Terroir in Champagne:fact or fiction?

A few weeks ago I attended the third International Sparkling Wine Symposium in London. Sparkling wine producers, sommeliers and expert journalist gathered at Denbies Wine Estate to discuss the state of the Sparkling Wine Industry. In an ever more competitive alcoholic beverage market, the future for bubbly seems rosy; sparkling wine consumption is on the increase. It seems the category has been very successful in seducing new wine drinkers all over the world. One of the pulling factors seems to be the diversity in the category. Essi Avallan, MW, and the author of the latest edition of Tom Stevenson’s revised ‘World Encyclopedia of Champagne & Sparkling Wine’ illustrated this diversity in the opening tasting of the Symposium, which included rarities such as a Chilean Sparkling Pais, a Slovenian and Serbian Sparkling, the brand new Domaine Chandon India bubbles, as well as some more traditional sparkling wines. All wines were produced according to the classical ‘méthode traditionelle’ or second fermentation in the bottle method which was first introduced in Champagne almost 3 centuries ago.

The tasting was extremely interesting as it gave a great overview of what exciting projects are being undertaken in the fringes of sparkling wine world. I was particularly happy to see that the two Champagne’s Essi had chosen – the excellent Tarlant La Vigne d’Or 2003 (single vineyard 100% Meunier) and Henri Abelé Le Sourire de Reims 2002 were both terroir driven wines.

It was furthermore obvious from the day’s previous sessions that everybody was at least a little convinced that terroir does matter in sparkling wine . I say this as it seemed that the whole symposium was about finding alternatives to Champagne – which is still considered to be the holy grail of sparkling wine.
If the method of production and often the grape varieties used are similar this can only mean that terroir does matter as the unique combination of growing conditions, soil structure and weather in Champagne seems to be adding the extra special fairy dust or Champagne magic. In an attempt to unravel this magic
Richard Smart underpinned his presentation on ‘The present and future sparkling wine producing areas in the world’ with climatic data to compare other regions with Champagne today and speculated on how global warming could bring a new sparkling wine mecca in New Zealand’s South Island.

Part of the reason I had decided to travel to the UK and attend the Symposium was this focus on terroir and in particular a specific session on terroir in sparkling wine. But unfortunately this session was a complete wash out. Instead of Tom Stevenson chairing a real real debate on the role of terroir in the elaborate sparkling wine making process – something he must at least slightly believe in as he seems to have different criteria to rate Champagne than the ones used to rate to other sparkling wines – the session consisted of 3 presentations on whether or not‘terroir is the most important factor to produce quality sparkling wine’. This completely baffled me as this exercise seems just as surreal as designers giving presentations on the fact that the color yellow is the most important element in making green… By this I mean that the speakers focused on something completely unrealistic – ie trying to define the most important factor in a very complex composition. Composition by definition means that several elements are needed for the end result and when one tries to dull a composition down to one element one is completely missing the point as far as I am concerned…

Terroir Champagne Tasting at ISWS

Anyway, many of you will know that I strongly believe that terroir can play a role in sparkling wine and more specifically in Champagne. This is why I felt that the Symposium would be a perfect place to hold my first ever ‘Terroir Champagne’ tasting. This tasting was an intro to the Champagne Terroir project I will publish in April 2014 – where I speak about all the different terroir wines in Champagne.
For this first tasting I had picked 18 wines from different producers spread out over the whole Champagne area. Every producer I had picked works in a sustainable way in the vineyard focusing on making a living wine which expresses the essence of the place where it came from. Most of the wines I presented were either single vineyard wines, or the expression of a specific cru (village); only two wines were a blend across a few villages with similar soil compositions.

The idea was to show the differences and possible variety in the Champagne region by tasting an audience of sparkling wine experts traveling from south to north through the region. Over the last two years I spent here in Hautvillers I have realized that most renowned Champagne experts are not necessarily familiar with the diversity available in Champagne.

First of all most experts do not live in Champagne but only visit sporadically. Many of them do not speak French and generally they are most familiar with the large Champagne Houses (and their Cuvée Prestige) who dominate the export markets. By default this means that they have very little experience of single village (mono-cru) and single vineyard Champages. Most experts believe that there are common characteristics in Champagne (chalk soil, climate, hillside vineyards…) which make its wines stand out from the other regions but very few of them have a good understanding of the variety of terroirs in the region. It is a fact that even if Champagne’s terroir diversity is not dissimilar from Burgundy’s ‘climats’, that the prevailing idea has been that variety is less important as it will disappear in the blending process to divulge the House or vintage style. Whilst all of this applies for most of the prestigious Grand Marques, quite a few Vignerons Indépendants have chosen a different path and are choosing to make terroir wines – wines with a certain identity and footprint of the place they come from. This takes nothing away from the brilliant blending techniques of the great Chef de Caves – the wines they have created over the years have made the reputation of Champagne. However this more recent trend of making terroir wines is yet another way for Champagne to wine over and excite new consumers.

Posted in Caroline's Champagne, Champagne, terroir | Leave a comment

French Police: Friend or Foe?

Local Police Logo

On Friday it was the fourth International Champagne Day, and the group of Terres et Vins de Champagne Vignerons had organized a small event in the Glue Pot in Reims to let people discover their wines for a small fee. It was a magical evening, with lots of laughs and great wines and I cherished the opportunity to catch up with friends. However, for me the evening would end rather traumatically.

When I wanted to leave I realized my wallet was stolen… After I had double checked with the management of the Glue Pot to see if nothing had been handed in I decided to go to the police station to declare the theft and do the necessary to block my bank cards. Little did I know that this would be the worst thing to do…

Police at the Reims station drinking coffee early Saturday morning

Police at the Reims station drinking coffee early Saturday morning

When I arrived at the police station I first waited for about 5 minutes before a police officer drinking coffee appeared. He promptly refused to take my complaint because I had consumed alcohol and told me to come back in the morning. When I told him I wanted at least to cancel my cards I was given a phone number which I called from the Reims police station.

This is when things escalated a bit – the American lady who was cancelling my visa card told me to go to the police office – when I told her I was at the police office but that they did not want to help me she asked to speak to the police officer. The police officer refused and became abusive calling me all kind of names. Once I had finished the phone call I retaliated and told him that as a police officer he is supposed to protect the weak rather than insult them. He really did not like this and came out from behind the desk to hit me across the face. I fell to the ground, got up and tried to take a picture of him which further enraged him. He hit me again, I fell again, and another police officer tried to get my phone off me by nearly breaking my hand. After that they pushed me behind a door and a woman took me in a headlock trying to force me to release my phone.

8 cm by 4 cm bruise on the inside of my right arm

All of this made me panic and I had an asthma attack. The fact that I was coughing violently did not stop the other police officers from beating me. When I begged for ventolin they refused and continued to drag me across the floor. My asthma got worse and worse till I lost consciousness. I remember them shaking me telling me to get up but could not move and after that everything went black. When I came by, still coughing, 4 police officers were putting me into a van to take me to the hospital and one of them finally gave me some ventolin.

At the hospital they saw my blood pressure was too low, as was my blood sugar level so I was made to drink a very sweet drink before they gave me the nebulizer. I waited about 1 hour for the doctor who checked my blood sugar level again and listened to my lungs. She told me to keep the ventolin on me at all time as well as some sugar and told the police officers they same. When I got back to the station just before 8 am I was thrown in a cell – without ventolin nor sugar – and told I had to stay there for 6 hours. At 11.30 ( a mere 3,5 hours later) I started to cough violently again so the officer on duty let me out and told me I was free to go…

The experience was horrifying and totally futile. I have a 2 page doctor’s report listing all the bruises on my body and a prescription for an x-ray of my hand. According to the doctor, the gravity of the injuries I received justify me prosecuting at the police court. After talking to the Gendarmerie this morning I was told I can press charges but that the police would probably argue they had to lock me up for being drunk & disorderly which means my charges would not go very far and would more than likely result in further abuse from the police. The Gendarme did admit that as the police officers never took an alcohol test (which they should have done to be able to lock me up) they would have difficulty to really prove I had been drunk. Needless to say I have decided not to press charges as I am still aching everywhere from the previous abuse.

Whilst I admit I probably should not have visited the police in an inebriated state, I was the victim of an assault (ie my wallet was stolen) and was entitled to some respect and to the claim being registered. The latter was again refused by the police officer (same as I had seen in the night) the next morning on the basis that they could not take a claim without my account numbers – which is not accurate according to the Gendarmerie.

This is not the first time that I have been victim of a crime in France. In the 23 months that I have lived here I had my car broken into, had my number plates stolen, two guests of mine have had their car broken into and a friend had a bag stolen. Quite a few incidents for such a short time living in a rural area… None of these crimes have ever resolved – in fact I have had no follow up on any of them. Which makes me wonder why the police does not concentrate their efforts on crime prevention rather than beating up innocent people??

The Place d’Erlon in Reims is a pretty touristy place and seems to be a hub for pick pockets. My friend ‘s bag was stolen here in December last year and I overheard the police officers say that there is about 1 wallet an hour stolen here. Yet I did not see one police officer out patrolling here… I arrived at 9.40 pm, went to collect some Champagne around 11.30 pm and of my time at the Glue Pot I must have spend half the time outside so I had a lot of opportunity to see the police if they would be out there. However, as it rained heavily for most of the night it seemed they preferred to remain at their headquarters – a mere 500 metres from the Place d’Erlon… There was enough staff on duty as I saw at least 10 different officers when I arrived at the police station.

Furthermore, when I was escorted to the hospital I went with four officers – all of which stood around doing nothing whilst I was been seen to. Four people to go with an asthmatic who has fainted to me is more than a little overkill especially if no-one is out patrolling known crime areas…

When one looks up the main raison d’etre of the local police force the definition is as following:” la police municipale a pour objet d’assurer le bon ordre, la sûreté, la sécurité et la salubrité publiques.” which translates as The local police force main role is to maintain law and order, security and public safety. One of the points detailing exactly what this entail states that the police should prevent known incidents by taking all necessary precautions. Surely this means they should have at least a little focus on deterring pickpockets at the Place d’Erlon??

My experience made me believe that the French police really does not care about catching the bad guys – they just want an easy life and a few people to vent their frustrations on. In a climate like this crime obviously flourishes and citizens are left to fear not only an increasing amount of criminals, but an also increasingly more corrupt police force…

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#ChampagneHarvest13:the making of Rosé de Saignée

Rosé Champagne

Rosé Champagne

Rosé Champagne is a small but growing part of the market and in the last twenty years it has become part of the portfolio of just about every Champagne producer. Most Champagne rosés are made by adding a small percentage of red wine to white wine at the blending stage and are thus called rosé d’assemblage. If mixing red wine with white to get pink is totally accepted and even the standard here, Champagne is the only place in the world where this is allowed.In fact it makes perfect sense considering Champagne is very much a blended wine anyway.

However, everywhere else in the world still or sparkling rosé is made by allowing the juice to macerate on the skins for a period of time; in other words it is made much in the same way as red wine is made, with a shorter maceration period. Once the desired colour has been achieved the juice is ran off the skins and the resulting wine is called rosé de saignée.

Even if rosé d’assemblage is the norm here, there are a few Champenois producers who prefer to produce their rosé in the traditional way using the maceration method. This is not always an obvious choice as to make rosé de saignée one needs healthy ripe grapes, which means the grapes are often sorted again before they are destemmed and crushed. It is also more difficult to control the colour and tannin structure, which should not be too obvious if we want the wine to remain elegant after the second fermentation.

Pinot Noir grapes at La Grange

Pinot Noir grapes at La Grange

Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy is very much known for his innovative style of rosé de saignée. In fact he makes two different saignée champagnes, one is made from a 100% Pinot Noir, whilst the other one Blanc de Rose is made by co-fermenting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Geoffroy was the first person in Champagne to commercialize a co-fermented rosé de saignée and the wine is very sought after today.

Jean-Baptiste called me the day he made his Blanc de Rose to ask me if I wanted to come and have a look. I jumped at the opportunity as the Blanc de Rose is one of my all time favourite rosé Champagnes, characterized by an amazing fragrance and elegance.

Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy organises the grapes in his rosé vat

Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy organises the grapes in his rosé vat

This year the grapes for the wine came from two vineyards in Hautvillers – the Chardonnay was picked in the morning on the steep slopes of the La Montagne vineyard, whilst the Pinot Noir was picked in the afternoon in the flatter La Grange area. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir bunches were fully ripened, very flavoursome and rather small. I visited the La grange vineyard and was struck by the fact that in between the Pinot Noir plants there were many Chardonnay plants. Jean-Baptiste’s father – René Geoffroy – had replanted the vines that had died in the severe frosts of 1985 with Chardonnay. Because of this I think the percentage of Chardonnay in this years Blanc de Rose is slightly higher than normal.

making Blanc de Rose

making Blanc de Rose

Jean-Baptiste uses large oak vats, which are closed off with a wooden lid during the 2 day maceration period. In order to better filter the wine (the vats have no filter) he makes a filter from bark twigs which he places in front of the exit trap, and a second filter is formed naturally by not destemming the first 10 cases of grapes in the vat. These grapes are once again placed in front of the trap, with a little help of the winemaker who jumps into the vat to manually do this. The next 40 cases are destemmed as well as crushed, and the last 10 cases are once again only crushed as the stems help to form a natural cap. After about 40 hours the rosé juice is ran off into tank where it is allowed to settle for 15-18 hours before the juice is pumped into barrel for the fermentation.

All in all it took almost 6 hours to sort, destem and crush the grapes and to fill the two 17 hectolitre vats holding about 3 tonnes of grapes each. Jean-Baptiste and his cellar hand Gil Conejo sorted the grapes at the entrance of the destemmer. Two temporary cellar hands loaded the cases of grapes one by one into the destemmer, and a third cellar hand oversaw the even distribution of the grapes in the vat.

Perfect small Pinot Noir bunches in les Chevres

les Chevres:Perfect Pinot Noir bunches

Organic icon Vincent Lavaloften works in a very traditional way to produce his expressive Champagnes. His rosé de saignée is characterized by its fine bubbles,tart red fruit flavours and its amazing freshness. This year the grapes to make the rosé came from a small steep south facing vineyard in Cumières called Les Chèvres. Les Chèvres is located about two thirds up the steep slopes carved out by the Marne between Cumières and Hautvillers. The sunny vineyard benefits from the cooling fog rolling off the river in the mornings and is exposed to the sun for most of the day. The low yields allowed the grapes to attain full ripeness before they were picked on this foggy autumn morning. Once all the grapes from the tiny vineyard had arrived in the winery the real party started!! No need to use a crusher destemmer when there are enough volunteers to gently crush the grapes with their feet!!

Grape crushing the traditional way at Champagne Laval

Grape crushing the traditional way

In order to evenly and gently crush only 3 volunteers were allowed to enter the vat. The crates of grapes were added one by one with short pauses after five crates which allowed the volunteers to crush the grapes as they were added. The whole crushing operation took about 45 minutes and whilst the volunteers gently trotted through the vat, the other harvesters happily cheered them on whilst we all enjoyed a glass of Champagne Laval Rosé to bring good Karma to the rosé in the making!!

Once the grapes are crushed enough they were allowed to macerate for about 24 hours before the juice is run off, allowed to settle and pumped into 228 liter barrels to undergo their alcoholic and malolactic fermentation.

At Vincent Charlot, a strong minded biodynamic producer with four hectares in Mardeuil I arrived just as he was pressing off his rosé de saignée one morning.

Charlot's gorgeous rosé

Charlot's gorgeous rosé

Vincent had started his #champagneharvest13 by selectively picking several parcels of old vine Meunier to make his rosé de saignée. Pickers were instructed to only pick fully ripe and healthy bunches – others were to stay on the vines a little longer as they will be picked later. Once the grapes arrived back at the winery they were sorted before they were destemmed and crushed. Charlot let the grapes macerate for about 36 hours before he pressed them off. The juice which was left to settle in a fiber glass tank for about 24 hours had the most gorgeous deep pink colour and tasted delicious – there were lots of floral notes, a little wild strawberry and sweet raspberry and a hint of spice in the back palate. After settling the juice will be pumped into old 228 liter barrels were it will slowly go through natural alcoholic and malolactic fermentation.

Fleury's rosé de saignée

Fleury's rosé de saignée

I tasted a few more settled rosé de saignée juices in my travels around Champagne. Two which really stood out were the Pinot Noir from Jean-Sebastien Fleurie as well as the Pinot Noir from Benoit Lahaye. Both are biodynamic producers but as they are located in different parts of Champagne the juices were significantly different in flavour. Fleury’s rosé showed a lot of blue berries and almost violette notes whilst Lahaye’s was more about ripe red cherry’s, sweet strawberries and spice. Both juices were just about to start their fermentation so it will be interesting to see how the flavours develop after the alcoholic fermentation. Fleury’s wine will remain in stainless steel and was innoculated by an indigenous yeast strain from the Fleury vineyards whilst Lahaye works with a pieds de cuve and natural fermentation in barrel.

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#ChampagneHarvest 13: Champagne Goutorbe, Philippe Gonet and UPR in Le Mesnil

Sunset on the eve of harvest in Le Mesnil

The Goutorbe family is an institution in Ay. Not long after the first world war Emile Goutorbe, winemaker at that time for Perrier Jouet, decides to open a grape nursery. Over the next decades he will slowly expand his business by investing in vineyards in and around the village.

Almost a century later, Etienne and Elizabeth are fourth generation grape growers and wine makers and the family still owns one of the finest nurseries in Champagne. With twenty hectares they are also one of the largest grape growers in the town. Ay is Pinot Noir country and it is also the main grape variety in Goutorbe’s vineyards -where it accounts for just under two thirds of the plantings. They produce around five percent Meunier and the rest is Chardonnay. René Goutorbe, Etienne and Elizabeth’s father, is an astute business man and asked derogations for just about all of his plots. This means that the grapes have reached the minimum alcohol degree of 9,5% and that he can harvest when he wants rather than go by the imposed starting dates. He told me that he may not use the derogations but that he prefers to have the freedom to get the grapes harvested if the weather would change.

Charging the Press at Champagne Goutorbe

At their press center they have 3 pneumatic presses (2 of 8000kg and 1 of 4000 kg) and 2 traditional Coquard – but the latter are very rarely used these days. According to Elizabeth they last used them 6 vintages ago – but as the family presses for a lot of other people as well is is handy to keep them. The pressing center will process around 500 tonnes of grapes in the next two weeks.

Goutorbe by their pickers by the kilo – ( a la tache) and work with several teams who have been working harvest for them for the last 25 years. The grapes are processed per team – they are weighted and allocated to the team by Elisabeth when they come in before they are moved to the pressing center and winery. Goutorbe uses Bucher Vaselin presses. The juice is split in Cuvée (20 Hectoliters), first (4 Hectoliters) and second Taille (1 hectoliters). The free run is added to the second taille. Once pressed the juice is allowed to settle before it is racked after about fifteen hours. The fermentation happens in stainless steel tanks and is induced – as is the malolactic fermentation once the alcoholic fermentation is completed. Goutorbe bottle in spring and age their wine minimum for three years. They produce around 180,000 bottles per year.

Today the family also owns several buildings in the Rue Jeanson and run a small luxury hotel here.

If Pinot Noir is king in Ay, Chardonnay rules Le Mesnil in la Cote des Blancs. It is planted at 100% and is 100% Grand Cru. It is known to make very mineral, linear wines there, with and amazing freshness and acidity which can be aged for a very long time.

Pierre Gonet in front of his traditional Dollat Press

The Gonet family has been farming land there for the past five generations. Pierre Gonet was very young when he took over the business after his father’s sudden death in 1990. At just twenty years old he came back back from college and first worked two vintages with another winemaker – of which the 1991 vintage with Dominque Demarville – now Chef de Cave for Veuve Cliquot – to learn the tricks of the trade before he went solo in 1992.

He followed in his father Philippe’s footsteps and has continued to expand the vineyard. Today the family owns 20 hectares spread over 11 villages and covering almost 150 km North to South. Having a vines in several cru’s has many advantages when it comes to blending but it can be a bit tricky to work the vines and harvest in this many locations.

Pierre sister, Chantal, watched over the 60 pickers in Montgeux – a beautiful terroir in the Aube- and the most southern village the Gonet’s grow grapes in. Phillippe purchased 11 hectares in Montgeux in the late fifties and planted Chardonnay there. The soil composition is very similar to the soils in Le Mesnil – a little clay over lots of chalk. The wines are a little rounder and more voluptuous and great acidity.Today Montgeux is considered to be one of the best places in the Aube for Chardonnay and the grapes are pretty sought after. I tasted some of the Montgeux juice at the end of a press load and it was very sweet (it came in at 10.8% alcohol), had a great acidity and was balanced with a lot of different flavours. This may be because the volumes were significantly down – the Gonets only harvested around 9 Tonnes per hectare.

I also got to taste the first of the Le Mesnil juice – which was racey, mineral and again very sweet. The juice came in at 10 % alcohol and was of the first plot the Gonets harvested in Le Mesnil. It was pressed by their 4000 kg Dolat Press (very similar to a Coquard) and may well be vinified in one of the 2 thermo-regulated 60 HL casks for a new cuvée Pierre is working on. Again the yields were fairly low at around 10 tonnes per hectare and this is mainly due to the small bunch weight.

The pressing and winemaking process is completely done by gravitation at Gonet. The work in five levels from the press to the cellars where the bottles eventually will age. Below the press are two levels of winery, and then 2 levels of cellar. Average aging time is around three years but wines from Le Mesnil are generally aged at least five years.

Still in Le Mesnil, but completely different from the installations at Champagne Philippe Gonet is the Union des Récoltants Propriétaires or UPR. It is the second largest co-operative in Champagne and it’s installations are one of the most modern ones. In the Marne only the large Moet installation at Oiry matches the amount of of grapes they press – an average of about 700,000 kg a day. The co-operative has 600 members all independent growers from Le Mesnil or surrounding Grand Cru or Premier Cru villages. UPR produces around 120,000 bottles under the Le Mesnil brand which is exclusively made from Le Mesnil grapes and of which they export around 50%.

UPR settling installation per press

The grapes are weight as they come in and are placed in different processing lots – generally by village. The crates are then placed on a conveyor belt and from there the process is completely automated: the presses are automatically loaded and the crates move on and are washed. Even though a lot of things are automated the work force increases from around 18 to 70 during harvest. Not really that many people when we take into consideration that 60,000 hectoliter of juice will have been pressed in this short period of time.

UPR has 20 presses – most are 8000 kg pneumatic presses but they also have a few 12,000 kg pneumatic presses as well as a couple of 8000 kg Coquard presses with rotating metz. The juice is separated in cuvée and tailles and is allowed to settle for about 15 hours before it is pumped into one of the many tanks. UPR vinifies everything they press and just about all wines undergo malolactic fermentation. Le Mesnil is a very sought after Cru and this translates in spring by great demands of the large Champagne Houses for the wine. At that time UPR sells around 75% of it’s production on a first come first serve basis.

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#ChampagneHarvest13: Cumières & the Sézannais

Les Chevres

Champagne Georges Laval Les Chenes is an iconic cuvée, a single vineyard or lieu dit of 0.4 hectares (40 Ares), on the lower part of the steep slope between Cumières and Hautvillers. The vineyard is south facing with a gorgeous view of the Marne river, and has been organic for several decades. It is one of the few vineyards which is truly green as there is natural grass between every row. It is planted with Chardonnay which tends to develop a little earlier than the reds. This year the vineyard was hit by hail in May – before flowering. It damaged the flowers a bit, and the fact that flowering happened at the end of June, when the weather was still pretty cold, contributed to the irregular bunches which all seem to be affected by Hen and Chicken (Millerendage). However this did not affect the overall taste at all.

Picking Chardonnay at les Chenes

Laval started his #ChampagneHarvest13 by picking Les Chèvres with 12 pickers. 4 more will join this weekend to complete the harvest team of 20 people. There are a few new people this year but most of the team has been several harvests under their belt. Quite a few people are put up by Vincent during vintage which is pretty rare these days. But then again a lot of things are done in the old fashioned way at Champagne Laval.

They still have an old 2000 kg Goliath hydrolic jack press - the typical Cumières press because it was produced in the village. Today only 7 or 8 are remaining. The press works slightly different from the more common tradional Coquard presses in the way that the pressure is regulated through the jack which slowly pushes the lid down. One sets the maximum pressure and once this has been obtained the pressure is released. Goliath presses are not 100% automatic and need to be watched and listened by the press staff. Laval’s press is located in a small room about the size of a large double garage – it really is cute and cozy :-)

Vincent and Boris load the Press

I was lucky enough to witness the first press load of the harvest, so maybe a little more attention was needed than for future press loads. The grapes are weighed and then manually lifted into the press – there were so many of them that they just about spilled out. The juice is collected in two tanks next to the press – a larger one for the cuvée and a smaller one for the tailles. The first 20 liters of free run are added to the tailles as they are a little dustier, and the next 10 hectoliters is the cuvée. Vincent isolates a small tank of 3 hectoliters from the first pressing of the cuvée which he will vinify separately. To measure the cuvée and tailles he uses the very old fashion system of a measuring stick – a piece of wood with marks for every hectoliter – simple but very efficient. He adds sulfites at several stages, generally 1 centilitre per hectoliter, which converts to 10mg/l.

The yield at Les Chenes was 9 tonnes per hectares, which is 4.1 tonnes under what has been set by the appellation. The lower yields and the south facing exposure of the vineyard allowed the Chardonnay to fully ripen. The juice came in at just under 12% alcohol, and Vincent estimated the overall alcohol percentage to be around 11.5%, which means no chaptilization is needed.

Some delicious Chardonnay straight from the press!

After pressing the wine is pumped in 2 tanks, one for the cuvée (7 Hectoliters), and one for the Tailles (2,5 Hectoliters) where the juices are allowed to settle for around 24 hours before they are racked and pumped into barrel where the first fermentation will happen.

Laval has 2,5 hectares of vines, which he farms totally organically, and has about the same amount again which he harvests and presses for other people. He think vintage will continue for another 9 days for him but adds wisely that “only time can tell” what the vintage will bring. For now at least it is looking very promising!!

Raphael Bauchet

Etienne Calzac is a young guy with a modern installation in Avize. His family exploits 20 hectares of vines of which just over 11 hectares in the Sézannais, 6 in the Aube and the rest in Grauve, Avize and Bisseuil.
Etiennes grandfather, Raphael Bauchet, developed the family vineyards extensively during the seventies. He took a huge gamble when he bought the land in the Sézannais as in those days no-one bought land outside their village. Furthermore the land had no planting rights but his hunch that he would get the rights paid off and not long after he became a grower for Cliquot. By the time he retired and his children took over he had just under 40 hectares – not bad for a guy who started off with just a little more than 1 hectare :-)

Etienne farms his land in a sustainable way. He works the soil and has grass among his vines. He has 2.8 hectares which he works himself and of which he produces 10,000 bottles under his name. The rest of the grapes are sold as juice, mainly to Cliquot.

Grapes arriving by truck from the Sezannais

When I visited his 6000 kg pneumatic press had just been loaded up with grapes from the Sézannais. He has 60 pickers there and he thinks they will pick around 2 weeks but spread over 3-4 weeks, as there will be gaps between the different vineyards. The grapes are coming in at about 10 degrees alcohol and when I tasted the juice I was amazed by the acidity. Whilst we were at the press testing the alcohol percentage Dominique Demarville, the Chef de Cave for Veuve Cliquot stopped by to check his juice coming in. Demarville had just started his vineyard run that day and had been in the Aube, Vitry and the Sézannais before he stopped off at Avize. His first impressions of the harvest are positive and he feels the grapes are ripe and the must is harmonious – “with a great acidity and a good amount of sugar.It is a little less intense than in 2012, due to the two weeks of rain we had earlier in September”. He continued by saying that in the winery the year looks a little more complicated as the juice oxidizes very quickly so it is important to add sufites in time. All in all though he is happy with waht he tasted during the day.

Etienne pointed out that the grapes were lighter than other years, with the average crate case being around 41,5kg rather than 43-44 kg, but that the juice is running very fast – faster than previous years. In total Etienne will press 14 hectares at his pressing center at Avize as the grapes from the Aube are pressed in the Aube. From next week he will test a new type 4000 kg pneumatic press with holes in the membrane for the CIVC. The CIVC will monitor the pressing process and check among other things the colour of the juice, speed of pressing, and the must present in the juice. After harvest the press will be removed again.

Both presses stand about 3 meters high so the juice can run by gravity into the receiving bins in the winery which is directly below the press. The juice is split up in Cuvee & Taille, and the first 60 liters of free run are added to the Taille.

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#ChampagneHarvest13 – Kick Off in Cummière


It is that exciting time of the year again! This year no secateurs for me, but I have set myself as a goal to try and visit fifty to sixty Champagne producers during harvest and report my findings here in the #champagneharvest13 section. I will also add pictures on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook under the same tag so hopefully this will allow me to share the Champagne harvest experience a little!

Meunier harvest in Cummiere

2013 has not been the easiest year, in Champagne as in other regions. It seemed like winter went on forever, spring never really happened and flowering only occurred at the beginning of summer – about three weeks later than usual. Summer was great as it was sunny and very hot, and even though a few areas suffered hail damage, the heat dried up the broken berries and the other grapes compensated to make relatively big beautiful bunches. Things were looking up providing the weather held up in September. Unfortunately we had about two weeks of cold rainy weather, which slowed the ripening process and increased the risk of rot. This week the sun came out to play again and everybody is hoping she will hang around for a bit as in a lot of places the harvest will not start till October.

Harvest is very regulated in Champagne. The start dates are set village by village and variety by variety, and this year the dates are all over the place. The main reason for why there is a two week difference between the first and the last villages is because flowering happened the same way. Some areas flowered at the end of June whilst some places had to weight for the July sun for flowering to happen. The cold weather in June furthermore caused irregularities resulting in a lot of hen and chicken (milrendage) in these earlier bunches. Anyway, harvest kicked off yesterday in the Aube in Buxeuil and Balnot-sur-Laignes and today here in the Marne area in Cummière and Bethon.

The fact that Cummière, which is situated just under my village, can start 6 days earlier than Hautvillers shows off well – in my opinion – the difference in micro-climates we have in Champagne.

Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy

But lets get back to business and talk about the #champagneharvest13 at a specific producer. Today I visited Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy who had started to pick some of his Meunier in Cummière. The Geoffroy family has grown grapes in the Marne valley since the 17th century and own 14 hectares of vineyard. Six years ago Jean-Baptiste moved the winemaking and storing facilities to Ay – “it made sense to centralize everything in one place rather than to continue to work out of 3 different locations in Cummière. Here in Ay I can work the way I always wanted to and pay attention to many details” .

One of these details is working in a gravity fed way. Grapes are delivered at the top of the building and processed vineyard by vineyard. They are weight by the forklift and entered in a wee computer attached to the forklift. The crates are entered into the press house and poured into the traditional 4000 kg round Coquard press. Just under the press house is the winery and the juice runs from the press directly into the tanks. The first 60 liters is run off into the first tailles, and the first two pressings make up the cuvée. This means, that instead of the allowed 20 hectoliters of cuvée, Jean-Baptiste only keeps 18 hectoliters. The last two pressings are collected (and later vinified) as first and second tailles. Once the pressing has been completed, the juice is left in the different tanks overnight to settle and will be racked in the morning. After that the juice is pumped into 3 different tanks to start the first fermentation. Geoffroy likes to work with natural yeasts, but more than anything he likes to have clean and fresh wines. He admitted that for this first Marc he may choose to use oculated yeast if the fermentation does not start straight away. This harvest he will test different ways of limiting sulfites in the wine making process. Normally a little sulfite is added as the juice runs from the press in to the receiving tanks. This helps to stabilize the must and has as an added advantage that it takes away some colour. Jean Baptiste will test adding less sulfites the normal way, as well as adding the sulfites (in a smaller quantity) once once he has collected the 18 hectoliters of the cuvée in the tank. He is helped by the CIVC research center who will analyse the results.

Traditional Coquard Press closing

I felt very fortunate to arrive just as the very first press load of the 2013 harvest was being loaded. It was Meunier, and a little Pinot Noir, from two vineyards on the steep slopes between Cummière and Dammery. Jean-Baptiste decided to pick today, even if the alcohol percentage was not as high as he may have liked, because these vineyards started to be affected by rot. The grapes which came in were quite clean – obviously a strict selection at the vines had been applied. When he tasted the juice, Jean-Baptiste was happy with the sugar levels and the acidity though admitted that this first press load (marc) would probably need some extra sugar.All in all he is happy with the quality but he hopes the weather will remain good for the next two weeks to avoid more rot damage.

Harvest will properly kick off at Champagne Geoffroy from tomorrow on when another 20 pickers arrive. In total the company employs 25 pickers and debardeurs (grape carriers) and 5 winery staff – of which 3 work at the press and 2 in the winery. Jean Baptiste thinks vintage will continue for another 2 weeks, which is pretty unusual for Champagne, but linked to the split flowering. Weather permitting he would like to avoid working on Sunday to try and stay under the newly imposed social security platforms which increase the charges from 8 to 44%. The change in the social security regulation is a seriously bitter pill to swallow for most Champenois winegrowers with more than five hectares.

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Grands jours de Champagne?

This article first appeared in Circle Update on 31st May

Whilst there are plenty of international wine fairs, a lot of winemakers prefer to show off their wines on home territory. It gives them the opportunity to really woe the diverse audience of national and international press, importers, distributors and major buyers who have flocked to the region. Many a wine critic, buyer or writer also enjoys these tastings as it allows them to focus on the region, meet with the winemakers and take good stock of the vintage. Famous examples of these kinds of events are the En Primeur week in Bordeaux and the Grands Jours de Bourgogne in Burgundy. Both events last a week and pack in many major trade tastings (open to all registered visitors) as well as some more exclusive VIP events.

Traditionally, the Champagne region did not play host to such tastings which makes sense considering champagne is in essence a blended non-vintage wine. It furthermore is not a wine which is sold either en primeur or as an investment, instead it is very well established as the wine of choice for celebrations and special occasions. Add to this that vins clairs (still champagne wines) are not the easiest to understand and the fact many chef de caves believe that the elaborate second fermentation process, the aging time & dosage have at least as much influence on the final result as the initial blend and one can easily see why Champagne shied away from these early vintage tastings.

Terres et Vins de Champagne 2009

But things started to change in 2009 when a few like-minded Champagne growers decided to create the group “Terres et Vins de Champagne”. Aurelien Laherte, one of the founders, told me the project grew out of a desire to share the still wines behind the Champagne as a means to show off the different terroirs. “We already often met to discuss more alternative viticulture practices and to compare notes on our different expression of the terroir. As we regularly received requests from journalists, buyers and champagne lovers to come and taste our still wines we thought organizing a group tasting would be a fun and unique way to present our vins clairs and new champagnes to these people”.

The first Terres et Vins de Champagne event took place on the 20 April 2009 and really focused on showing off the vins clairs more than the Champagnes. The first tasting had about 220 attendees; mostly professional and about 20% came from abroad.

Terres et Vins de Champagne 2013

The 2010 edition was even more successful with more international visitors. This year was the 5th edition of the tasting and registrations were capped at 400 people.The group has also grown in numbers over the years; Olivier Horiot was the first additional member in 2011, in 2012 Domique Morreau (Champagne Marie Courtin)was added and this year Vincent Laval and Marie-Noelle Ledru joined the group to make up the 21 members.

This first official vins clairs & champagne tasting drew a lot of interest from other growers in champagne who saw the potential of this kind of event. Two of them, Gilles Lancelot and Jérôme Dehours first tried to join the Terres et Vins group in 2010 before they decided to create their own event the day after Terres et Vins de Champagne in 2011. According to Dehours they realized that whilst they really liked the concept they did not always see eye to eye with the established group and thought it would be better to create a similar yet different event the day after Terres et Vins de Champagne. “Artisans de Champagne is a group of artisan winegrowers formed around the desire to share their vins clairs and cuvees with a wider audience. We decided to hold our tasting just after the Terres et Vins tasting as we felt that having the two tastings together made sense for people who travelled from further afield”.

Artisans de Champagne

Artisans de Champagne

Artisans de Champagne has also been growing in numbers as they added Rodolphe Peeters and Jean-Sebastien Fleurie to the existing member list of Nicolas Maillart, Antoine Paillard, Frédéric Savart, Jean-Paul Hebrart, François Huré, Pascal Gerbais, Yannick Doyart, Christophe Contstant (Champagne Vergnon), Arnaud Margaine, Laurent Champs (Champagne Vilmart), Gilles Lancelot, Jérôme Dehours, Xavier Gonet-Medeville. Rodophe Peeters told me he had joined the Artisans de Champagne this year because he was attracted by the emphasis of the group on the notion of the “footprint of the winemaker” which according to Peeters is just as important as the notion of terroir.

In 2012 two more groups were formed and both held a similar vins clairs and champagne tasting event to coincide with the 2 existing tastings.
Terroirs et Talents de Champagne is the brain child of Cyril Janisson-Baradon and it is in a way also with him that the idea of the Grands Jours de Champagne was born. Janisson-Baradon was fully aware of the interest the 2 existing tastings had generated and he knew a third vins clairs & champagne tasting could only add to this. “I knew that to get the attention of the people descending on the region we had to put on a similar yet different event – a little bit like it is done in Burgundy.”

He carefully chose his colleagues from 14 different villages to show of the diversity in the Champagne terroirs. In order to better explain the subtle differences of soils he also invited Geoffroy Orban, a geologist, who is specialized in the unique expressions of minerality of stone and rock formations in Champagne.

Talents et Terroirs de Champagne

Talents et Terroirs de Champagne

Terroir et Talent de Champagne decided to hold their tasting the Sunday before Terres et Vins de Champagne. For its second edition a new member was added (Eric Rodez) and the tasting hours were extended to Monday morning. By having longer opening hours Talents et Terroirs de Champagne hoped to attract more visitors. Their main focus is the international audience – according to Jean-Pierre Vazart the biggest advantage of the tasting is the international visitor. “A lot of us do not export enough so it is a great opportunity to be able to show off our wines to a wider international audience and make valuable export contacts.” Attracting more international press and buyers was also the reason why Terroirs et Talents de Champagne took a stand at Prowein a month before the event. It seems their efforts paid off as English was definitely the leading language at their event.

Trait-d'Union Tasting 2012

Trait-d’Union, the smallest of the groups, also saw the light last year; Anselme Selose, Pierre Larmendier, the Chiquet brothers (Champagne Jacquesson), Francis Egly , Eric Coulon and Jérôme Prévost are above all old friends and probably the biggest “star” winegrowers of the region. They have been focusing on single vineyard and terroir wines for several decades and have built up a loyal international following. No wonder then that last year’s Trait-d’Union event was overbooked. Yet Trait-d’Union did not organize a tasting this year. According to Jean-Hervé Chiquet the group will only organize their vins clairs and Champagne tasting every two years. “Les Grands Jours de Bourgogne only take place every two years – why then should we have a yearly event in Champagne?”

Last year, the murmurs of the “Grands Jours de la Champagne” started. At that time Frédéric Savart told me that the Artisans de Champagne tasting would move to the posh Crayeres Hotel and Restaurant, as “this would make it easier for Houses to join in”. He continued by saying that it would be great for Champagne to have a week-long event where growers, co-operatives and houses could show off their latest developments. “It is important everybody and especially the Grande Marques participate, as they are still the bill board for our region; with them on board these events will draw a lot more attention”.

However, we noticed that this year the Grandes Marques participation only went as far as attending some of the tastings. In fact Alfred Gratien, a House which had been part of the Artisans de Champagne group did not participate in this year’s events. According to Gilles Lancelot, Nicolas Jaeger had been reprimanded by the UMC (Union de Maison de Champagnes) and asked not to participate in growers tasting. Lancelot added “We hope that the increased interest and attendance will entice the UMC to allow their members to participate in our tastings and are looking forward to welcoming Nicolas back to our group.”

And indeed the tastings did draw a lot of interest. More than a thousand people registered for the events. Both Terres et Vins de Champagne and Artisans de Champagne had to turn down people and all three tastings were packed. Visitors often traveled extensively (eg from Australia, the US, Canada, Brazil or Japan) to discover Champagne’s latest terroir driven trends and cuvées in the making. But there also was a lot of local interest; besides the usual store owners and sommeliers, senior members of the CIVC and chef de Caves attended.
Add to this the emergence of several “off” events, always a sign of success in France. Examples of some “off” events included a private tasting at Dom Perignon, a press tasting at Champagne Philipponnat, an importers tasting at Champagne Selosse and the launch of the new cuvée prestige “Sapience” at Champagne Marguet.

All of this off course fueled the “Grands Jours de Champagne” speculation to the point that quite a few trade people believe that it will be inevitable that the houses or at least some of the Grandes Marques will organize a similar event around the same time in the next few years. And when this happens Champagne will have its “Grands Jours” in the true sense of the word.

I wrote this article originally for the Circle Update , published 30 May 2013.

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Not quite en Primeur Bordeaux and Old Vintage Beaujolais

Red wine tastings

Today I want to talk about RED wine; in fact I want to share my experience of two rather unusual tastings I attended recently. I call them unusual as tastings of this kind are normally not associated with these wines. Secondly they are a little unusual in having their place here as I am talking about conventional red wine – something I very rarely do here. However both tastings have stuck so I would like to share my experience.

The first tasting I want to talk about is one of my favourite tastings in Bordeaux. It is an en Primeur tasting – but not your traditional one. The tasting still consists of barrel samples, but the wines are about 18 months old (rather than a mere 6 months). That is why I think of it as a “en primeur tasting avec recul” or a delayed en primeur tasting.

I find this tasting interesting as the wines are very close to being bottled, and after about 18 months of (oak) aging they are a little easier to taste and evaluate but we have to remember that they are still mere toddlers and will need quite a bit more time.

The tasting is organised by Millisema – a large Negociant in Bordeaux – and takes place in their famous chai store rooms in between the many cases of famous Cru Classée wines.

One of the line ups at the Millesima tasting

One of the line ups at the Millesima tasting

A big part of why I really enjoy this tasting is that it covers the whole of Bordeaux and is organized per region which makes makes it really easy to form an opinion on the vintage qualities of a certain place and compare notes on the different sub regions. The line up is the same in both sides of the table – which allows to easily taste the same wine from a different bottle and compare notes. Speaking of the line up – it is pretty impressive as most of the renowned Chateaux participate and a lot of the people at the tasting are insiders (Chateau owners or Bordeaux wine makers) who are interested in comparing notes but also readily share experiences. It is not very often that one has the opportunity to ask direct questions about Bordeaux’s second to fifth Growth wines to the winemaker and compare answers as one goes along. For me the learning curve was pretty steep:-)

The only slight negative about the tasting is that it is rather quick – one has just over one and a half hours to taste through 150 samples… Having said that I am not too sure how many tasters (which were all trade and press) would manage to work their way through all the wines even with more time. I chose to taste a 4-6 wines per region and generally went on recommendations of others or on notes I had taken the year before at the 2011 En Primeurs.

So what are my conclusions on 2011, a difficult vintage in more than one sense of the word. After the awesome 2009 and some say even better 2010 vintage which both commanded crazy prices, everybody was watching what would happen in 2011. The fact that the weather played havoc and caused a lot of damage just around vintage did not help this cause; in fact the vintage was just about written off by investors and press alike at a time that wine making had only just begun. Needless to say the “En Primeur” campaign was notoriously difficult, and several negociants really struggled to shift even half the amount of cases of what they had done in the last few years.

According to Patrick Bernard, CEO and part owner of Millisema, the En Primeur system grinded to a halt in May/June 2012. He blames the pricing and the uncertain market. In the light of the sky rocketing prices, it was obvious prices had to come back down, but he feels they did not come down enough to entice buyers to invest in a difficult vintage. Bernard told me that “the system of En Primeur is all based on value – the customer believes he is getting a great deal by buying a wine which is not finished yet, and the Chateaux sell the wine below value to help with the cash flow. Unfortunately as lots of people heavily invested in sorting procedures – either through buying really expensive equipment or investing in more people to go through the grapes several times -the cost of production had been significantly higher than the previous years. This was partly reflected in the price which did go down, but not as much as the public expected. As a result fewer people invested believing prices would come down further down the line.” Bernard continued by stating that the prices would have to come down more for the 2012 vintage – which is not considered a great vintage either but on average better than 2011.

But besides this doom and gloom I am very happy to say that I did taste some very promising wines. In general the wines with more Merlot in the blend (very generally speaking the right bank) showed better than their Cabernet Sauvignon based counter parts. A big reason for this is that Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet, so a lot of it was harvested before the bad weather hit. Another reason could be that Merlot is more seductive when young than Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be more austere.

Chateau la Conseillante 2011

Chateau la Conseillante 2011

I focused on the region of Pomerol as I was to visit the region after the tasting for an article which will appear in Snooth in June and found overall the wines quite lifted and elegant. There was an evident freshness in all the samples I tasted. Favourites were Chateau La Conseillante, with wonderful floral and red fruit notes, Chateau l’Evangile, very elegant and integrated wine just about ready to drink now and Chateau le Gay – very layered and complex which kept on surprising me.

Some other favourites of the tasting were Chateau Pape Clement – I really have a soft spot for this wine as I seem to pick it out time after time – but even in its youth this Pessac-Léognan was seductive with its intense black fruit notes and quite round and balanced in the finish.

I found the Margaux wines still very closed but was pleasantly surprised by Chateau Palmer and Chateau Giscours. In St Julien I had 3 stars next to Chateau Lagrange and in St Estephe I quite like Chateau Montrose.

St Emillion was just as Pomerol a little easier on the taste buds and here I liked the structure and mouth-feel of Chateau La Gaffelière and the texture and floral notes of Chateau Fleur Cardinale.

Miss Vicky Wine - the god mother of the 2013 Fête des Crus!

Miss Vicky Wine - the god mother of the 2013 Fête des Crus!

For the next tasting I have to fast forward about a month in time and travel from Bordeaux to Beaujolais (via Champagne bien sur!) where as a guest of the Fête des Crus, a popular yearly wine festival held on the last weekend of April, I got to taste some rare old(er) Beaujolais Crus vintages.

Beaujolais is a region very much known for its young wines; the Beaujolais Nouveau craze of the last few decades has made many of us believe that all Beaujolais should be drunk young. But this is definitely not the case for the Cru wines, which come from one of the ten following villages – Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin à Vent, Régnié and Saint Amour. Whilst there are distinctive differences between each Cru, the wines from these villages have more body and structure than the Beaujolais village and most of them benefit from at least a couple years aging.

The “Fête des Crus” takes place in a different village every year and this year we were hosted by Brouilly. Tickets are sold at several key entry points and the entry includes a glass and a map to the village. Every Cru has their tasting area and once inside the village one can taste (drink?) for free. Wines poured are generally from the last vintage but bottles of older vintages can be purchased at the stand. It really is a wonderful opportunity to taste the different Crus site by site in a party atmosphere! Even this year the heavy showers could not dampen the party spirit and people were having fun drinking and dancing in the rain ;-)

Old vintage  Beaujolais tasting in the cellars of the Chateau de la Chaize

Old vintage tasting in the cellars of the Chateau de la Chaize

A regular event at the Fête des Crus is the tasting of old vintages, which needs to be booked in advance but the event is open to everybody with a ticket. The aim of the tasting is to show off the aging potential and development of the Beaujolais Cru wines and entice people to age their wines a little.

The tasting took place in cellars of Chateau de la Chaize and we got to taste in between the large barrels by candle light. We tasted 20 wines starting with the youngest one – a wine from 2006 – and ending with the oldest – the 1976 vintage.

Just over half of the wines came from Brouilly and the Cote de Brouilly and it was really interesting to see the evolution of the different vintages in these Crus but I also enjoyed the opportunity to compare the aging differences of the same vintage in different Crus.

My favourite was Domaine Chevalier-Métrat 1996 (Morgon), which was complex and elegant with still lots of fruit and freshness. I also like the Domaine du Pressoir Fleuri 1999 (Chirouble) and the Chateau du Prieuré Cuvée Raconat 1989 – both had an almost velvet texture, good intensity and a long and fresh finish – which I found pretty impressive for these older wines.

My only criticism is that I find it unfortunate that a few of the wines were obviously faulty. I just want to raise this here as it proves my point that it is not only at natural wine fairs that faulty wine is proudly poured…

However besides the few faulty examples I was amazed at the quality and aging potentials of these Beaujolais Crus and feel that they were equally elegant and graceful in age as their more pricey Burgundian cousins!

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Where I look for terroir and bubbles when I am not in Champagne

Terroirific Geneva

I am intrinsically attracted to quirky slightly off beat places and tend to look for them wherever I go. Today I want to talk about 2 of these places; I feel they belong in this blog as they have become a part of my life. Both are wine bars, both focus on terroir and both stand out, at least in my opinion, for their creative approach to wine. Both places beckon from the street and as soon as you walk through the door the outside world dissipates as you find yourself in this wonderfully happy cocoon!

The first place was always going to have a special place in my heart for two reasons: first of all the concept was created by my good friend and business partner Onneca Guelbenzu. She met Terroirific partner Julio Bem at a wine tasting in Lausanne about a year ago and at the end of 2012 they decided to go in business together. Onneca provided the concept and the vision and Julio the place. This brings me to the second reason why I have a special bond with this wine bar: it was the venue of the first Tasting with a Twist – when we still called it the Magic of the Magnum Bubbles and the Bar was still called Bar a Bem;-) However at that time, only a mere 5 months ago, the place was but a shadow of the cozy “Terroir Haven” it has become today!

Terroirific in Geneva

Terroirific in Geneva

Onneca totally re-invented this welcoming wine bar close to the Cournavin Station in Geneva and her flamboyant happy personality can be felt as soon as one walks in. I know this may sound biased but I am really not saying this because she is my friend; but I came to this conclusion by talking to several patrons on the few occasions I have helped out as every person told me how much they enjoyed the place, the concept and Onne’s warm welcome!

Onne & I at the opening night

Onne & I at the opening night

Terroirific opened with a bang on Valentines day. Onneca had organized a DJ and an independent Genevois “sausage” artist who hand made and cooked a 4 meter terroir sausage on a 4 meter barbecue just outside of the bar. The opening had been widely advertised through social media and the expat community which definitely paid off. Thirty minutes after the doors had opened the place was packed; in fact the stream of people never seemed to subside all night. The place was pumping and full of positive energy and this energy has carried through the last 6 weeks. I am very happy to say that Terroirific is going from strength to strength!

I believe this is driven by Onne’s passionate persona, creative flair and excellent wine choice. The bar is open from Tuesday through to Saturday and most nights there are some special events going on – and when I say special I mean business! Some examples of Terroirific events up till now have included live Fado concerts, an exclusive jewelry night with the artists, live ham cutting, psychic reading sessions, and coming soon Champagne brunches (with special opening times). I am also very proud to announce here that from next month we will have a monthly Tasting with a Twist – exploring sparkling wines and Champagne in an unusual and fun way!

Terroirific Geneva

Terroirific Geneva picture by Laure Noverraz ©

The eclectic wine list which changes regularly and aims to bring unusual and difficult to find terroir wines. Every wine on the list has a story to tell and is very much the expression of a specific place as interpreted by the winemaker. All wines are available by the glass so there is plenty of opportunity to broaden your horizon and expand your palate whilst listing to awesome rock music!

Another reason to visit Terroirific is that you will taste THE best ham – either in the cubes of ham-happiness or freshly sliced – outside of Spain. The ham and the chorizo’s are very much part of the whole Terroirific theme, so much that in fact a wee pig is part of the logo! There are other tapas available besides the ham and sausage (though you should definitely try at least the ham!) which like the wine change regularly.

Lastly if you want to learn about wine – Terroirific also offers a range of wine education programs – check out the website for details.

Terroirific is located 14 Boulevard James Fazy, 1201 Geneva and is open Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday from 5pm – 11 pm
Friday & Saturday from 5pm – midnight
In summer a there will be a brunch opening as well – again please check the website for exact details.



My second “coup de coeur” is the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® de Bruxelles. This esoteric Champagne bar is located in the centre of Brussels and has in fact recently changed location. It is the labour of love of Eric Vauthier, who set up the concept in the Gallerie St Hubert more than 3 years ago. He gambled right from the start when he chose to open in the old workshop of fashion designer Kaat Tilley , a place he rented on borrowed time. Eric knew he would have to move when the owners building permits would come through. In the end this took more than 3 years which allowed Eric to build up a loyal following. The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® closed early January and re-opened in its current location not long afterwards.

Wall of Bottles at the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®

Wall of Bottles at the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®

As very adequately put by the man himself, the fact that he had to move and start again was not necessarily a bad thing – it proved he could reproduce the concept.The new location is in fact not very far away from the original CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® so the existing clientele followed. However a large chunk of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®’s business comes from tourism visiting the heart of Brussels hence the eclectic window display and an outside terrace – which will be a great draw card once it warms up a little.

I first met Eric last year at my favourite tasting Terres et Vins de Champagne. He immediately caught my eye as he was the only person wearing an apron. The apron is very much part of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® branding – it has the logo – Champagne bottle top (plaque de muselet) – and a small Belgian flag on the breast pocket. Eric wears it everywhere and so does anybody who helps out in CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® as I found out when I visited a few weeks ago. Within 10 minutes of entering I was donning one myself!

The Champagne Vasque - Picture Eric Vauthier ©

The Champagne Vasque - Picture Eric Vauthier ©

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® concept is in fact pretty simple. There are about 150 different Champagnes; the bulk of them are from Vignerons who aim to make wine which reflects and expresses the essence of their village or vineyard. However, Eric also stocks the classic grandes cuvees and some wines produced by co-operatives. All wines are available as a taste (5 cl pour), by the glass (10 cl pour) or by the bottle. There is no wine list as such, but all the wines currently in stock are displayed on the Wall of Bottles, where every bottle has a price tag with the 3 different prices.

Besides the wall of bottles there is also the Vasque - a large and very chique Champagne ice bucket where the open bottles are kept under a specially devised pressure system to keep them fresh. Generally there are 6-10 bottles in the Vasque, from which a Tasting Palette will be formed. I have to admit to have fallen hard for the tasting palette concept as it really is mega cool and quirky!

Pouring the tasting palette

Pouring the tasting palette

The palette is a flight brought in an unusual way – ie it is a cardboard cut of a painter’s palette, with 3 holes for stemless glasses; I love the way the he glasses are stored in a riddling rack! The palette is tailored to the customer’s palate as the 3 champagnes are selected to best match the customers taste.

The unique presentation not only speaks to the imagination of the customer, it is also the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® unique touch to bring the different subtleties in terroir & winemaking in Champagne in a very visual way.

Eric also has a mobile version of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®, which can be hired for corporate events and has several exciting projects to expand the horizons of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® even more up his sleeve. Again I am mega proud to write here that one of these projects is a 10 series collaboration with “Tasting with a Twist” starting on the 28th of April. The full program of this exciting partnership will be published very shortly – so stay tuned!

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® is located 11, rue de la Madeleine – 1000 Brussels. Opening times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 AM till 10.30 PM.
Friday & Saturday from 11 AM till midnight.

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® also offers discovery boxes of several Champagne producers at a very competitive price. I strongly suggest that you do check out this amazing “cultural” Champagne experience on your next visit to Brussels!

Posted in Champagne, terroir, wine eductation, wine tasting | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Caroline’s Champagne – vins clairs, terroir & savoir faire

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

This last month I have been very lucky to have been invited to taste vins clairs (in plural!) in lots of different places. The term “vin clair” literally means clear wine – it dates from the time that the wine had cleared after the first fermentation;all the yeast and sediments having fallen to the bottom. I feel vins clairs are often a great expression of their particular terroir, as they grape varieties are generally vinified per cru or village.

However, vins clairs tastings are not for the faint hearted – the wines are often very acidic, and can be a little thin. They are very different from other still wines made from the same grape varieties… One must remember these wines will be blended together, often with some reserve wine added to make the final base wine which will be bottled and undergo the second fermentation.

It takes practise to understand these tastings – in the same way that tasting en primeur wines takes practise. You are looking for characteristics – acid, mouth feel, elegance, minerality and flavour – and imagine them after a second fermentation in the bottle, several years of aging in the cellar, and with a dosage added. In other words – you taste the wines and think of the final blend, and even the Champagne and try to imagine what each wine can add.

In a way it is desecting the Champagne and piece it back together – and by doing so one slowly learns about the sub terroirs in Champagne as well as the differences in savoir faire and the individual style of the champagne makers.

These last few weeks I have tasted quite a few vins clairs and I would like to share 4 of them. The tastings have been very different yet in their own way they have left a mark on me; I learned a lot at each place but most of all I feel these 4 tastings are a great example of the diversity we have in Champagne.

Table of Vins Clairs tasters at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte

Table of Vins Clairs tasters at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte

The most formal of vins clairs tastings I attended was at Nicolas Feuillatte at the beginning of the month. I had received an official invitation, confirmed my attendance by post and I took place at tasting with about another 20 people. Most other tasters were from Champagne, and a lot of them worked for the CIVC or the SGV. There were a few members of the Press – all French and all involved with specialized viticultural magazines. David Henault, the Chef de Cave invited us to quickly introduce ourselves before we started the tasting with 4 Chardonnays. I was really happy I took detailed notes as I quickly realized that we were all supposed to say a little about the wines and pick our favourites. We continued this way with the 3 Pinot Meuniers, 3 Pinot Noirs and 3 red wines (Pinot Noir as well).

Champagne Nicolas Feuillate 2004 Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru

Champagne Nicolas Feuillate 2004 Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru

At lunch I was seated next to David and told him I had been extremely impressed by the quality of the wines; it is a fact that 2012 is a great year – but I had expected to taste thinner, more acidic and less flavoursome wines. David admitted that he received his fair share of these wines but that they had already been blended for the pending bottling of the brut. The wines we tasted would go in special cuvees or become reserve wines. I was impressed by his straight forwardness as after all I was one of what he called difficult foreign writers :-) We got to taste a few of the special cuvees, which are made in relatively small quantities and I was particularly impressed by the Grand Cru Vintage Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir 2004).

I had decided to attend the Feuillate Vins Clairs tasting because I wanted to get a better understanding of the vintage across the board. I believed that Feuillatte being the largest co-operative would have a wide variety of wines. Whilst I did not really achieve what I originally set out to do I learned a lot from my chat with David about the “big blending exercise” and discovered the co-operative has access to terroir wines as well which they sometimes choose to vinify separately.

Charles Philipponnat pouring some Clos de Goisses vin clair

Charles Philipponnat pouring some Clos de Goisses vin clair

The second tasting which really stuck was my tasting of a selection of “Clos de Goisses” wines at Philipponnat. I had been invited by Charles Philipponnat, after a few chats on Facebook, and was lucky to be one of the first external guests to taste through several different wines from this famous vineyard. We tasted together with Antoine de Boysson, the Philipponnat Export Manager, and for each wine Charles explained where in the Clos des Goisses it came from. We started with a few wines vinified in stainless steel tanks, however the bulk of the wines underwent fermentation in the traditional Champagne barrels (205L) and a few “double barrel” -demi-muid (410L in Champagne).

The Clos des Goisses is planted with both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but I there is a majority of Pinot Noir. This harvest included 3 press loads of Chardonnay and 8 of Pinot Noir and I tried some wines of each pressing. It was amazing to taste the differences in flavour per subsection of this single vineyard, and whilst the Chardonnays where good, the Pinot Noir was outstanding! All the wines had an almost round mouth feel, great intensity of flavour and a balanced acidity and freshness. Towards the end of the tasting we tried few Grand Cru vins clairs which were good as well but they lacked the rich and intense character of the Clos des Goisses.

The amazing 2003 Champagne Philipponnat Clos des Goisses!

The amazing 2003 Champagne Philipponnat Clos des Goisses!

The last wine I tried was the wonderful 2003 Champagne Clos des Goisses. 2003 was a difficult year with small yields, a bit like 2012, which means only 6000 bottles were produced, but the Champagne in the bottle was beyond delicious!! I have tried the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Clos des Goisses before, and have always loved this wine but I have not often been blown away the way I was by the 2003!! I loved the complexity and richness of it – this champagne is so beyond sexy that I am happy it is a wine and not a man :-)

My third great tasting experience came a week later, when I went to Chouilly to visit Champagne Legras et Haas. Before I arrived there I knew very little about them except that the very generous Jérôme Legras had been one of our sponsors for our #onthewineroad trip to California last year. I had come through Chouilly a few times this month and had been thinking of contacting Jérôme to make an appointment when he reached out to me.

Chouilly is one of the 17 Grand Cru villages but somehow it is a little less famous than the other Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs. It is also the only Grand Cru village with a mainly northern exposure and it is the largest Grand Cru. The Legras family has had vineyards in the area for a few generations and in 1991 François Legras and his wife Brigitte Haas founded, together with their 2 oldest sons Rémi and Olivier, the Champagne House Legras et Haas. Jérôme joined the family business in 2006 and today the family as a whole runs the Champagne House. The decision to be a “Champagne House” or negotiant, was a conscious one, as the family wanted to have the freedom to make the Champagnes they wanted to rather than be restricted to making wines from only the family vineyards in Chouilly, Vitry le Francois and Les Riceys. Hence, they purchase each year some Pinot Meunier for their Brut Tradition as well as some Ay Grand Cru Pinot Noir (only in exceptional years) for the Cuvee Exigence.

Chouilly vins clairs tasting at Champagne Legras et Haas

Chouilly vins clairs tasting at Champagne Legras et Haas

After a quick tour of Chouilly where Jérôme explained the different terroirs in the village, we tasted through a few specific Chouilly terroirs as vins clairs. Again I was totally amazed by the different characteristics of the 3 sites I tasted – the first wine was very tropical and rich , the second showed more citrus and apple, whilst the 3rd wine was more elegant, lacy and mineral. The most interesting part of this exercise was that I had the wines right next to each other so I could go back and forth.
I also tasted two different Soleras of Chardonnay which the family uses for the Cuvee Exigence Grand Cru. The oldest Solera was rich, complex and very layered, whilst the second one – which is significantly younger, was a lot fresher and more linear.

Champagne Legras et Haas Cuvee Exigence 7

Champagne Legras et Haas Cuvee Exigence 7

We finished off the tasting with a few Champagnes which we tasted out of order, starting with the Premium wines and finishing with the fresher Brut Tradition. Again I fell for the richest and most opulent wine – the Cuvee Exigence Grand Cru 7 – as it is the 7th time the family decided to make this wine. The base wine is a mixture of 50% reserve wine from the Solera (from Chouilly) and 50% 2007 Pinot Noir from Aÿ and has been aged for around 5 years. I loved the power and intensity of the wine, however this Champagne is definitely a meal wine.

Whilst I was tasting and talking to Jérôme, I became totally intrigued and in a way very excited by the the experimental nature this smallish Champagne House has. They actively look for innovation and take risks by trying out small runs of new cuvees. They test these wines over time and very often they sell the lot off as exclusive one off’s. However I strongly feel that by working in this way Champagne Legras et Haas expand their horizons in ways which are very rare for this region. I really hope to go back soon to taste more of the range including some of these special and rare cuvees!!

My last WOW tasting was at Champagne Charlot-Tanneux in Mardeuil last week Monday. Vincent Charlot had invited me, again through Facebook, and again I knew very little about this producers. As we had set a date Vincent had mentioned that he was off to a biodynamic conference in Bordeaux later in the week and I have to admit that I was pretty excited about discovering another biodynamic producer!!

Vincent Carlot showing of the life in his soil

Vincent Carlot showing of the life in his soil

It was a beautiful sunny day last Monday which was a good thing as the next few hours were spent in the vineyard. Vincent took me from plot to plot in his 4 hectares of vineyard and opened up his soils so I could see all the activity going on in it. In between his rows he has natural grass and we even saw a few wild flowers which had started to flower encouraged by the few days of good weather. I was overwhelmed by all this life in WINTER and definitely want to have a similar tour in spring to see Vincent’s vineyard really buzzing!

Vincent also showed his compost heaps to me – he explained his preparations and spoke about the different herbal sprays he uses in the vineyard. This guy really knows his land, understands the circles of live and wants to work with nature to get the purest expression of his terroir!

After the vineyard it was time to taste the vins clairs. All vinification is done in old Bordeaux Barrels (225L) and happens spontaneously (using natural yeast); ferments are quite slow and the wines do not go through malolactic fermentation. Whilst some wines were still in the last stages of fermentation they were very pure and almost electrifying. Again they tasted significantly different from plot to plot, and the acidity was extremely balanced and integrated. Once fermentation is completely finished, the wines will remain on their lees till August when they are racked, blended and bottled.

The delicious 1992 Pinot Meunier - freshly disgorged

The delicious 1992 Pinot Meunier - freshly disgorged

Vincent brought the biggest smile to my face when he disgorged a bottle of 1992 Pinot Meunier (the first Champagne he ever made) for me to taste. This was a wine from before the domain was biodynamic; nevertheless it was pretty amazing and I was very much wowed by it. It’s pretty unusual to find a 20 year old Pinot Meunier without dosage; when I tasted the wine I did not know what it was – from the colour I could see it had been in the cellar for a while but I would definitely not have guessed 20 years. I have been thinking a lot about this wine this last week and have wondered how I would have tasted and appreciated the wine had I known what I was tasting – but in a way I am glad I did not know as it allowed for the wine, and not its story to seduce me :-)

From this wee story one can see that the palate of wines in Champagne is pretty big – and I believe this comes from the terroir including the savoir faire and expression of the terroir by the winemaker. It is this what makes up the richness and uniqueness of this region and draws me in a little more with every wine I taste.

Posted in Caroline's Champagne, Champagne, biodynamic, terroir, vins clairs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments