuvee called ZH302. Only a thousand bottles have been made, and pure Meunier from the Aube is really pretty rare. The packaging is gorgeous and the Champagne is simply delicious.
Benoit Dehu has pioneered one of the most fascinating Meunier projects I know of – he makes a white Coteau Champenois, a red Coteau Champenois and a Champagne all from the same vineyard exclusively planted with Meunier in Fossoy (in the Aisne – Grande Vallée de la Marne). I have tasted all three recently at Origine Champagne, and even if the three wines are still a little too young right now, they are very promising. Again I am impatient to revisit these cuvees in a few years time!
A last Meunier I want to mention here is the very morish Rosé de Saignée by Cyril Jeaunaux. Jeaunaux is based in Talus-St-Prix, at the beginning of the Vallée du Petit Morin. About half way between the Cotes des Blancs and the Sézannais, it is a little haven for Meunier in a sea of Chardonnay.

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Grower Champagne tasting week falls short of becoming the region’s Grands Jours

Terres et Vins de Champagne

Six years ago, a group of seventeen Champenois vignerons created a new tasting concept focusing on terroir and wine and called it Terres et Vins de Champagne. The aim was to show that Champagne can also be terroir wine rather than just a standarized bubbly beverage. To explain the finer details of the terroir the vignerons opted to have their guests taste their vins clairs as well as their Champagnes. They felt that even if it is not always easy to taste vins clairs, it is easier to recognize terroir specific characteristics in these still wines than in their bubbly counterparts. With members from all over Champagne, it quickly became obvious to the taster that just as in Burgundy, there is a vast diversity of terroir in Champagne.

The Terres et Vins tasting created waves in Champagne and far beyond; other Champenois vignernons who also made terroir wines looked to join in on the event and wine trade and journalists noted the tasting in their calendar to organize visits to Champagne around it.

Two years after the first Terres et Vins de Champagne tasting another group of winemakers – Artisans du Champagne – got together and held a similar tasting the day after the Terres et Vins event. Two more groups emerged in 2012; Trait d’Union – which unites grower icons such as Selosse, Larmandier-Bernier and Prevost – decided upon a tasting the morning of the Terres et Vins event and Mains du Terroir de Champagne (originally called Talents et Terroirs de Champagne) created a tasting the day before Terres et Vins de Champagne. Last year several independent tastings or offs took place at the same time, which in France is a sure sign of the success of an event. This propelled me to ponder on the chances of this tasting week developing into a Grand Jours de Champagne style event.

Vins clairs tasting set up - Origine Champagne

Today I am revisiting the same topic because six more groups organized tastings in the same week this year. Origine Champagne kicked off the tasting marathon on Saturday, Generation Champagne, Grands Champagnes and Passion Chardonnay decided all to have an event on Tuesday and Club Trésor du Champagne and Passion Verzenay opted for a Wednesday tasting. The main reasons for the mushrooming effect this year is no doubt the difficult economic situation for Champagne sales and the quality of the audience; a lot of high end french and foreign buyers have become regular visitors over the years, and the tastings have also been extensively covered by the press. In this context, adding a tasting is a relatively easy way to get on the bandwagon; it can provide opportunities to be discovered by sommeliers, importers and journalists who are already visiting the region.

However, having such an intense tasting week may not bring the rewards many of the new organizers had hoped for. Let me explain; first of all tasting up to a hundred and fifty wines a day for multiple days is a real chore, and even more difficult when most of the wines are sparkling wines. Champagne expert Michael Edwards once told me that “after 25 Champagnes the palate is in serious danger of being numbed by palate fatigue”. This means a lot of of people will be very picky as to what they taste rather than taste everything, or alternatively wines tasted toward the end of the day have more difficulties to make an impact and are more likely to end up in a blur.

Lets talk soil - Get Chalky!

Furthermore, a lot of regular visitors have a set perception and high expectations of the tastings.

Indeed, the standard set by Terres et Vins de Champagne six years ago was high and very specific; their aim was to bring home the message that the key to make terroir champagne is the soil. Therefore it is primordial to have a living soil in the vineyard, and allow this soil to express itself in the wines without too much intervention.

The Terres et Vins de Champagne tasting brings home this message loud and clear; all the wines are significantly different, yet all are of equally high standard independent of the official cru rating of the village where the vineyards are located.

The members of Artisans de Champagne, Trait d’Union and Mains du Terroir de Champagne understood and applied the same reasoning for their tastings. This created a coherent tasting concept for the visitors; it made sense for them to attend several tastings to discover new wines and compare notes.

However the new groups did not necessarily follow this philosophy. It seemed to me that a lot of the tastings were more focused on attracting new distribution channels and/or publicity rather than the promotion of the terroir. Personally I feel this will backfire in the end. Even if a lot of the Champagnes I tasted were well made, I felt partly cheated because I was looking for specific terroir wines rather then non descriptive Champagnes. What most annoyed me was I had to juggle my schedule to be able to cover all the tastings and often felt that my time could have been better spend tasting real terroir wines.

Several of my tasting colleagues expressed similar frustrations and I therefore feel that this mismatch of expectations may stimulate many visitors to be more careful in the choice of tastings they want to attend next year. I have to note here that we already saw several important press and trade members only attending a few tastings (generally the 4 oldest ones) this year rather than trying to tackle all of them.

However there were a few very pleasant surprises in the new tastings as some new groups did add extra value – at least for me. I liked the Origine Champagne tasting as it was an easy relaxed way to attack the marathon tasting week. Furthermore most of the group are very involved in getting things right in the vineyard – which showed itself especially in the vins clairs, and I believe they are the next generation to watch.

Passion Chardonnay was the other event which really captured my attention even if it was my fourth tasting on the very busy Tuesday. The reason the tasting enthralled me was that it really showed off the different expressions of Chardonnay in Champagne. It illustrated perfectly the impact the terroir can have on a Blanc de Blancs – eg more mineral and linear characteristics in Avize, lacy and delicate in Cramant, rich and round in Montgeux or powerful and intense in Trepail.

So to come back to my original question, was this tasting week a kind of Grands Jours de Champagne as was claimed by the Club Trésor on their invite? One could argue that we had ten tastings this year which were more or less coordinated as well as several off events and that important members of the CIVC attended most of the tastings. However the Houses shone by their lack of involvement; in fact it seemed that many Grand Marques Chef de Caves had been sent out of the country… Some people have argued that this is because the Houses feel a bit threatened by the terroir movement in Champagne, however I believe this is very unlikely. Even if the interest in terroir wines has accelerated in certain circles, Grand Marques Champagne sales have gained more ground from growers in recent years. Besides several Houses have released single vineyard Champagnes (think Clos du Mesnil or La Folie de la Marqueterie) or limited edition cru wines (eg Belle Epoque Blanc de Blancs, Salon) for a while now.

Without participation of the Houses we can hardly use the name Grands Jours de Champagne. After all Houses are responsible for around seventy percent of all Champagne sales and they are a quintessential part of the Champagne landscape.

And to be honest I don’t think that creating an event like the Grands Jours was ever at the back of the mind of Terres et Vins de Champagne. In all the hustle and bustle running up to the tasting week, they continued firmly to focus on their own tasting which they promoted this year with a few excellent videos. A last video has just been released with highlights of this years tasting and the announcement of the date for next years event – showing everybody that they are still the leaders today. Enjoy the video and save the date!!

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Avant les bulles – an organic story of vins clairs

Author’s note before you read this article – Amanda Reagan accused me of plagiarism because my original title was Before the bubbles – an organic story of vins clairs tastings. She has written an article in 2010 which was called ‘Before the Bubbles’ and is convinced I got the title from here. Very unlikely as I read the article over three years ago and had completely forgotten about it till I got her messages. In fact I got the idea from the french ‘avant les bulles’ (literally translated before the bubbles) which is a common descriptor when talking about vins clairs. Even if I personally believe there is absolutely no value in Amanda’s argument I decided to change the title to get her off my back and prove that I am in no way interested in copying what she has written.


Winter is one of the most crucial seasons in Champagne. In the vineyard the pruners decide the crops of the next season and in the cellar the time has come to taste the vins clairs to assess the potential of the last harvest.

Last year I tried to explain a little more about what vins clairs are and why it is not that easy to taste them, especially for the untrained palate. I wrote about four very different producers to try and give a general overview.

Freshly pressed juice at Champagne Fleury

Today I want to talk about organic vins clairs. Already in my extensive harvest tour I was more drawn by the organic growers; I had been amazed by the purity of the juice. Furthermore, I remember being at Champagne Fleury – the day after the region had been hit by more then 80 millimeters of rain in twenty four hours – tasting the juice which not only showed no signs of rot (even though I had seen some of rotten bunches in the press), there also was no dilution. So I once again realized organic viticulture can produce special grapes and juice, and I was interested to see how this translated in vins clairs.

Overall I got the impression that organic vins clairs were easier to taste; they seemed to have a richer mouthfeel, more depth and more body, and the possibility of how the second fermentation process would develop these wines really excites me. I want to add here that just about all the organic vins clairs I have tasted this year have been vinified in barrel which may add to the richness.

Vincent Charlot showing his Vins Clairs

I started off my vins clairs campaign at Vincent Charlot. I already wrote about his vins clairs last year, but then I had tasted them after several months of aging. The first time I tasted them this vintage was at the end of December when not all wines had finished their alcoholic fermentation yet. Vincent grows biodynamically, and just as in the vineyard he takes his time in the cellar. His wines take several months to complete their natural fermentations and his wines do not go through malolactic fermentation.

I have been lucky enough to taste Vincent’s wines again in February and it was amazing how they had developed, without ever loosing their purity and freshness. This made me realize just how alive his wines really are! His vins clairs will stay on their lees till the summer when they will be racked and bottled for the second fermentation. I hope to taste them again a few times before this happens to confirm my hunch that they will be different again as time elapses.

vins clairs taste better in the rain

Another biodynamic producer I visited is Leclerc-Briant. The House, founded in 1872 had been a pioneer in organic and biodynamic viticulture in Champagne. They continued to work the old fashioned way in the fourties relying on organic farming principels rather than chemistry, and from 1990 they started to work biodynamically. However, certification was not put into place till 2000, and the complete property (30 hectares) was certified by Demeter in 2008. In 2011, after the sudden death of Pascal Leclerc-Briant, the family decided to sell first 17 hectares of vineyard -15HA to Lanson and 2 HA to Roederer – before Roederer bought the rest of the property at the end of the year, only to sell it off again without its vineyards in 2012. The only exception were the the two vineyards attached to the buildings high up the hills in Epernay: La Croisette and La Chaude Ruelle. These vineyards, in total 0.7HA, is where the Leclerc-Briant family began its biodynamic experimenting and they are very much part of the story of the House. In the spirit of the brand, the new owners, Mark Nunnely and is wife Denise Dupré, have decided to continue to limit production only to organic and biodynamic wines also today. For this purpose they have purchased 8 hectares of vineyard which they are converting to biodynamic farming. However as these grapes are not certified they are currently sold to other suppliers. To make their wines they work with Roederer to buy the grapes of a few historical parcels from which single vineyard cuvees are made as well as several other organic and biodynamic suppliers. Not the most obvious choice, but one which stresses the House’s commitment to its roots and philosophy.

Eying out the sunshine in my glass!

The Chef de Cave today is Hervé Jestin, a talented winemaker who is known for his biodynamic practices, in the vineyard and in the winery. Jestin has a rather wholesome approach to winemaking and treats his barrels much in the same way as babies are treated in a nursery. He prefers wines are tasted away from the barrels so no negative energy can be transferred back to the barrels. This is why the vins clairs tasting with Leclerc-Briant was one of the most memorable ever – we ended up tasting the wines in the pouring rain looking out over the vineyards of the Chateau d’Avize. But even the rain could not dampen the joy I felt at tasting the wines who were vibrant and very much the expression of the different terroirs of Leclerc Briant’s growers. We started with a wine from Cramant, then moved on to a meunier from one of the historical parcels of the House; we tried the same wine without sulfur as well and the result was even more amazing. We did the same experiment with a Chardonnay from Montgeux in the Aube and even if the rain did not hold off I had plenty of bright sunshine in my glass!! Needless to say that I am very impatient to taste them as Champagnes in years to come…

Liederick the face of Le Roi Soleil

I returned to the Chateau d’Avize two weeks later to taste the wines of the two brands of the SAS le Roy Soleil who has their headquarters there. Once again Hervé Jestin is the winemaker and his approach to sustainable wine growing is well expressed by the two brands. Victor Dravigny is a Champagne brand where the grapes come exclusively from growers in organic conversion whilst the Folliage Champagnes are certified organic. The idea behind the two brands is to try and convince growers to convert and support them during their conversion which is a very noble goal indeed.

We once again tasted the vins clairs in the vineyards, but this time the sun had come out to play. To taste a vin clair in the vineyard where the grapes have actually been grown is a mind blowing experience; it adds an extra dimension to the wine, at least for me. We tried several wines with and without sulfur – which really is a very interesting experiment. Whilst some of the non sulfur wines were a little reductive, they opened up a lot quicker and showed more depth and purity. The final goal for the company is to make exclusively organic Champagne without the use of sulfites.
Both brands have made their first baby steps in the market recently and I believe the Champagnes will quickly receive the recognition they deserve.

A wee vins clairs party at Vincent Laval

I cannot talk about organic vins clairs of the 2013 vintage without mentioning Vincent Laval, the vigneron I visited several times last harvest. I knew before I arrived that the wines would be awesome – which may sound a little pompous and pretentious. However I had based this gut feeling on two very solid facts – firstly the juices I had tasted straight from the press last harvest, and secondly I had already tasted vins clairs with Vincent in previous years :-) Pompous or not, I was right – the vins clairs were amazing and as an added bonus I got to taste with 5 good looking Spanish guys and David Léclapart!!

Having tasted the grapes before harvest and then the juice, I recognized the parcels and loved the way the vins clairs reflected the original characteristics in a more developed way - a bit like a toddler turned into a teenager. I know I have to be patient but I KNOW these wines will turn into amazing adults with a definite WOW factor!!

Emmanuel Brochet drawing some vin clair

A last person I want to mention very briefly in this article is Emmanuel Brochet, another organic grower from a small wine growing village at the outskirts of Reims. Villers-aux-Nœuds only has around 40 hectares of vines today, but before the phyloxera crisis the village counted around 200 HA of vineyards. After the crisis, a lot of growers were reluctant to go back into vines, and instead opted for other agriculture crops or to have their land converted to housing plots.

Emmanuel’s ancestors were all round farmers, and when part of their land was put back into the Champagne appellation in 1962 they leased the land on which a vineyard was planted. In 1997, when the lease was up for renewal, Emmanuel decided to keep the land and have a go at grape growing. This makes him the first grapegrower/winemaker of the family, something which is quite rare in Champagne. Equally rare is the fact that his 2,5 hectares of vineyard are one large plot of land. His vineyard is located on the slopes of Mont Benoit and is planted with Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay. The oldest vines are still the originals, planted in 1962.

We tasted 4 vins clairs starting with the reserve wine – a solera in tank renewed by 1/5th every year – consisting of a blend of the 3 grape varieties. After this we tasted the 3 varieties out of barrel. Emmanuel wanted to show us that the wines resembled each other – in other words that the terroir characteristics overpower the varietal ones. For me this was a real revelation – partly because I had never had the opportunity to taste to taste 3 varieties from the same vineyard in vins clairs before and partly because we are almost ‘brainwashed’ into thinking in terms of varietals, always looking for generic varietal expressions.

My visit to Emmanuel had been completely impromptu – I tagged along with David and the Spanish guys after visiting Vincent – but it proved to be of enormous importance to me as it gave me yet again more proof that (micro) terroir really is significant in Champagne!!

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