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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A few terroir driven Valpolicella producers at the Anteprima Amarone

At the end of January the 2010 Antiprima Amarone took place in Verona. I was lucky enough to be the guest of the Valpolicella Consorzio who also scheduled several visits in the region for us.

Amarone is the most prestigious wine from the Valpolicella area; it’s specificity is that it is a dry wine made from dried grapes. The most popular varieties used are Rondinella, Molinara, Corvina and Corvinone but another 10 traditional grape varieties are allowed as well.

Whilst the Valpolicella is a old wine region, with grape vine and wine history going back to the Romans, Amarone is a fairly young wine. The traditional wines of the region were the Valpolicella (a lighter, fruit forward and easy drinking wine), the Reciotto, a sweet red wine made from dried grapes – where the fermentation is stopped to preserve enough sugars, and the Ripassa – a fuller style red dry wine made by re-fermenting Valpolicella on Reciotto skins and lees.

Grapes drying in traditional wooden crates

The first Amarones were in fact accidents which happened about 50 years ago: the fermentation of a few Reciottos was not successfully stopped creating a dry, tannic and high alcohol wine. Compared to the Reciotto, the wine was bitter (amare in Italian) hence the name Amarone. Bitter or not, this new wine style caught on quickly, among locals as well as in the export markets and soon enough Amarone became one of Italy’s top wines, a place it shares with Piemonte’s Barollo and Tuscany’s Brunello del Montalcino. All three wines are made from local native grape varieties according to a strictly regulated production method and due to their great tannin structure they are excellent food wines which benefit from extensive aging.

Both Brunello and Barollo have been DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – the highest AOP nomination in Italy), however Amarone only attained DOCG status from the 2010 vintage onward. And it was exactly this vintage which was shown at this year’s Anteprima. The Anteprima is a large En Primeur style tasting generally held the third weekend of January open to both the trade and for the public to present the new Amarone vintage. It is a great opportunity to taste through the multiple producers and assess the vintage overall – however I have to note here that young Amarone is not the easiest of wines on the palate. Its high acidity, big chewy tannin and elevated alcohol degree can have a numbing effect on even the most trained palates. Luckily most producers also displayed older vintage Amarone’s, which often more balanced and velvety then their younger counterpart – proving, at least for me, that Amarone is best drunk after at least 8 to 10 years of aging.

The day before the actual event, we had an in depth introduction to the Valpolicella region, the differences in terroir across the region and the characteristics of the indigenous grapes of the area.

According to Diego Tomasi, a Valpolicella terroir specialist, the region has almost as wide a variety of different terroirs as Burgundy.

Valpolicella vineyards around Marano

In the traditional area, the Valpolicella Classico, which is located between the Garda Lake and the city of Verona, there are 5 different valleys (Valle di Fumane, Valle di Marano, Valle di Negrar, Valle di Quinzano & Valle di Avesa), shaped a little like the fingers of a hand. Each of the valleys runs parallel with the Lake, running from the pre-alps in the north toward the Adige River in the South. Vineyards are planted at an altitude of 150m to 500 m above sea level, with the higher vineyards benefiting from a cooler micro climate. As Valpolicella grew in popularity, the area expanded, and now it also incorporates the hotter area from Valpantena to the the Val d’Ilasi further east.

The soils in the area are mainly sedimentary (limestone, clay, chalk) but a small minority(10%) has volcanic origins (Basalt). Since the soils are rich in minerals this adds an extra freshness to the wines. Large diurnal differences also make for good acidity. The vineyards were traditionally planted in Pergola system, and yields are generally pretty high (around 10,000 kg/HA and upward). A lot of growers are now converting to guillot training system, which is easier to work, and also gives a lightly smaller crop – thus increasing the quality. The traditional grape varieties such as Rondinella, Corvina and Molinara are thin skinned – which often makes for lighter wines (in style and color) and at the same time creates ideal conditions for the slow air drying of the grapes.

Tasting through the 2010 Amarones

Gaining a better understanding of the differences present in the area was a great help to get a grip of the wines at the tasting. Whilst Diego not particularly included the winegrower/winemaker as part of his terroir talk, I would (once again :-) ) like to include this fact here. As mentioned before it is eventually the winemaker who will decide on how (if at all) the terroir will be expressed. He will add the element of ‘soul’ of the terroir to the wine. And unfortunately I found that very few wines at the Anteprima had soul. Technically they were all more or less well made, but only very few really spoke to me…. I believe that the reason for this is that most wines were made in what I would call a “Parkereque” way. The focus seemed to be orientated toward a good potential Parker or Wine Spectator score making for a more or less homogeneous batch of 2010 Amarones with a bold structure, great fruit extraction and a healthy dose of wood. This way of winemaking tends to take the soul out of the wine, at least for me…

However, I did manage to pin down a few wines which really did speak to me. Luck, or positive terroir vibes had been on my side as the two wineries I had visited before the Amarone tasting did really focus on making “terroir wines with soul” :-)

Laura & Daniele Damoli

Damoli – i Merli is a small family owned winery in Negrar. The Damoli family came to Negrar from the Piedemont area and has been growing grapes in the area since 1643.i Merli, has been the family’s nickname as far as anyone can remember according to Laura Damoli. She is the first generation of the family to sell the wine made by her brother Daniele. Up till a few years ago all their grapes were sold to a local cooperative. However, when Daniele took over, he wanted to make his own wine. To do this he drastically changed the way the family used to work in the vineyard, which he now farms according to organic principles. The family has 1,5 HA of vineyards in the Negrar valley planted with Corvina, Corvinone, Rondinella and a little Merlot and they currently produce 4 different wines and have a total production of 5,000 bottles a year. The fact that Daniele chooses to add a little of Merlot to two of his wines, means these wines have been declassified to IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) status. However in my opinion the Merlot definitely adds value, as it adds soul as it brings a point of difference. Whilst the Amarone was very nice indeed, I totally fell in love (and bought) a bottle of the Brigasco, an Amarone style wine made with the addition of 20% Merlot. The Merlot grapes are dried in the same way as the others, and later vinified in the Amarone way. But I feel the Merlot makes the wine just a little easier to approach and palate friendlier as it adds an almost crushed velvet texture to the wine.

Overall I was pretty amazed by the freshness of all the Damoli wines – they seemed to lack that earlier mentioned ‘Parkeresque’ heaviness. According to Laura this comes from the soils of the Negrar valley which are Tuffo Biancone – a mixture of clay, limestone and chalk. I believe that it is also Daniele’s way of working in the vineyard, where is looking to restore the biodiversity and the cellar where vinifies and ages his wines both in barrique and stainless steel tanks. He believes this this way of working allows him to express the uniqueness of his terroir in the best possible way.

Terre di Leone

Terra di Leone is named after the grandfather of Federico Pellizzari, a farmer who made wine from his 1 HA vineyard in the village of Marano. He passed on his love for the area and nature to Federico and his wife Chiara and inspired them to settle in Marano. In 2004 they created the 10 HA domain planted on volcanic soils at about 400m elevation. They opted for quite a dense planting system in Guyot in order to cap the production and later when they built the winery, they chose a gravity fed system. The couple produce 5 wines: a Valpolicella Classico (Re Pazzo), a Superiore, a Ripasso, an Amorone and a field blend Dedicatum produced in IGT. The Dedicatum is an amazingly fresh wine, produced from the 14 traditional grape varieties found in the region. It comes from Leone’s original 1 HA vineyard, which always has been planted as a field blend and it is a wine dedicated to him. Like most of Terre de Leone wines, the Dedicatum grapes are dried before they are cold soaked and undergo fermentation. After this the wine is aged just under 1,5 years in large French oak barrels (Botte Grande) before bottling. The Re Pazzo, a Valpolicello Classico, was the other wine which really stood out for me. It is made 100% in stainless steel from undried grapes, and creates a really fruit forward easy drinking wine. Chiara explained that the Re Pazzo really is the flagship wine of the company, as it expresses best what the region is all about.

Grapes drying in wooden crates at Le Bignele

Le Bignele, is another family winery in the Marano Valley. The Aldrighetti family has been growing grapes in Valgatare since 1818 but only started to make wines a decade ago. The family owns 8,5 hectares of vineyards planted with Corvina, Corvinone, Molinara & Rondinella in the traditional Pergola system at an elevation of 300 meters. The soils are a mixture of sedimentary and volcanic soil. Angelo is in charge of the vineyard, whilst his brother Luigi looks after the wine making, and their children Nicola and Sylvia look after the bottling and labeling and the commercialization. The family produce 5 different wines: a Valpolicella Classico Superiore, a Rosso Veronese (Sula) in IGT, a Ripasso, an Amarone and a Reciotto. I absolutely adored the old Amarone (2002 vintage) which Sylvia poured me at the Anteprima – it was my last wine and definitely one of the best I had tried at the tasting. It was also the only Amarone that had been decanted. The extra oxygen had made the wine super velvetty and very seductive.

And once again I also was seduced by the IGT wine – the Sula, a wine produced exclusively in stainless steel in the traditional way Valpolicella used to be made. At €4 a bottle it is the best value wine I tried and one I can highly recommend!!

Secondo Marco in a nutshell

The last producer I would like to mention here is Secondo Marco. I noticed the beautiful labels on my first day in the region. The modern style confused me and I assumed the label was the best thing about the wine. I found out at the Anteprima that I had been wrong; Marco’s wines definitely had soul and were of excellent quality.

Marco Speri is the son of Benedetto Speri, one of the legendary Valpolicella winemaker families. Benedetto worked together with the Bertani family to make and perfect the first Amarones. He had a very precise vision on winemaking in Valpolicella and his son Marco followed in his footsteps for about 25 years. However in 2008 he created his own brand – Secondo Marco – to make wines according to Marco’s vision. His vineyards are located in Fumane and planted according to a Y shaped Pergola system, a variation to the traditional system, which allows for better aeration, more sunlight and easier picking. Besides Corvina, Corvinone and Rondinella, Marco also planted 3 other indigenous varieties: Oseleta, Croatina & Pipionana.
In the winery he uses a combination of traditional and modern wine making techniques, and uses stainless steel, wood as well as old cement tanks he brought over from Tuscany. He feels that by fermenting in cement the wines are more likely to keep their sapidity and freshness, two essential characteristics of the the Fumane region.

Marco makes the 4 traditional wines of the region, a Valpolicella Classico, a Ripasso, an Amarone and a Reciotto. When he created his brand, he didn’t just put his mark on the vineyard and winery, he also invested a significant amount of time on designing the labels. Each wine has it’s own image to describe the wine. There is the elegant ballerina for the Classico, the stubborn donkey for the Ripasso, the weight lifter for the Amarone and the hare with his long ears to represent the Reciotto, which is produced from the ears of the bunches.

One can’t but feel that Marco has thought about every detail of his wines. I really liked the Valpolicella Classico, and believe the Amarone’s will be wonderful with a little more aging. The wine has a wonderful tension and energy and I am very much looking forward to try this wine again in another 5 years!

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St Vincent 2014 in Hautvillers

St Vincent parade in Hautvillers

It was unusually cold on the 22 January, the day St Vincent is celebrated in Hautvillers. ‘La St Vincent’ gathers the whole village together to give thanks to their patron saint for the harvest that was and to pray for another great viticultural year.

Hautvillers is one of the few villages in Champagne who celebrate the event on the actual name day of St Vincent rather than the weekend before or after. This shows how just about every Altavillois (and there almost 800 of us) is either directly or indirectly involved in the process of making Champagne. There are 52 full time vignerons in the village, but just about everybody has some vines they work after hours. Hautvillers has a long tradition of vine growing and wine making and is known as the ‘cradle’ of Champagne, as it was here, at least according to legend, that Dom Perignon first discovered sparkling wine.

Wine & Brioche are very much part of the celebrations

Every year, the St Vincent festivities start at the home of one of the Champagne makers. The members of the local confrérie, the fanfare and officials gather there around 9.30 AM; they have a quick toast to St Vincent before they start their march through the main streets of the village. A decorated old vintage truck bearing the colors of Hautvillers leads the parade. Members of the confrerie follow, dressed up in traditional Champenois clothing, carrying with them a pile of brioches, a barrel of wine of last vintage and the statue of St Vincent.The colorful procession is accompanied by the tunes of the the fanfare – a mixed brass drum band – and as it snakes through the streets of the village and along the way more and more join the parade which ends in front of the Abbey church.

St Vincent is in essence a catholic celebration dating from the he middle ages. At that time every trade had it’s own brotherhood or confreries named after the patron saint of the trade. For vine growers and wine makers this was St Vincent. The brotherhoods were in mainly responsible for social security duties, helping each other out in case a member had fallen to illness or been in an accident. With the revolution the confreries, as a lot of other catholic institutions were dismantled and abandoned, but they were given a second life after the first world war when communities gathered together to rebuild their villages after the debauchery of the war. From the thirties onward festivities have been revived and have been going strong ever since.

Blessing of the wine and brioches in front of Dom Perignon's grave

In Hautvillers, a group of young winemakers were the driving force behind this year’s celebration. They were the ones carrying the brioches and last years still wine (vin clair) to the the front of the church so they could be blessed in front of Dom Perignon‘s grave. After the blessing, the community was invited to share the brioches of the friendship and a glass of Champagne in the grounds of the Abbey. It is one of the rare occasions villagers have the opportunity to enter the Abbey grounds, which are private property of Moet and Chandon and closed to the public.

Before the award ceremony and reception a large fire, made from vine cuttings is lit in the main square of the Abbey. The members of the confrérie & the fanfare parade a few times around the fire, before everybody gathers in the old press house for the award ceremony.

Bonfire in the Abbey Grounds

In the ceremony, pruning certificates and a few other qualifications are awarded to locals who have passed them over the last year, and both the head of the conférie and the mayor talk about the viticulture highlights of the last year. 2013 had been an unusual year with very late flowering, but the hot summer made for a great vintage both in quality and quantity.

Both men also spoke about the Champagne Unesco Nomination which came just over a week before the festivities and the opportunities Unesco Herritage Status would have for the village – after all Hautvillers is the key village of the nomination.
In the crowd I was surprised to find out that not everybody was as excited about the nomination – a lot of people are worried about the regulations and restrictions which will come with the nomination…

Award Ceremony

After the speeches the brioches were passed around and the champagne flowed freely for the reception of the friendship. All the winemakers donate a few bottles to make sure there is enough for everybody. After the reception festivities continued over a sit down lunch in the afternoon followed by a more food and bubbles at the ball populaire at night.

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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.

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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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